Review: Internet Explorer 9 - Microsoft's new web browser

After almost two years, Microsoft is finally ready to move to the next version of its web browser...

After almost two years, Microsoft is finally ready to move to the next version of its web browser with Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) progressing from public beta to its full-blown release candidate. Promising streamlined design, fewer dialogue boxes to click through and more intuitive navigation, IE9 is distinguished by the fact that it is not tied to any major iteration of the Windows operating system. In terms of system requirements IE9 demands Windows Vista 32-bit with Service Pack 2 (SP2) or higher - or Windows 7. It also requires 512MB of memory and 70MB of hard drive space for a successful 32-bit installation.

As the line between traditional applications and online web service-driven apps continues to blur, Microsoft has taken pains to try to create a browser that acts as much like a normal offline piece of "software" as possible. Using hardware acceleration technology to take advantage of a user's PC, IE9 borrows processing power from a machine's graphic processor unit (GPU) to speed up graphics-heavy tasks like video streaming or online gaming.

Installation of IE9 is simple, without the need for any convoluted Microsoft wizards or wizardry of any kind. Adopting a stripped-back approach to its user interface layout, the browser is now more compact than its predecessors, with an increased number of functions accessible from drop-down menus. The top right of the screen is now populated with a house icon (Home), a star (for favourites, feeds and history) and a tools "cog" icon (for print, file, zoom and safety options, as well as internet options and developer tools).

Emulating some of the functionality found in Apple's Safari and Opera, IE9 has a new "Tab Page", which is most conveniently brought up by hitting CTRL-T. The new page layout displays a selection of the sites that the user visits most often and colour codes them according to Microsoft's definition of the most prominent colour used on the site itself. These "favourites" can be removed or hidden by simply clicking the "Hide sites" button on the page itself.

Aligning its functionality to that of Windows 7, IE9 follows the operating system's ability to pin favourite apps to the taskbar with a new function that allows websites to be pinned directly the bottom of the user's desktop. Pinning a site is easy to do, simply grab hold of the website icon to the immediate left of the URL line and drag it downward to the taskbar. Removing the pinned site is a simple process too, performed with a right click on the taskbar icon itself, which brings up a mini website control menu.

Accessing a website from the pinned taskbar area will cause the backward and forward navigate buttons to change to the colour of the icon of the site itself. Not just a pretty effect, this colour-coding is what Microsoft describes as the "site-centric" - as opposed to browser-centric - approach it has taken when developing IE9. Accessing a website via a pinned link also causes the browser's "Home" button to disappear, replacing it instead with a logo representing the pinned site's own home landing page. Pinned sites also follow the style of Windows 7 jump-lists functionality to make them appear more like a Windows 7 native application: for example, pin Facebook to the Taskbar and right click to bring up a menu that takes you directly into News, Messages, Events and Friends.

Possibly taking its lead from Apple's OS X "Downloads" function, IE9 now features a "Download manager" summary pane, which keeps a running list of the files a user downloads from the web. Attempting to push the functionality quotient one level further, Microsoft has built in a security function to inform a user if a file download is likely to be malicious - a feature that the company openly describes as a "unique reputation-checking element" of its browser. So if Microsoft's databanks know that a particular download has been reported as malware, then it will be flagged even if it appears to pass virus checks. Again imitating Apple's Leopard and Snow Leopard, the Download manager also allows the user to pause and restart a download, which is especially useful when working on a slow internet connection.

Where Microsoft has been genuinely clever in terms of giving us something new is the "tear-off" tabbed browsing function. This option allows the user to navigate between two open website pages within a single monitor screen window, which, in itself, is a potentially useful function for tasks such as electronic shopping or making a travel booking, where a user might want to access their bank details while spending cash.

The tear-off tabs allow a user to drag a tab out of the browser, open it as a new webpage in a new window and then "snap" it into place for side-by-side viewing - if you are used to the Windows 7 drag-and-snap this should be easy to master, if you're not then just grab a tab with a left click and move it to the extreme edge of the screen to see it transform. Once again, these tabs are colour-coded to show which website pages are related each to other.

Also fresh in IE9 is "Tracking protection", a new feature to protect users from third parties seeking to track their images, text, tracking beacons, cookies and scripts as they surf. Where third parties look to collect information such as the URLs you are browsing to or your IP address without your knowledge or consent, Microsoft says that IE9 will block these channels and also block third-party content based on Tracking protection lists (TPL) installed by users.

Catching up with Firefox, Opera and Google's Chrome, IE9 allows the user to type search terms directly into the URL bar. Entering a cleanly typed website address will take the user directly to the website in question, but a search term or even an incomplete or misspelled address will launch a search inside the user's preferred search engine. Searching onward from here, the option is then to take the top search result returned or open up a full set of search results by pressing "Enter". It's nice to see the function arrive and one can only wonder why it has taken so long.

As well as a new "Notification bar" at the bottom of the screen, which delivers status information such as the option to remember a website's password, there are other slightly more significant add-on management options. The "Add-on performance advisor" gives the user more-or-less immediate control over which toolbars and add-ons should be allowed to run at any one time. This is the fastest route to removing the Google Toolbar, although it's hard to think of a reason why you would want to do that. Still, given longer-term use and the amount of web "side-order" junk most users seem to accumulate over time, it seems like a sensible and pleasing feature to incorporate.

In terms of overall look and feel, Internet Explorer 9 feels like a positive upgrade. Microsoft is clearly looking to be more directly recognised for sorting out the functionality of its browser's engine-room than it is for bringing along any new fancy bells and whistles to the party. If we accept the much-hackneyed term so favoured by web developers when they tell us that their new site "delivers a truly immersive experience", then Microsoft has taken that thought to heart and tried to make "the site the star" and not the browser. The company says this is a fundamentally different philosophy to that which governs the development of browsers like Chrome or Firefox - and in some ways it's right.

So is IE9 a case of less is more? Yes, in this case, maybe. Are we seeing behind-the-scenes augmentations that will translate subconsciously to a better browsing experience? Well, yes, to a degree we are. Are we really seeing what Microsoft envisions for us - a more beautiful web? Oh, come on now, honestly.

New browsers challenge old sites

Thousands of businesses face huge costs to rewrite their external and internal websites to take advantage of new standards-based browsers such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 (IE9).

 Mark Quirk, web product manager in Microsoft’s development platform group, told Computer Weekly that the latest, more conforming, browsers were likely to “break” older websites, many of which do not conform to the latest World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards for web sites.

Read the full story here: IE9 could spark huge redevelopment costs for websites

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