For years now, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has been the Big Mac of web browsers, a ubiquitous mass market product that comes preinstalled on all Windows PCs but is studiously avoided by anyone who knows about the many faster, lighter-weight alternatives. But with Firefox, Chrome, and Safari grabbing market share, Microsoft knew it needed to make a big splash to win over not only mainstream consumers, but also developers and early adopters. Internet Explorer 9, which just launched in public beta last week, is more like a tidal wave than a splash, offering the best combination of performance and functionality of any web browser on the market today.
Availability and Compatibility
IE 9 beta is available as a free download for Windows 7 and Vista users from www.beautyoftheweb.com. The company has no plans to release a Windows XP version.
Where the old Internet Explorer 8 interface was loaded with screen-robbing toolbars and buttons, IE 9 is now the most space-efficient mainstream browser for Windows. Instead of separate rows for its address bar, search bar, tabs, and buttons, the new browser has one row for its forward/back buttons, address bar, and tabs.
With only 60 pixels between the top of the window and the beginning of the content area--and no persistent status bar taking up space on the bottom of its window--IE 9 shows two more lines of text than Firefox 4, about a line more than Safari, and about the same text as Chrome when both are maximized. IE 9 has two more lines than Chrome in Windowed mode.
Considering that the typical notebook has only 768 vertical pixels of screen real estate and the typical netbook has only 600, even two lines of additional text can make a huge difference in your web surfing experience. If Internet Explorer 9 didn't waste 3 pixels of white space below its tab bar, it could have an even stronger leadership position (more about IE9's real estate comparison to other browsers).
Like Google Chrome, IE 9 lets you tear tabs away from the browser and place them into their own independent windows. You can also dock independent browser windows as tabs in an existing window. However, unlike Chrome, which pauses any playing videos or other activities when you drag a tab, IE 9 keeps the browser completely active even while it's moving around the desktop. Each tab is a separate process, so if one tab crashes, the rest of the tabs can continue. You can also drag tabs onto the Windows 7 start menu or taskbar to pin them for easy access.
Pinning and Custom Jump Lists
Internet Explorer 9 lets users pin sites to their taskbar or start menu so the shortcuts are always available. Developers can take advantage of this pinning feature by adding custom items to the jumplists of users who pinned their sites. For example, if you pin Twitter.com to your taskbar and then right click on the icon, you get a list of shortcuts to possible tasks, from creating a new tweet to finding mentions.
When you open a pinned site, the browser interface also takes on a customized look and feel. For example, the site's favorite icon takes a prominent place to the left of the Back button. Both the Back and Forward buttons can also take on the custom color scheme of the pinned site if it's coded accordingly.
Searches from Address Bar
Like the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox, IE 9 supports searching directly from its address bar; no more typing into a separate search box. You can set the address bar to query the search provider of your choice, even Google. To protect your privacy, IE 9 doesn't, by default, send your keystrokes to the search engine to provide suggestions as you type. But it's easy to enable search suggestions for that. With that enabled and Bing as your search provider, you can also get the current weather among your suggestions.
All the optional toolbars and plug-ins you install (either on purpose or incidentally) eat up memory and slow down the load time of your pages. But in IE 9, you can see a complete list of all add-ons you have installed and how much time, in milliseconds, each is adding to your load time. Then you can disable those add-ons that slow your system performance.
Downloads and Security
Internet Explorer 9 features a new download manager that shows all of your recent file transfers and allows you to open or run them. If you download an executable, IE 9 will try to verify its publisher against a list of known publishers or it will give you a warning message.
Where previous generations of Internet Explorer trailed the pack in terms of performance, IE 9 puts Microsoft among the speed leaders both for page rendering and application open times. To improve rendering in its new browser, Microsoft developed a new script engine codenamed Chakra.
However, only the 32-bit version of IE 9 has the new Chakra engine. So if you have 64-bit Windows on your PC, you will want to launch the shortcut that is labeled only Internet Explorer, not the one marked as Internet Explorer 64-bit. Why Microsoft chose to include a 64-bit browser version but not optimize it is unclear, but a rep told us that the company recommends that users stick with the 32-bit version for now.
Few things are more frustrating than waiting for your browser to open after you click on its shortcut. While Internet Explorer 8 could take as long as 18 seconds to cold-open, on our tests, IE 9 had the second-fastest average open time after Safari for Windows. We cold-opened each browser three times on a Lenovo ThinkPad X301, rebooting in between tests and taking the average.
IE 9 is one of the first browsers to harness the power of the graphics processor for hardware-accelerated animations, video, and image rendering. If your system supports hardware acceleration, you will see significantly improved frame rates in browser-based animations like Microsoft's Speed Reading demo (http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive/Performancehttp://archive.laptopmag.com/SpeedReading/Default.html).
Using an ASUS G732jW with Nvidia GTX460M graphics, IE 9 completed the Speed Reading Demo in a mere 8 seconds, with a rate of 60 frames per second. Firefox 4 beta 6, which also supports hardware acceleration, completed the same test in 53 seconds at a rate of 25 fps while Chrome 6 and Safari 5 were too slow to even complete the test, averaging 2 fps each.
Unfortunately, not every graphics card is compatible. When we tested the browser on a Thinkpad X301 with integrated Intel graphics, a Toshiba Satellite M645 with Nvidia GeForce GT330M graphics, and a desktop with ATI Radeon 9200 graphics, all three had the option checked to "Use software rendering instead of GPU rendering." According to Microsoft, a number of older and lower-end graphics cards are currently incompatible with IE 9's hardware rendering engine. Still, others work better when using software rendering. However, some notebooks could gain hardware acceleration capability through updated drivers.
Page Load Times
When it comes to loading popular websites, IE 9 is stellar competition to other browsers, though Chrome 6 edged it on some pages and Firefox was faster on others. We loaded the homepages of three popular sites--NYTimes.com, Laptopmag.com, and ESPN.com--three times, each with caching disabled, and took the average load time. Overall, Chrome 6 had the fastest average load time of 3.9 seconds, but IE 9 was a close second with 4.3 seconds.
HTML 5 and Other Rich Experiences
IE 9 supports all the latest web standards, including HTML 5, CSS3, DOM Levels 2 and 3, Scalable Vector Graphics, ICC Color Profiles, Web Open Font Format for adding additional fonts to the page. If you're not a web developer, the nature of these technologies will mean less to you than the features they enable.
HTML 5 allows for embedding video and audio without plug-ins such as Flash. It also allows for offline data storage and for new types of animation like the one in this browser-based pinball game (http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive/Graphicshttp://archive.laptopmag.com/CanvasPinball/Default.html) or the 3D astronomy site Sky Beautiful (www.skybeautiful.com).
Scalable Vector Graphics (SVGs) allow developers to create web-based drawing programs that scale images larger or smaller without any degradation in quality. The design firm Big Spaceship has an incredible demo drawing program here (http://always-beautiful.bigspaceship.com/). The Asteroid Belt game demo (http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive/Performancehttp://archive.laptopmag.com/AsteroidBelt/Default.html) on Microsoft.com also showcases some of IE 9's graphics prowess.
Numerous sites demonstrating the benefits of HTML 5 are listed on Microsoft's IE test-drive site (http://ie.microsoft.comhttp://archive.laptopmag.com/testdrive/Default.html) and in our own IE 9 demos post (http://blog.laptopmag.com/ie-9-and-html-5-enable-3d-sites-taskbar-alerts-drawing-apps-more).
Internet Explorer 9 beta is not only the best Microsoft browser yet, it's quite possibly the best Windows browser available today. When it comes to typical rendering times and page load speeds, Chrome has a slight edge, but it lacks IE 9's hardware acceleration and Windows 7 integrations. Firefox remains popular because of its huge library of add-ons, but it offers less viewable area and loads slower than IE 9. With its space-efficient design, fast open times, support for new web standards, and hardware acceleration, IE 9 is definitely worth the download. Just be sure to use the 32-bit version.