Throw away what you think you know about Internet Explorer - because the Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) will turn it all on its ear. Think IE is sluggish? Think again, because according to SunSpider tests, it rivals or beats the speed demons Google Chrome and Opera. Believe that IE sports a tired-looking interface? No longer - it now has the same type of stripped-down look that Chrome originated, and that the latest version of Mozilla Firefox 4 uses as well.

IE 9 (available only for Microsoft Windows Vista and Microsoft Windows 7) also introduces other goodies, such as HTML 5 support, Windows 7 integration, a double-duty address bar and more. It's clearly Microsoft's best shot at stopping the erosion of its market share by rivals Firefox and Chrome.

IE9: Moving to a clean interface

Microsoft takes a page from Google Chrome with its design for IE9 - it's simple and clean, putting as much focus as possible on Web content and not on the browser itself.

All unneeded buttons and controls have been eliminated, and tabs are now at the top of the browser. (For a bit of simple eye candy, the top and the sides of IE9 are transparent.) The arrangement works. Web pages take center stage, with very little to distract you, and IE9 taking up as much real estate as possible. There's not even a search box; as with Chrome, the address bar does double-duty as a search box.

Three small icons on the upper-right corner of the screen give you access to IE9's options and feature a Home button, a Favorites button for managing bookmarks and a Tools button shaped like a gear. The Tools button leads you to most of the browser's other features and options, such as security, privacy, add-ons customizing search and so on.

There's another new feature to the IE9 interface as well. When you open a new tab, it displays thumbnails of pages you frequently visit. At the bottom of each thumbnail is a bar that shows how frequently you visit each page. The longer the bar, the more you've visited the page. And there are some very useful other things you can do from this page as well, including reopening your last browsing session, reopening tabs you've closed during this browsing session, and getting recommendations for sites you might want to visit, based on the sites you frequently visit. You can also launch an anonymous browsing session, which IE terms "InPrivate Browsing."

IE9: The new speed demon?

Among the loudest complaints against previous versions of Internet Explorer was its lack of speed. In a world in which graphics-heavy Web pages get heavier every year, videos are becoming normal elements and Web-based apps are replacing desktop-based applications, this sluggishness could have become a fatal flaw.

Microsoft was clearly cognizant of that when it went to the drawing board for Internet Explorer 9. Its new JavaScript engine, called Chakra, uses multiple processor cores to do its work, and compiles scripts in the background on one of those cores. IE9 also uses the computer's GPU to accelerate text and graphics rendering, especially HTML 5 graphics.

I ran tests on IE9 and competing browsers using the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark. I used a Dell Dimension 9200 with a 2.40GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and 2GB of RAM running Windows Vista. I ran three sets of tests on each browser and averaged the results.

IE9 beat all the others. It took an average 280 milliseconds (ms) to complete the tests, followed by Opera 11.01 at 308.8 ms, Chrome 10.0.648 at 316.7 ms, Firefox 4 Release Candidate at 319.1 ms and Safari 5.0.4 at 410.2 ms.

As a practical matter, there's not much difference in these tests between the top four performers. It's not going to be noticeable by most surfers. But in previous tests I ran, Internet Explorer 8 took between five and six times the amount of time to complete the SunSpider tests as its next slowest rival Firefox, making this an astonishing speed improvement. And the fact remains: On this test, Internet Explorer beat all rivals.

It's an open question, though, as to whether Internet Explorer's hardware-accelerated GPU handling of processing-intensive work is superior to other browsers. The upcoming Firefox 4 also uses hardware acceleration, and Microsoft and Firefox have been trading fire over which browser is superior in that aspect. We'll have to wait until a set of agreed-upon benchmarks emerge for measuring that capability before judging.

IE9: Keeping up with standard

Past versions of Internet Explorer have been criticized for not adhering to Web standards, something that Microsoft has fixed in Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft now has an Internet Explorer Test Drive page to demonstrate embedded videos and other features.

To test overall HTML 5 compatibility, I ran IE9 and other browsers through the HTML5 test page. IE9 scored at the bottom with 130 out of 400, while Firefox 4 Release Candidate scored 240, Opera scored a 234, Chrome rated 288, and Safari came in at 228. Of course, given how little HTML 5 is used at this point, it's not clear how relevant these numbers are at the moment. But Microsoft needs to do some work to prepare Internet Explorer for HTML 5 when it becomes widely used. At this point, it's the least compliant browser, at least according to the HTML test page.

IE9 came close to acing the Acid 3 Test, which tests the degree to which a browser follows a number of Web standards, especially JavaScript and the Document Object Model (DOM). IE9 scored a 95 on the Acid Test and rendered the page perfectly except for a minor error, getting one color wrong. This is a dramatic improvement over IE 8, which in my tests had scored only a 20. Chrome scored a 100 and while it didn't render the page properly on one of my machines, did a perfect job on several others. Firefox 4 Release Candidate scored a 97 and, as with Internet Explorer 9, rendered the page perfectly except for a minor error, getting one color wrong. Opera and Safari both scored a perfect 100 and rendered the page perfectly.

As for normal Web browsing, IE9 displayed nearly every page I visited properly, with a few exceptions. On my iGoogle home page, it would not render the Web-based version of Google Talk. And on the Computerworld blogs, it didn't show any of the comments that readers made. I was able to solve the problem with Computerworld blog by clicking on IE9's Compatibility View button, which displays the page as thought it were being rendered by Internet Explorer 8. In subsequent visits to that page, IE9 remembered to display it using the earlier version of the browser. However, Compatibility View didn't solve the problem with rendering Google Talk.

IE9: A better address bar

With IE9, the address bar now does double-duty as an address bar and a search box. (To highlight this, Microsoft refers to it as One Box.) As you type your search, the browser looks at your History, Favorites and Feeds, and displays matches. In that way, you can more quickly find a site or do a search by selecting a choice and pressing Enter. You can, of course, also type in your entire search term and press Enter to search the Web using your default search engine.

(On my Vista test machines, the address bar didn't launch searches when I typed in text. To fix the problem, I clicked the tools icon in the upper-right part of the screen and selected Internet Options --> General, clicked Settings in the Search section, checked the box next to "Search in the address bar," then clicked OK. On my other test machine, I didn't need to do this; however, this may have been an anomaly.)

You can also have your keystrokes sent to your search provider (such as Bing or Google), so that the provider can see what you're typing and suggest possible matches. IE9 turns that behavior off by default for privacy reasons, but you can turn it back on if you want.

IE9 lets you easily route your searches to other search providers rather than your default one. As you type in a search term, icons of other search providers appear underneath the list of matches. Simply click any icon to launch the search using that provider. That's all well and good. But when you do this, you're actually changing your default search provider to the alternate provider. So even if you only want to search Wikipedia once for a particular search, choosing its icon means that all subsequent searches will be done through Wikipedia as well, until you change it back -- a feature that can be very troublesome.

IE9: Making friends with Windows 7

Microsoft has tweaked IE9 for Windows 7, giving the browser some capabilities not available when it runs in Windows Vista. The most noticeable is that you can pin a Web site to the taskbar by dragging its URL to the taskbar. The site's icon then appears in the taskbar; to visit the site, click the icon. When you get to the site this way, the site will essentially "brand" IE9 -- the forward and back buttons will use the colors of the pinned site, and the Web site's icon will appear in the upper left of the browser. IE9 does this on its own; no development on the part of the site owner is required.

Web developers can use the Windows 7 Jump List) to add site navigation and additional features (such as music controls) to the pinned icon.

These features, while potentially very useful, may not turn out to be as helpful in actual practice. Adding features to the Jump List requires programming on the part of the site owner. In the past, Microsoft has added special features such as Web Slices that required site owners to do development work in order to take advantage of them -- and they rarely did so. Given that even Microsoft.com hasn't done any programming to take advantage of Jump Lists, it's not clear that this will become widely used.

Pinning a site can also prove to be somewhat annoying, because when you launch a site in this way, it launches in its own browser, and not as a tab in an already open browser. That means each pinned site will run in its own browser instance, making it confusing to switch among them.

IE9 also uses another Windows 7 feature, Windows Snap. Tear away a tab away from IE9, and drag it to the side of the screen, and it resizes the tab, and places it in its own window, to fill half the screen.

IE9: Performance Advisor and Notification Bar

Browser add-ons can slow a browser's performance, and IE9 includes a nifty tool called the Performance Advisor to help you track down ones that might be particularly problematic. When you launch IE9, the Performance Advisor looks to see whether any add-ons might slow down the browser, and then opens the Notification Bar at the bottom of the screen.

If you click "Disable add-ons" you'll see a screen that shows name of the add-ons, their manufacturers and an estimate of how much extra time they each take when you're launching your browser, opening a new tab or navigating to a Web site. Even Microsoft's own add-ons are included. You then have the option of disabling any to speed up browsing. This is a great tool for letting you decide whether the capabilities of an add-on are worth the browsing delay it extracts.

The Notification Bar offers other info as well. It tells you, for example, if you're visiting a Web page that includes both secure and non-secure content, such as an online store that uses an HTTPS/SSL secure connection, but also displays ads, images or scripts from a non-HTTPS server. At that point, the Notification Bar warns you that IE9 is displaying only secure content, and gives you the option of displaying both types of content by clicking the "Show all content" button. This is useful but potentially annoying, because this notification appears every time you visit the Web site; you have to click the button each time.

IE9: Improved security and a download manager

IE9 also includes a variety of security improvements. One of the most important is to the SmartScreen Filter, which is designed to protect you from visiting phishing sites, and whose capabilities have been expanded to protect against malicious downloads.

When you download a file in IE9, the SmartScreen Filter uses a new "download reputation" feature to examine the file's reputation -- how many other people have downloaded the file, and if they have found it to be safe or malicious. If the SmartScreen Filter determines it's safe, you simply download the file. But if the file has a malicious reputation, or if very few people have downloaded it so that it has no reputation to check, you're warned. You can then decide whether to download.

This feature won't replace your existing anti-malware program. It's designed for protection against malicious files so new that anti-malware software may not have had a chance to flag them as malicious. Some anti-malware software has begun to use similar technology to this, but still, it's nice to have this built into IE9 -- multiple means of protection are always a good idea.

IE9 includes a well-designed Download Manager that tracks all of your downloaded files and lets you search through them. In addition to the download reputation feature, the manager will warn you when it detects that you're downloading a file from a malicious Web site.

IE9: What's missing

Internet Explorer still trails Firefox and Chrome in one area: add-ins. Both those browsers have thriving ecosystems of third-party developers writing add-ins; Internet Explorer doesn't.

Through the years, Microsoft has tried to get around this by creating technologies that Web sites and others can easily plug in to, such as the aforementioned Web Slices and Accelerators, a way to send information from another Web site directly to your current browser page.

Despite Microsoft prodding and promotion, neither of those technologies ever took off. At this point, there doesn't seem to be a way for Microsoft to build that same ecosystem. If you're a fan of plug-ins and add-ons, you likely won't be a fan of Internet Explorer.

Another issue is that Microsoft has no plans to develop IE versions for mobile platforms other than Microsoft Windows Phone 7. This may put it at a disadvantage in a mobile future when people want to sync browser information among their computers and mobile devices.

NEXT: our first look at Internet Explorer 9, from September 2010 >>

Next to Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 is faster, with a streamlined interface. But some areas still need refinement in Microsoft's brand new web browser. IE9 is in beta and available to download from Microsoft. Updated, 17 September 2010.

Internet Explorer 9's New Look

The first thing you'll notice about Internet Explorer 9 is its new, simplified look. In use, we found the new interface had both its pros and its cons. Microsoft built IE 9 around the idea of putting the web page at the forefront of the interface by reducing the number of visible buttons and controls. And in many ways, it works: When you first open up IE 9, all you see is one toolbar, with only a minimum number of controls. The controls and toolbars are semitransparent, in the same way as window frames in Vista or Windows 7 are transparent, and are designed so as not to distract from the web page that stands at the center of attention.

But there is such a thing as too little interface, as we quickly discovered. By default, IE 9 only briefly gives an indication of whether a page is loading: it will show a spinner on the tab for a second or two when you first click a link or enter a URL, and then nothing. This can be frustrating on slower connections - we weren't sure if IE was still loading the page or if it gave up. And we're not a fan of Microsoft's decision to bunch tabs and the address bar on the same line; it can get awfully crowded in a hurry up there, especially if you open lots of tabs or have a small screen.

Longtime IE users may be stymied by Internet Explorer 9's new interface as well: we had some trouble finding our favourite features in this new version. The company's goal was to show only the features that most users will actually put to use (for example, you'll notice the favourites bar is hidden by default), but also says that it didn't remove any features from IE. Meanwhile, some elements remain fundamentally unchanged; for example, the Internet Options pane is still a cluttered mismash of buttons, checkboxes, tabs, and settings toggles that may be confusing to the uninitiated.

All that said, IE 9 marks a clear improvement that's less intrusive with alerts and dialog boxes than previous versions. For example, when you download a file in Internet Explorer 9, you'll get an unobtrusive bar at the bottom of the screen asking if you want to run or save the file, as opposed to the alert box that you'd get in IE 8 and earlier.

If you're running Windows 7, you can pin shortcuts to links or sites to the taskbar and Start menu. To pin a site to the taskbar, drag the favicon - the small icon located next to the page's URL - or the browser tab to the taskbar. If you open the page by clicking the taskbar shortcut, the resulting IE window will take the colour of the favicon, and display it in the browser's toolbar as a visual aid.

When you right-click a pinned site icon, you'll get a jumplist that by default includes a menu option to enable InPrivate browsing (a browsing mode that doesn't leave cookies, cache files, or browsing history behind). But Microsoft says that site designers will be able to add some code for putting custom menu items on the jumplist.

We found the taskbar pin feature useful, especially for sites we visit on a frequent basis. Its presence makes web pages feel more like apps than ever before. But you can't combine pages together into one taskbar tile, which would be even more useful and would reduce clutter (your taskbar can get filled up in a hurry with pinned sites).

IE 9 takes a page from Google Chrome's playbook with a single box for both searching and entering URLs. Microsoft calls this combined address bar/search bar the Onebox. The Onebox works pretty much as advertised: Start typing a URL, and it'll show auto-complete suggestions as you type, just as in IE 8 and earlier. Type a search query and press return, and the browser will take you by default to a Bing search for that query. Like IE 8, Internet Explorer 9 doesn't limit you to Bing searching: Click the Add button in the Onebox drop-down menu, and you can add support for other search engines.

Despite all this new interface goodness, we feel Microsoft didn't go far enough in simplifying and streamlining its browser. The Internet Options pane, for example, looks dated and is in serious need of a makeover. Hopefully, in version 10 Microsoft will delve a little deeper and clean up some of IE's remaining rough edges.

Internet Explorer 9: Download Manager and Security Enhancements

A long-overdue addition to IE 9 is a download manager that, as you'd expect, lets you see all your active downloads, just as you can with other Windows web browsers. The download manager window tells you the basic vitals on your download's progress, and lets you pause or cancel it. This is pretty standard on other browsers, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.

Microsoft has also added in some new protections against malicious downloads. The SmartScreen download reputation feature can identify safe, popular downloads, and will let those files download without a warning message (you'll still get the message for less popular downloads, ones that IE isn't sure about). The idea is to cut down on the number of times you'll see the "This file may harm your computer" nag, and to show it to you only when it's absolutely necessary. It will still ask you whether you want to run or save a file before you download it, but for popular downloads (iTunes, Flash Player, etc...), that's all you'll see. This worked reasonably well.

Internet Explorer 9: Performance

With IE 9, Microsoft is making a big push for supporting the latest web technologies, and improving browsing performance. We didn't have a chance to test it on normal, everyday sites, but we did run it through the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark.

The result? A dramatic improvement over IE 8's JavaScript performance, which, in past testing, had lagged far behind its competition. In informal testing, IE 9 completed the test in 484.0 milliseconds. By comparison, on our test system - a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo desktop running Windows Vista - Chrome completed the benchmark in 397 milliseconds, Opera in 354, Safari in 445, and Firefox 3.6.9 in 1067 milliseconds.

Keep in mind that actual performance results may vary depending on your PC's configuration, and on other factors such as the sorts of sites you visit, your connection speed, and so forth. Remember, also, that we haven't tested it on actual sites as yet. But the fact that IE 9 put up drastically improved numbers in this one test is a very good sign.

Page-loading performance aside, IE 9 will also check to see if any add-ons you've installed are slowing down your browser's startup time. If any are, it will notify you once it opens. Thanks to this feature, we realized that we had some add-ons installed that we didn't even know were there. This check by IE 9 is a fairly small addition, but it's a welcome one.

NEXT: our review of the first public preview of Internet Explorer 9 >>

Or jump straight to system requirements, expert verdict and screenshots >>

The Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview nicely shows off what Microsoft says will be the new browser's selling points: speed and HTML 5 support. A public beta of IE9 is available to download from Microsoft. Updated, September 16 2010.

If the final version is as fast as or faster than the preview, Internet Explorer 9 will no longer be a laggard in the browser race and will most likely beat out Mozilla Firefox. HTML 5 support is a nice extra, but it's still too early to tell how important that will be.

At the point we first tested IE9, the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview was little more than a browser display engine, not intended for users. Instead, it was Microsoft's attempt to give developers a heads-up about where the browser is headed. You can now download a public beta of IE9, but it won't run properly on Windows XP - now, or when it finally ships, according to Microsoft.

Internet Explorer 9: benchmarks

IE8 and previous versions of IE have been criticized for being far slower than competing browsers such as Firefox and Chrome, and tests have proved that out. The Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview fixes that problem. In our testing on two PCs - one with Windows Vista and other with Windows 7 - we found it far speedier than earlier versions of IE, and faster than Firefox.

We ran the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark on a Dell Dimension 9200 with an Intel Core 2 Quad CPU and 2GB of RAM. We tested the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview, Internet Explorer 8, and the current versions of Firefox (3.6) and Chrome (4.1). IE9 exhibited a dramatic speed improvement; with an average score of 804ms, it performed more than six times faster than IE8 (5078ms) and nosed out Firefox (914ms) but was beaten by Chrome (489ms).

Microsoft says that one way it sped up the browser was by using a separate processor core to compile JavaScript in the background. JavaScript is only one benchmark for speed, of course. The vendor says it has taken steps to speed up the browser in other ways as well, notably by using a PC's graphics processor to accelerate the rendering of text and graphics.

There's no way to adequately test this, so we can't report on it accurately. But on the Internet Explorer 9 Test Drive site, you can find several impressive demonstrations of interactive HTML 5 graphics powered by your graphics processor. We also tested Chrome and Firefox; both were significantly slower than IE9 and did not display the test graphics properly. However, there's no way to know whether the graphics on the page have been specifically tuned for IE9, so it's hard to know how significant the results are.

Internet Explorer 9: Adherence to standards

Microsoft is also touting IE9's adherence to HTML 5 standards, including a variety of features such as the ability to embed video and to interactively change and animate the borders of web pages. To show them off, the company has created a set of web pages on its IE9 Test Drive site.

The results are fast and impressive, but again, it's hard to know how well the browser will work in the real world, since the pages may have been tuned for it. And because HTML 5 is not in general use, this may not be a big selling point in the short term, although it could be important in the long term.

Currently, Internet Explorer 9 doesn't play HTML 5 videos using the HTML 5

NEXT: our original first look at the features of Internet Explorer 9. Or jump straight to system requirements, expert verdict and screenshots >>

First look review of the "platform preview" of Microsoft Internet Explorer 9, including what it will bring to web Standards, and how to get IE9.

Microsoft this week released a "platform preview" of Internet Explorer 9. This isn't an IE9 beta, mind you; it doesn't have the features you'd expect in a browser. It doesn't even have an address bar for that matter. Instead, the IE9 Platform Preview serves as a sneak peek at some of the new web technologies and standards that Microsoft is working on building into its flagship browser.

Microsoft says it will update the IE9 preview about every eight weeks, putting the first such update in mid-May with another to follow in mid-July.

The IE 9 Platform Preview is far from polished, or even finished, but here are our initial thoughts. We'll update this page as the software develops.

IE9 business chart

The IE9 demo shows of the graphical possibilites of Internet Explorer 9

IE9 - web Standards: an overview

How often have you seen the message, "This site best viewed in Internet Explorer"? If you used Internet Explorer, you likely would have no problems viewing the site. But if you use another browser - Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Opera, and so on - you could run into some compatibility problems.

The idea behind web standards is that ideally every web browser would be able to view any website. You'd no longer have to rely on using the leading browser in order to view websites the way they were supposed to be. And support for web standards means support for the latest and greatest web technologies such as HTML5. The result is better websites, and a better experience for everyone, no matter what OS or browser the use.

To give website designers, application developers, and others who want to track the new browser's progress a chance to try IE9, Microsoft has created what it called a "Test Drive" site that showcases the features and enhancements included in the Internet Explorer 9 preview.

NEXT: what does IE9 bring, and how can I get it? >>

Or jump straight to system requirements, expert verdict and screenshots >>

First look review of the "platform preview" of Microsoft Internet Explorer 9, including what it will bring to web Standards, and how to get IE9.

What does IE9 bring to the party?

The Platform Preview of Internet Explorer 9 will run only in Windows 7, Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2) and Windows Server R2. The latter two operating systems require the Platform Update that Microsoft shipped last October. That update was notable for adding other Windows 7 features, such as that operating system's ribbon-style interface , to Vista last year.

Internet Explorer has received a fair amount of criticism in the past for its tepid web standards support. With IE9, however, Microsoft is heavily touting its improved handing of new web technologies.

The IE9 Platform Preview provides improved HTML5 support, CSS 3 support (CSS is a technology that makes it easier for designers to specify how they want their sites to look), and an upgraded JavaScript Engine for better performance of web apps.

Also, IE9 will provide hardware acceleration for rendering graphics and text on a web page (Microsoft's press release didn't mention which GPUs will be supported, but it's probably safe to assume you'll need a fairly recent card), and built-in support for H.264 video playback using HTML5 (such as what YouTube currently provides for some videos).

Microsoft has several technology demos on its IE9 Test Drive site, such as a T-shirt designer, various animation demos, and even a variation of the classic game Asteroids. None of these demos use Flash; instead they all make use of web technologies such as JavaScript and HTML5.

How do I get Internet Explorer 9?

The IE9 Platform Preview is a free download from Microsoft; since it's nowhere close to being a finished project, it won't replace your current version of Internet Explorer. Be sure to download it and try out some of the demos.

Unlike full-fledged editions of IE, the IE9 Platform Preview does not replace existing versions of IE - such as IE7 on Vista or IE8 on Windows 7 - but runs alongside them on the same PC.

The preview is a 31MB download, and can be retrieved from the Test Drive site that Microsoft has set up.

If Microsoft can match its promises, Internet Explorer 9 could be the product that takes the fight back to fast-gaining rivals such as Firefox and - more recently - Opera and Google Chrome. With unparalleled compatibility, HTML5 and the ability to make the most of modern graphics hardware, it is an enticing prospect.

NEXT: our expert verdict >>

Or jump straight to system requirements, expert verdict and screenshots >>  

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9: Specs

  • Windows 7, Windows Vista SP2
  • internet connection
  • Windows 7, Windows Vista SP2
  • internet connection

OUR VERDICT

If you've stopped using Internet Explorer because of speed problems or a tired-looking interface, you should give IE9 a try. You'll be surprised by its dramatic speed improvements and slicker interface. Improved adherence to Web standards is a plus as well, as are new features such as a double-duty address bar and the Performance Advisor. Existing IE users will want to upgrade right away -- it's hard to argue against a faster, cleaner-looking browser with a host of other nice extras.

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