Internet Explorer 8 Focuses on Improved Security and Privacy

Microsoft's updated browser, Internet Explorer 8, promises an assortment of new features designed to help make Web browsing with IE safer, easier, and more compatible with Internet standards. We looked at the first release candidate of the new browser released to the public today, Release Candidate 1 (RC1). On the surface, IE 8 seems to be a lot like IE 7, but Microsoft has made a number of changes under the hood. You may have seen some of these new features already, however, in IE's no-longer-upstart competitor, Mozilla Firefox 3.

Tabbed Browsing

Internet Explorer 8 uses color coding to group related tabs together.
If you accidentally close a browser window in IE 8, you can opt to restore it when you reopen the program (just as you can in Firefox). IE 8 will use color coding to group related tabs together. If you open a link from pcworld.com in a new tab, for example, it will open adjacent to the original tab, and the tabs themselves will have a matching color. You can move tabs from one group to another, but if you have three unrelated pages open, you cannot create a group out of them.

Perhaps the most novel addition in IE 8 is what Microsoft calls tab isolation. The feature is designed to prevent a buggy Web site from causing the entire Web browsing program to crash. Instead, only the tab displaying the problematic page will close, so you can continue browsing.

Of course, IE 8 RC1 retains some of the features introduced in the first beta, including WebSlices and accelerators; see "Updated Web Browsers: Which One Works Best?" for more details.

Searching

Internet Explorer 8 has a drop-down search suggestion box in its search field that makes suggestions for more-detailed searches based on the search terms you enter.
IE 8 can use multiple search engines besides Windows Live Search, and you can add other search engines to the mix. Also, IE 8 will give you search suggestions as you type. For example, I can type in 'PC World' into the search field, and IE 8 RC1 will give me Live Search suggestions such as 'pc world magazine' or 'pc world reviews'. In addition, IE 8 lets you switch between search engines on the fly by clicking an icon at the bottom of the search field's drop-down menu. IE 8 can search Yahoo and Ask.com, and you can install add-ins that give IE 8 the capability to search Wikipedia, Amazon, and the New York Times, among other sites.

Improved Security

Microsoft touts IE 8 as its most secure browser to date, and Microsoft has indeed added a good number of security features to the mix, ranging from phishing detection to private browsing, plus a new feature to prevent clickjacking, an emerging data theft threat.

IE 8 RC1 includes two security features under the 'InPrivate' label: InPrivate Browsing and InPrivate Filtering. Both existed in earlier prerelease versions of IE 8, but IE 8 RC1 lets you use the two features separately, whereas before each relied on the other.

If you enable IE 8's InPrivate Browsing feature, the browser will not save any sensitive data--passwords, log-in info, history, and the like. Afterward it will be as if your browsing session had never happened. This feature is very similar to Private Browsing in Apple's Safari browser, except that an icon in IE's address bar makes InPrivate Browsing's active status more obvious.

InPrivate Filtering--called InPrivate Blocking in earlier IE 8 builds--prevents sites from being able to collect information about other Web sites you visit. This feature existed in IE 8 Beta 2, but you could use it only while using InPrivate Browsing. In RC1, you can use InPrivate Browsing at any time.

The browser's phishing filter--called SmartScreen--improves on its predecessor's filter with such features as more-thorough scrutiny of a Web page's address (to protect you from sites named something like paypal.iamascammer.com) and a full-window warning when you stumble upon a suspected phishing site. SmartScreen relies largely on a database of known phishing sites, so new, unknown phishing sites may slip through the cracks.

IE 8 displays sites' domains in a darker text color, so you can more readily see whether you're visiting a genuine ebay.com page, say, or a page simulating an eBay page on some site you've never heard of. Microsoft could still put a little more emphasis on the domain name (using a different color background, for example), but the highlighting is a welcome addition.

Finally, IE 8 RC1 includes a feature designed to prevent clickjacking, a method in which Web developers insert a snippet of HTML code into their Web page code to steal information from Web page visitors. When you use IE 8 to view such a page, IE 8 can identify an attempted clickjacking and will warn you of the attempt.

Web Compatibility

Creating a site that looks identical in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari can be a challenge. IE 8 Beta 2 offers better support for W3 Web standards--a set of guidelines developed to ensure that a Web page appears the same in all browsers. The downside is that IE 8 will break some pages designed for earlier Internet Explorer versions.

To counteract this problem, Microsoft has added a compatibility mode: Click a button in the toolbar, and IE 8 will display a page in the same way that IE 7 does. In my testing, I found that most pages worked fine with the standard (new) mode, and that most errors were minor cosmetic ones. Unfortunately, the Compatibility Mode toggle button may not be obvious to most users, because it's pretty small; a text label would have helped.

Though it probably won't convince many Firefox users to jump ship, Internet Explorer 8 Release Candidate 1 shows promise, and may be worth considering for people who have not yet solidified their browser loyalties. (Keep an eye out for our report on the final release of IE 8.)

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