When it comes to browsing the web, the days of being restricted to Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) are long gone. Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari and Opera have all been challenging IE's market dominance. Even Google got in on the act last year when it released its own internet browser, Chrome.
But Microsoft was never going to take the competition lying down. Late last year, the firm unveiled a feature-complete beta version of IE 8.0.
At the end of January, Release Candidate 1 (RC1) was made available to all; you can read our review here. The upgraded web browser offers a number of new features, such as easy tab and session restoration and colour-coded tabs to make it easier to work out which ones are related. There's also a URL suggester that narrows down the list of previously visited sites that match characters you enter.
Importantly, Microsoft also claims to have improved the browser's security functions, including cross-site scripting to ensure web links you click on are legitimate.
But the feature that has caused the biggest stir of all is InPrivate Browsing - a function that was first unveiled with the beta 2 version of IE 8.0 last August.
Nicknamed ‘Porn Mode' by some web users, the function lets you browse the internet without leaving a trace of your activity. As soon as the session is closed, browser history, cookies, temporary files, form information, usernames and passwords are all removed, so no one can check what you've been up to.
Microsoft says this mode is great for organising surprises for loved ones or, more practically, checking email and online banking accounts from shared PCs.
The firm says the release candidate of IE 8.0 contains all the features that will be in the final version of the browser, but claims any bugs and issues will be patched before its proper launch.
Get to grips with Internet Explorer 8.0
Step 1: Visit tinyurl.com/cnw6wr and click ‘Download now'. On the next screen select your country of residence and operating system. Click the pop-up window and choose ‘Save file' to download Internet Explorer (IE) 8.0. The download will take a few minutes, depending on your connection speed.
Step 2: Once the download is complete, double-click the icon on your desktop and select Run to start the installation. You'll need to check the licence terms and decide whether you wish to install Microsoft updates. Once you've dealt with these queries and restarted your machine, setup is complete.
Step 3: When a browser window is opened for the first time, IE 8.0 will ask whether you'd like to turn on Suggested Sites. This function uses your browsing history to suggest websites you might like. To turn this on, select Yes. You'll be able to switch it off if you change your mind at a later date.
Step 4: The optional express settings make IE 8.0 the default browser and Yahoo your default search engine. Choose ‘custom settings' to personalise the browser; you'll be able to decide between Microsoft's default configuration and your own preferences on a case-by-case basis.
Step 5: Like Firefox, IE 8.0 suggests websites based on partially typed addresses or words. For example, if you type www.pc into the address bar, IE 8.0 will offer a range of full matching addresses, such as http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk. To select one of these addresses, right-click it. IE 8.0 then automatically loads this page.
Step 6: IE 8.0 allows you to add buttons to the Favorites bar just below the web-address field. Enter the URL in the address bar and then, from the Favorites menu at the top of the browser, select ‘Add to Favorites Bar'. A button will appear. As soon as you click it, that page will load automatically.
Step 7: The Favorites bar also houses the Suggested Sites button. With a web page open, press this button and IE 8.0 will offer a list of similar websites you might enjoy. To turn this feature on or off, go to the Tools menu, select Internet Options and click the Advanced tab. Tick or untick the Suggested Sites box.
Step 8: IE 8.0's Web Slices feature notifies you of new information on sites that you check on a regular basis. If a Web Slice is available, a green icon will appear at the top of the browser. Click this to add the page to your feed and create a button in the Favorites bar. More sites should support Web Slices when IE 8.0 is fully launched.
Step 9: Thanks to improvements in IE 8.0, you can easily reopen tabs if you close one accidentally or simply decide you want to go back and look at something. Start a new tab and IE 8.0 will automatically display the sites you've visited in the session. Pick a site and IE 8.0 will load the page you were viewing in that tab.
Step 10: The Tab Groups feature colour-codes related tabs - as with the pages from PCAdvisor.co.uk in the picture. Unrelated tabs will display in a different colour. Closing one tab doesn't close the whole group unless you right-click and instruct the browser to do so. You can also remove a tab from a group: ‘Ungroup This Tab'.
Step 11: IE 8.0's SmartScreen checks the legitimacy of sites to help you avoid phishing attacks. Select Tools, SmartScreen Filter, Check This Website. IE 8.0 will check it against a list of malicious sites and let you know the verdict. SmartScreen will also warn you when you attempt to download software that could be unsafe.
Step 12: The InPrivate Browsing feature is designed to protect your privacy if you're using a shared PC, deleting your history, temporary internet files, cookies, usernames and passwords. Select Tools, InPrivate Browsing. This will open a new browser window with an InPrivate icon; this indicates it's a private session.
Step 13: InPrivate allows you to control adverts and images displayed by third-party sites as well as any information shared during your browsing. The InPrivate Blocking feature is off by default and must be turned on when an InPrivate session is opened. Select Safety, InPrivate Blocking and tick the appropriate options.
Step 14: Because IE 8.0 is new, some sites will be incompatible with it, but Microsoft has included a feature that allows you to view them correctly. Select Page and click the Compatibility View icon. This will display the page as it would look in IE 7.0, correcting problems such as misaligned text and images.