Internet Explorer 9 Beta Review

I might as well admit right up front – personally I’ve considered Internet Explorer to be somewhat of a joke for the past few years. A slow, incomplete, non-standards-compliant joke. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, perhaps not. Opinions aside, it’s hard to argue against the fact that it’s been playing technological catchup for the better part of the last decade as Mozilla, Opera, Apple, and now Google have all released browsers that surpass IE in most ways. When Microsoft announced IE9, I didn’t pay much attention. That is, until I saw the specs. Hardware accelerated graphics? Vector support? New UI? Could this really be an Internet Explorer worth using? Yesterday, Microsoft released the first beta package of IE9, and if you haven’t been following the development, you may be in for a surprise or two.

Getting the Beta

If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you may want to try out IE9 for yourself. The beta package can be downloaded here, but you XP users don’t bother – IE9 is only for Vista and up. Not too surprisingly, you can expect to reboot once the install is complete.

New User Interface

When you load up IE the first time, you can’t miss the slimmed down interface. It’s been completely redesigned and aimed squarely at the novice.

ie9-startup

There’s no longer a toolbar for File, Edit, etc, and no toolbar for bookmarks, pretty much no toolbars at all. Fortunately for the non-novice, they can be restored by right clicking the blank space around the address bar and tabs.

Speaking of tabs, I’m not on board with the new tab placement. As you can see, browser tabs are now positioned just to the right of the address bar. This seems to be a step in the wrong direction to me. As users are growing more accustomed to using tabs, many browser makers are developing solutions to better manage MORE tabs (see Firefox 4’s new App Tab and Panorama features). By placing the tabs into a cramped space, you make it even harder to use one of the best features of any browser.

ie9-tabs

Hardware Acceleration

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find this to be the most compelling feature of IE9. If the browser’s graphics can be rendered on the GPU instead of the CPU, you break the door wide open for rich visual effects on the web. 3D interfaces and games are now far more practical, and with the combination of hardware acceleration and HTML5, many of us can begin to rid ourselves of Flash (finally).

To show what kind of performance difference this can make, I ran two benchmarks. One was in IE9 with its fancy new GPU rendering, and the other was in the browser that many people associate with speed – Google Chrome. I used WebVizBench, a site designed to heavily tax your browser’s graphical rendering capabilities. On my fairly mediocre graphics hardware, IE9 scored fairly well but even with hardware rendering it was unable to average above 15 frames per second.

ie9-webvizIE

Compare that to the non-accelerated Chrome, which had a hard time breaking 2 fps.

ie9-webvizChrome

It should be noted that Google will soon be releasing Chrome 7, which will also include hardware rendering. Neither IE9 nor Chrome 7 are yet final, so you cannot yet make a full comparison, but it will be interesting to see who emerges as speed king once the major browser makers are all rendering on the GPU.

Site Pinning

If you are using Windows 7, you can make use of the new site pinning feature in IE9 to pin your favorite site to the taskbar. This will allow you to treat any sites as an app and launch it quickly from the taskbar. To pin a site, you just have to drag the tab to the taskbar. With a little coding, webmasters can also make their sites compatible with the jumplist.

ie9-site-pinning

Built-in Download Manager

Finally. Yes, finally, IE9 comes with a download manager. What’s more, it comes with a malware/virus scanner that scans the link before the actual download begin.

ie9-download-manager

Supports HTML5

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most major browsers have already come with support for HTML5, CSS 3 and probably WebM video format. It will be a surprise if IE9 does not come with such support.

Acid 3 Test

In term of the Acid 3 test, IE9 is still lacking behind its fellow competitors. It scores a 95/100 for the acid 3 test.

ie9-acid3

Google Chrome 7 scores a 100/100 perfect score while Firefox 4 scores 97/100.

ie9-browsers-acid3

Others

Popular Sites

Another new feature is the inclusion of a Popular Sites screen that shows up in blank tabs. Chrome users may find the following screen shot eerily familiar.

URL bar double as search bar

Yet another eerily familiar feature. Since there are no search bar in the minimal interface, the only way to search is via the URL bar.

ie9-url-search-bar

Conclusion

I used Internet Explorer 9 to write the bulk of this article. It’s by far the longest I’ve used IE in years, and the first time in those years I haven’t been blind with rage over the missing features. Personally I’ll stick with Chrome for now, but I find myself compelled to say that Microsoft’s competitors might actually have a few things to learn from IE9. Except, of course, how to handle tabs.

Does IE9 worth you switching over? Well, if you are using Windows (Windows 7 specifically), the nice and useful integration with the OS might just win you over.