INTERNET EXPLORER (IE) has seen its market share drop dramatically in recent years to less than 50 per cent of the market, with many unhappy punters ditching it in favour of faster and more feature-rich alternatives such as Firefox and Chrome. However, with the beta release of IE9 now upon us, it's fair to ask whether Microsoft is finally back on track with the next version of its much criticised web browser.
Among the new features in IE9 are enhanced support for web standards such as HTML5 and CSS3, along with hardware accelerated graphics, which shifts some of the donkey work to the GPU.
Microsoft has previously released several Technical Previews of IE9, but the beta is the first version to showcase its new minimalist user interface, which is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. Just a few controls are visible at the top of the browser window, including forward and back buttons and the web address bar, which also now combines the functionality of the search box from IE8. To the right is a Home button, while a star icon indicates Favourites and a gear wheel accesses the menus for other browser settings.
This minimalist design does provide a larger area for displaying web content, but it could confuse some users until they work out how to find all the functions that used to be available from drop-down menus in IE8 and earlier versions of the browser. In tests, we found the IE9 beta stable and responsive, and we had few problems accessing websites, although some web-based applications required us to hit the compatibility button, introduced in IE8, before they would display properly.
On our test PC, IE9 was able to keep up a decent rate of 60 frames per second when animating 100 on-screen fish, whereas Firefox could only manage a relatively sluggish seven to 10 frames per second with the same scene. However, users should not get the impression that IE9 is suddenly leading the way in browser innovation. Some new features of this beta, such as the ability to 'tear off' a tab as a separate browser window, are already supported in the latest version of Firefox.
The HTML5 demos on Microsoft's webpage also appear to work equally well with Firefox, while we found that some CSS3 effects, such as applying shadows behind text, are already implemented in release versions of Firefox but not supported in the IE9 beta. Nevertheless, Microsoft has greatly improved its compliance with web standards. Under the Acid3 test from the Web Standards Project, IE9 scores an impressive 95 out of 100, just beating Firefox 3.6 which scores 94.
Other new features of IE9 include the ability to pin a web site to the taskbar in Windows 7, which provides a shortcut from which users can open favourite websites directly. Websites that are pinned this way can add jump lists - pop-up menus introduced in Windows 7 - to access webpages or features. This even extends to play and pause controls for embedded media objects inside pinned web sites. Microsoft also provides a demonstration of this on its IE Test Drive webpage.
More welcome are the security improvements added to Microsoft's Smartscreen Filter technology. In the IE9 beta, this extends to protect against malware in adverts on webpages, and offers more relevant warnings about downloads. The latter feature, download reputation, checks unsigned executables against a database to see if the file has been downloaded often before. If not, it issues a stronger warning against downloading and running the file.
Overall, we found that IE9 beta looks good, and the final release should be a worthy rival for Firefox and Chrome when it ships, although there is as yet no news on when this might be.
Some recent news stories have indicated that the release version of IE9 will only run on Windows 7 with SP1 installed, but Microsoft has moved to clarify the situation. IE9 will require some operating system components that are in SP1, but these will be downloaded automatically if a user installs IE9 on a machine with the current Windows 7 release code. However, IE9 will not run on any version of Windows XP, only Windows Vista or Windows 7. µ