Even in beta, Internet Explorer 8 garnered a high rating, thanks to its smartly organized interface, fast speeds, and a few innovative features. Release Candidate 1--one of the last iterations before the browser's ready-for-prime-time version--improves on earlier versions by expanding its privacy and stability options, as well as streamlining the user interface. Are these improvements enough to get those who have abandoning IE for other browsers like Firefox, Safari, and Chrome to come back? Probably not, but IE 8 RC1 proves that Microsoft is still very much in the game.
IE 8's interface hasn't changed since its beta days. It has high-level menus and an address bar at the top. To the right of the URL box are three icons for reloading, stopping, and for entering compatibility view (more on that later). To the right of that is another box, into which users can enter search terms. The address bar still has Auto completion and, unlike Firefox 3, divides the autocompleted suggestions into different categories, such as History and Favorites.
As in the second beta version of IE 8, the search bar auto-completes, too, which is a welcome feature. In addition to culling suggestions from your history and favorites, it draws them from the search engine of your choice. By default, if you're installing IE for the first time, the search engine is Microsoft Live Search, but users can go into the settings to add others manually, such as Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and The New York Times, among others. We wish IE 8 had more default search engines in the drop-down menu, as Firefox 3 does.
Beneath the URL bar is an icon for managing favorites, another for adding the current URL to your favorites list, icons for sites you've already bookmarked, and Web Slices icons. It would be better if there were no favorites-management icon; having two favorites-related icons next to each other is confusing. On the right side of the window is a row of smaller icons denoting things such as safety (secure, malware-free browsing) and printing options. We'd get rid of those and move their functionality to higher-level menus, to make this main area look less cluttered.
As in previous versions, the tabs are color-coded by their source. IE 8 also smartly groups tabs together depending on their source. For instance, all tabs from CNN.com might appear green and will appear next to one another. Meanwhile, tabs from, say, blog.laptopmag.com will appear in another color, making it easy to zero in on the information you want at a glance. As we said previously, it's easy to close a tab by mistake, because when you right-click on a tab, the first option is Close Tab rather than New Tab.
Accelerators and Web Slices
Two of IE 8's most innovative features continue to be Accelerators and Web Slices. Accelerators allow you to take various actions once you've highlighted text in a Web page. For instance, if you highlight the name and address of a restaurant you'd like to try, you can right-click to perform an Internet search, but you can also e-mail, blog, or translate that information, among other options that you can manually enable in the settings.
Microsoft also has a growing gallery of Web Slices, interactive add-ons that allow users to access information--such as the latest weather reports--from their favorites bar without opening a new tab and navigating through that Web page. Adding Web Slices is easy enough: just use the drop-down menu on the favorites bar. Familiar Web sites, including eBay.com and Weather.com, are on board and work well, but unfortunately, the selection of Web Slices is still pretty slim (37 in English as of press time).
Enhanced Privacy Settings
In the beta version of IE 8, privacy settings always fell under the InPrivate umbrella. The InPrivate Browsing feature automatically deletes your browsing history after you've closed the tab; this is a good idea for people using a shared computer. Take note, however: you have to go to the Safety menu to begin InPrivate browsing. You'll know you're browsing privately when a new window pops up with InPrivate's purple logo in the address bar. There is also an option to use InPrivate Browsing when you launch a new tab.
InPrivate also includes InPrivate Filtering (formerly called InPrivate Blocking), which prevents information from being transmitted to third parties. That sounds good, in theory, but sometimes you want sites you frequent, such as Amazon.com, to remember information about you. That's why we're glad that Release Candidate 1 introduces the ability to enable InPrivate Browsing and Filtering independently of one another.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Release Candidate 1 and the beta version we previously tested are additional security features. The ClickJacking prevention tool allows Web site developers to ward off malware that can attack anyone who so much as clicks on a malicious site by allowing them to put a tag in a page header that helps detect and prevent this act. The browser also now includes the SmartScreen filter, Internet Explorer's Phishing Filter, which can prevent malware injections as well.
The last time we tested IE 8, it was often--but not always--faster than Firefox 3. This time around, it blew Firefox out of the water, along with Google Chrome. While IE 8 had an average page-load time of 2 seconds over our Wi-Fi connection, Firefox 3 took an average of 4.5 seconds; Chrome, 3 seconds.
When it came to specific Web pages, IE 8 loaded NYTimes.com, CNN.com, ESPN.com, and Hulu.com in 2 seconds each. Firefox 3 took 4, 5, 7, and 2 seconds; Chrome took 3, 4, 3, and 2 seconds.
Compatibility and Stability
As mentioned, IE 8 has a compatibility-view button, which takes sites that haven't been formatted for IE 8 and displays them as they would appear in IE 7. New to RC1, the browser also offers a compatibility view that lists the major sites that aren't yet IE 8-compatible. Users who choose to receive this list will have their browsers automatically adjust these sites, so that they don't have to press the compatibility button. Luckily, we never had to press that button--every site we visited (we even tried obscure online retailers) looked normal in IE 8.
Stability-wise, IE 8 still restores tabs that have crashed, including data in progress, such as e-mails. While we hardly have a scientific test for evaluating a browser's stability, we can say that we experienced no crashes this time around, while we observed several in our earlier beta testing.
This version of IE 8 doesn't yet work with what's proving to be one of Microsoft's most popular downloads--Windows 7--so there are limits to how cutting edge you can make your system. The operating system does, however, come with a pre-RC1 version of IE 8 built in.
Although IE 8 essentially looks the same as the previous beta version, Microsoft has made a bevy of improvements on the inside that, collectively, have warmed us to the browser in a big way. It's now faster--arguably the fastest in its class--as well as more secure and more stable. The auto-completing search bar also made our Web surfing experience feel smoother and more intuitive. If only Microsoft would follow our suggestions for streamlining the interface, then IE 8 would be even better.