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Internet Explorer 9 RC released: Everything you need to know

The Internet Explorer 9 Release Candidate is now available. For all intents and purposes, this means IE9 is feature complete. Small changes might occur, but it's mostly bug stomping from here on out. Download it, give it a whirl; it might just be the first IE browser that's actually enjoyable to use.

Download Squad got its grubby mandibles on the RC a few days ago, which means we can show you around all of the major new features -- and some of the smaller, less-obvious, but equally neat changes too.

Internet Explorer 9 is all about cutting back to what made IE8 great, and unceremoniously ramming the offal through the waste disposal. InPrivate Browsing is still here, and InPrivate Filtering has donned its superhero leotard and returned as Tracking Protection. Color-coded tab groups remain, as does SmartScreen Filtering. The awful UI, though, and the barbaric JavaScript engine, are gone.

Microsoft has invested a lot of time, effort and money into Internet Explorer 9 and -- as you'll see after the break -- the results really do speak for themselves. IE9 desperately wants to be your steed of choice for the HTML5 revolution.

But has it succeeded?

Internet Explorer 9 RC


Interface

The first and most shocking change to Internet Explorer 9 is its interface -- it's actually pretty. We regularly found ourselves minimizing IE8 whenever we had girls visiting the Download Squad bunker, but with IE9... Internet Explorer 9... let's just say that the soundproofed reinforced concrete cell has never seen so much use.

IE9 basically looks like the lovechild of Firefox and Chrome. The tabs are on top, but so is the address bar, which actually makes IE9 even more svelte than Chrome and Firefox -- but only by a few pixels. Purists might be a bit upset to find that there's no way to get tabs flush with the top of your screen -- so you can't just 'flick' your mouse to the top of the screen to select a tab -- but apparently that's a conscious decision by the User Experience team so that it's always easy to Aero Snap browser windows.

Incidentally, regarding the limited space for tabs: according to Microsoft, a massive majority of IE9 beta testers used no more than five tabs -- which we find hard to believe, but there you go! If you want more space for tabs, though, you either have the option of moving tabs to their own row (Right click the browser chrome > Show tabs on a separate row), or you can make the address bar narrower by dragging the divider between the tabs.


"One Bar" aka the OmnIEbar

Like Chrome, IE9 has an all-in-one search-and-address bar, dubbed the 'One Bar' and much to our surprise it's very nearly as good. It lacks Instant, but it makes up for it with a better interface and more configurability. You can add search engines from Mycroft, but like Firefox you still have to select the search engine before you use it -- Chrome's keyword method is so much easier.

Rather curiously, as you can see in the screenshot above, the One Bar also searches your recent document history. The only way to prevent this is to turn off 'Browsing History' autocomplete, which seems more than a little heavy-handed. This could be a bug -- or maybe the IE9 team is hoping that the One Bar will absorb the Start menu's all-in-one run box?

The One Bar is also host to a plethora of (tiny!) buttons. The Refresh and Stop buttons are obvious enough (you can have them on the left or right side of the website address, depending on your preference), but there are no less than four more buttons crammed into the diminutive bar. There's the 'compatibility mode' button, which instructs IE9 to use the IE7 rendering engine; there's a down arrow, which pops open your search options; most excitingly, there's a magnifying glass, which lets you re-enter your last search phrase (very cool).

Finally there's the 'security' button, which rather tidily leads us to...


Privacy & Security

If you're Firefox or Chrome zealot, you'll probably be surprised to hear that IE8 was actually the best of last year's browsers when it came to privacy and security.

IE9 basically has exactly the same armament as its predecessor, except InPrivate Filtering has been rebranded as Tracking Protection and gained a little more functionality in the process. Tracking Protection is turned off by default, but if you turn it on (Cog > Safety > Tracking Protection), it automatically detects tracking cookies and blocks them. You can also download Tracking Protection Lists, which are human-curated lists that work in the same way as Chrome's extension, but you have more granular control over which cookies get blocked. TPLs are free, written in plaintext, and anyone can make them.

One of the neatest features of Tracking Protection is that it notifies you when you're on a page with a blocked cookie (see right). If you want to let the cookie through (it might be interfering with the page's functionality), just click the blue icon and that site will no longer have its cookies blocked. The same warnings appear if you enable Cog > Safety > ActiveX Filtering.

InPrivate Browsing makes a return in IE9, and it works in the same way as IE8. Pop it open with Ctrl+Shift+P, do your sensitive browsing, and then just close the window. You can open an InPrivate session from Start menu and taskbar shortcuts, too, but we'll discuss that in a moment.

Pinned sites, jump lists and more!

Moving onto functionality that actually changes how we interact with the browser, and thus the Web, we have IE9's pinned sites, a new paradigm that successfully marries your browser with Windows and makes the delineation between online and offline very fuzzy indeed. A lot has been said about pinned sites, but in essence it lets you launch websites directly from your taskbar, or the Start menu. Just drag any open tab to the taskbar or Start menu.

The immediate implications aren't apparent, but continued use will prove just how powerful pinned websites are. Instead of having 20 open tabs, you can break them into groups of tabs -- much like Firefox's Panorama -- and then use the Windows taskbar to navigate between them. It's a little bit clunky right now, but if you Cog > Internet Options from an open pinned site, you can set multiple home pages. Next time you open the pinned site, those pages will all be opened in separate tabs.

Pinned sites can also have jump lists (see right), which can be added to any site with just a few lines of HTML code. A website can also notify you of changes -- so, for example, if you had unread email, you would see a notification flag on the pinned icon.


HTML5 and standards compliance

With 95/100 on the Acid3 test, 116 on the HTML5 Test and the recent addition of geolocation, IE9 is definitely a force to be reckoned with. It doesn't match Chrome or Firefox in terms of raw HTML5 and CSS3 support, but for real life use cases, IE9 is certainly good enough.

There are definitely some questions when it comes to Web apps, though. As far as we can tell, Microsoft's strategy revolves around developers making shiny websites and pinning them on the taskbar -- but will it run Web apps designed for the Chrome Web Store, or Mozilla's upcoming Open Web Apps?

Incidentally, with today's Release Candidate, there's also a bunch of new HTML5/CSS3 samples on the Test Drive site. They're well worth checking out -- especially the Pin Site Radio, which shows off IE9's way of handling Web apps.

As anticipated, along with H.264, WebM is also supported for HTML5 video in IE9.


Performance

Now we move into Internet Explorer 9's tour de force: consummate fastness. It's hard to put into words how fast IE9 feels. Words like 'smooth' and 'silky' and 'baby's bottom' combined with a devilish array of prefixed expletives seem to be the only descriptions we can come up with.

Chakra, the new JavaScript engine, is fast. We won't get into technical details, but it's certainly the fastest engine on the market, both according to the SunSpider benchmark, and in real-world use -- it really feels faster than Chrome and Firefox. The IE9 team tells us that Chakra compiles and executes JavaScript on separate cores, if your CPU has them, which is why Web pages feel both fast and responsive.

Other than Chakra, the whole rendering pipeline is GPU-accelerated, meaning that your CPU and graphics card work in parallel to render websites a lot faster. The result is less power consumption on battery-powered devices, smoother scrolling, snappier zooming, and lovely HTML5 games like Pirates Love Daisies.

It's IE9's excellent performance (and Microsoft's courting of developers) that might give it the edge when it comes to HTML5 websites vs. Web apps. We'll have to wait and see!

It ain't all good

For a browser that's been rushed out in under a year, IE9 is surprisingly good -- and no doubt, before the final release, it will be polished until it shines. But it still has its quirks.

Add-ons are still a bit of an embarrassment. All you really get is some Web Slices, and a few lame toolbars. There seems to be almost zero emphasis on extensibility in IE9 -- and, in fact, it looks like IE9's add-on framework hasn't been touched at all since IE8. Oh, there's still no built-in spell checker.

Then there's the tiresome act of trying to configure Internet Explorer 9. There are options everywhere. Cog > Safety, Cog > Internet Options, Right clicking the One Box, Right clicking the browser chrome -- to be honest, it feels a lot like IE9 and all of its new features has just been squeezed inside IE8. Chrome and Firefox's unified menus are far, far superior in this regard.


The future is bright

With Mozilla and Google so deeply invested in the next iteration of the Web, it's really no surprise that Internet Explorer 9 is so excellent. Microsoft knows that the Open Web platform could usurp desktop and native mobile apps. It would be stupid for Microsoft to ignore what may become the greatest and most exciting development we've ever seen. IE9 is proof that Microsoft has its finger on the buzzer; it is also proof that Microsoft is, for the first time ever, actually invested in openness.

[This post has been updated numerous times. The RC was leaked early, which meant some resources, like the Test Drive site and Tracking Protection Lists, are only now available. -Ed]

Tags: browsers, chakra, guide, how-to, html5, ie, ie9, internet explorer, internet explorer 9, InternetExplorer, InternetExplorer9, microsoft

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