IE 9 puts Microsoft back into the browser game

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Internet Explorer has been a distant third-string player to Firefox and Chrome for so long, we thought it could never catch up.

But with a slick new interface and enhanced Windows 7 features, IE 9 — now in public beta — just might put Microsoft back at the top of the browser game.

For the past four years, I’ve sung the praises of Firefox, going so far as recommending it in all of my books. I’ve used Firefox and, more recently, Google’s Chrome almost exclusively. But last week, a friend of mine started shouting online, “Ya gotta see this! Microsoft’s come up with some great new stuff!” My reply? “Yeah, sure.”

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A few months ago, I played with an early beta version of Internet Explorer 9. It left me cold — more of the same old IE stuff, piled higher and deeper. Meh.

Microsoft released the public beta (info site) of IE 9 last week, complete with a heavily rejiggered user interface and a number of much-hyped enhancements. And after trying it for a few days, I have to admit that I was impressed — so impressed that I’ve continued to use it, from time to time, even when I don’t have to.

I’m not going to bore you with a recitation of the IE 9′s list of new features. Microsoft’s patented marketing machine has churned out more info than you’ll ever want or need. Instead, let me point out what I think shines in IE 9 — and what still leaves me cold.

Oh, and by the way: it’s true that Internet Explorer 9 will not run on Windows XP.

Tab dancing with the new IE interface

Although Microsoft touts it as one of IE 9′s greatest inventions, I’m ambivalent about the browser’s new tab interface. I think it’s cool — but in a limited way.

Let’s start with tear-away tabs. Firefox and Chrome have had them for ages. When you click on a tab and drag it, the tab blossoms into its own browser window. Drag the new standalone tab back to its original window, and the tabs go back to their previous location. In Version 9, Internet Explorer finally does this, too. But IE 9 has an additional trick up its sleeve.

If you drag the favicon — the tiny icon to the left of the Web address — onto the Windows desktop, Windows creates a shortcut to the Web site. You knew that already, yes? Double-click on the shortcut, and Windows fires up your browser and takes you to the site. Windows has done that forever, with all the major browsers.

New to IE 9 — and currently unique to IE 9 — is the ability to drag a tab to the Windows 7 taskbar. When you drop a tab onto the taskbar, you pin the site to the taskbar (as with the Dummies site shown in Figure 1), just as you would pin programs. (Currently, you can drag a Web site in the browser’s search/URL address bar — but not a tab — and pin it to your default browser’s taskbar icon.) This new feature makes launching sites you go to everyday, such as windowssecrets.com, just a little faster.

Dummies.com pinned to my win7 taskbar
Figure 1. You can pin individual Web sites to the Windows 7 taskbar.

When you click on the newly created icon in the taskbar, IE 9 appears with the site’s icon on the left side (note “Mr. Dummy” to the left of the left-pointing arrow in Figure 1); the forward-and-back arrows take on the color of the icon. If you click on the site’s icon, you’re returned to the site, just as when clicking on the IE 9 Home icon.

I wouldn’t call that a breakthrough innovation, but it does show some ingenuity. Chrome 6 has, for a long time, had a similar feature called Application Shortcuts (click the Tools icon, choose Tools, Create Application Shortcuts), but it doesn’t work as well.

Pinning a site on the Win7 taskbar is neat, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the revolutionary new Tab Candy, er, Panorama feature that’s evolving in the Firefox 4 betas. Panorama lets you group tabs together, stick them out of the way, and bring them back as a group. It’s a slick way to combine related tabs in a set and switch sets as you change tasks or topics. There’s a good overview of Panorama on Aza Raskin’s blog. I’ll have a more thorough review in a forthcoming Top Story, after the final feature set has shaken out in Firefox 4.

Quicker graphics, faster Java — and HTML5

Every browser claims to be the fastest, and every browser manufacturer can whip out studies (possibly bought and paid for) that prove theirs runs rings around the competition. Performance numbers for beta software can never be trusted; that said, IE 9 really does feel fast.

A new, faster JScript engine called Chakra and hardware-based graphics acceleration probably account for the browser’s improved speed — especially the latter, which uses your PC’s graphics processing unit’s (GPU) oomph to offload work by the system’s main CPU. At this point, IE 9 and Firefox are both showing some impressive results with GPU acceleration.

Google doesn’t have much acceleration built into Chrome 6. But whoa Nelly, watch out for Chrome 7! In a Chromium blog, Chrome’s engineers claim they have a fancy 2D canvas acceleration feature that will make Chrome 7 run 60 times faster than Chrome 6 in some benchmark tests. Makes one wonder whether version 7 is that much faster or 6 is that much slower.

HTML5 may add another component to IE 9′s quickness. A new (and still-emerging) standard, HTML5 allows Web designers to bring animation to their sites without relying on Adobe Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight. With properly constructed HTML5 tags, plus a browser that can translate those tags into commands run directly by your PC’s graphics card, HTML5 should make graphics-intensive Web browsing fast indeed.

Microsoft’s way behind the pack on adopting HTML5; Firefox and Chrome have been adding HTML5 features for several versions. (There’s a good HTML5-compatibility comparison on the “When can I use …” site.) Still, I give Microsoft two thumbs up (if I could grow another hand, I’d make it three) for embracing HTML5 at the expense of both Flash and Silverlight. Some day — maybe not in the next year or two, but some day — those almost-weekly Flash patches and hidden Flash cookies (described in my August 5 Top Story) will become a thing of the past.

Comparison tests for IE 9, Firefox, and Chrome

You can download beta versions of the three most popular Web browsers from their respective sites: IE 9, Firefox 4, and the somewhat-less-stable Chrome 7 Canary build. On its “Exploring IE” blog, Microsoft claims it dished out two million copies of IE 9 in the first two days.

However, before you download and install these betas, keep in mind that they might not work with most current browser add-ons. I recommend you do your testing on a second, nonproduction machine.

If you want to run side-by-side tests, I suggest this regimen:

Start with a quick and automatic browser/HTML5 compatibility test at Niels Leenheer’s site. When I tested the IE 9 public beta, it came up with a raspberry-generating 101 points out of 300 (including bonus points). Firefox 4, beta 6, pegged 213; Chrome 7 Canary build rang in with 253 points. (Browser manufacturers will give a million reasons to justify their lagging scores — some of which, no doubt, are valid.)

Then try Google’s HTML5 showoff site, “HTML5rocks.” Look at the samples in the Studio section with all three browsers. I bet you’ll find that some samples work in IE 9 and Firefox and some don’t — but (ooooh! aaaaah!) they all work in Chrome 6 — and most work in Chrome 7 Canary.

Next, give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and run the “Test Drive” speed tests on the Internet Explorer 9 Beta info page. Of course, it will demonstrate that IE 9 runs rings around Firefox and Chrome. You expected different? Still, the specific test and demos are impressive.

Finally, turn to Microsoft’s IE 9 “Beauty of the Web Experience” site and click through to see some fabulous HTML5-based sites.

Living with Internet Explorer 9′s foibles

IE 9, in its current beta form, has a couple of user-interface characteristics that bother me.

I understand that Microsoft wanted to reduce the browser’s overall clutter — to let the Web sites shine through while the browser fades into the background (in other words, to make IE look more like Chrome). But even after working with it for a while, I still don’t understand why MS put the address bar on the same line as the tabs. If you get more than a handful of tabs, the address bar shrinks to the point where it’s unusable.

What’s more, the address bar is now the Search bar, too — and I frequently find myself wondering exactly what key words I was searching on, when the search string gets long. Perhaps it’s just a senior moment, but Firefox and Chrome both leave me plenty of room for refining a search. I bet MS changes that before IE 9 ships.

The new download manager may be skimpy — but it’s sure a lot better than nothing (which is what we’ve had through eight versions of IE). I just wish there were a way to change priorities when downloading more than one file, so I can have IE 9 devote more bandwidth to the file that I want first. I also had trouble with grayed-out Pause buttons, but that might just be the beta blues.

Based on my look at IE 9 beta, I believe this will put Microsoft back into the browser game after a long time playing catch-up. But it won’t take on a commanding lead. Firefox’s Panorama looks like a groundbreaking new feature. Chrome’s updating so quickly, it’s likely that IE will go back to eating dust not long after it sees the light of day. Know what I like the most about IE 9? It’s going to make Firefox and Chrome (and possibly Opera) better, too. That’s good for everybody.

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Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies — deliver the straight story in a way that won’t put you to sleep.
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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.