Throw away what you think you know about Internet Explorer -- because the just-released IE9 will turn it all on its ear. Think IE is sluggish? Think again, because according to SunSpider tests, it rivals or beats the speed demons Chrome and Opera. Believe that IE sports a tired-looking interface? No longer --- it now has the same type of stripped-down look that Chrome originated, and that the latest version of Firefox uses as well.
IE 9 (available only for Vista and Windows 7) also introduces other goodies, such as HTML 5 support, Windows 7 integration, a double-duty address bar and more. It's clearly Microsoft's best shot at stopping the erosion of its market share by rivals Firefox and Chrome.
Moving to a clean interface
Microsoft takes a page from Google Chrome with its design for IE9 -- it's simple and clean, putting as much focus as possible on Web content and not on the browser itself.
All unneeded buttons and controls have been eliminated, and tabs are now at the top of the browser. (For a bit of simple eye candy, the top and the sides of IE9 are transparent.) The arrangement works. Web pages take center stage, with very little to distract you, and IE9 taking up as much real estate as possible. There's not even a search box; as with Chrome, the address bar does double-duty as a search box.
Three small icons on the upper-right corner of the screen give you access to IE9's options and feature a Home button, a Favorites button for managing bookmarks and a Tools button shaped like a gear. The Tools button leads you to most of the browser's other features and options, such as security, privacy, add-ons customizing search and so on.
There's another new feature to the IE9 interface as well. When you open a new tab, it displays thumbnails of pages you frequently visit. At the bottom of each thumbnail is a bar that shows how frequently you visit each page. The longer the bar, the more you've visited the page. And there are some very useful other things you can do from this page as well, including reopening your last browsing session, reopening tabs you've closed during this browsing session, and getting recommendations for sites you might want to visit, based on the sites you frequently visit. You can also launch an anonymous browsing session, which IE terms "InPrivate Browsing."
IE9: The new speed demon?
Among the loudest complaints against previous versions of Internet Explorer was its lack of speed. In a world in which graphics-heavy Web pages get heavier every year, videos are becoming normal elements and Web-based apps are replacing desktop-based applications, this sluggishness could have become a fatal flaw.
IE9 beat all the others. It took an average 280 milliseconds (ms) to complete the tests, followed by Opera 11.01 at 308.8 ms, Chrome 10.0.648 at 316.7 ms, Firefox 4 Release Candidate at 319.1 ms and Safari 5.0.4 at 410.2 ms.
As a practical matter, there's not much difference in these tests between the top four performers. It's not going to be noticeable by most surfers. But in previous tests I ran, Internet Explorer 8 took between five and six times the amount of time to complete the SunSpider tests as its next slowest rival Firefox, making this an astonishing speed improvement. And the fact remains: On this test, Internet Explorer beat all rivals.
It's an open question, though, as to whether Internet Explorer's hardware-accelerated GPU handling of processing-intensive work is superior to other browsers. The upcoming Firefox 4 also uses hardware acceleration, and Microsoft and Firefox have been trading fire over which browser is superior in that aspect. We'll have to wait until a set of agreed-upon benchmarks emerge for measuring that capability before judging.
Keeping up with standard
Past versions of Internet Explorer have been criticized for not adhering to Web standards, something that Microsoft has fixed in Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft now has an Internet Explorer Test Drive page to demonstrate embedded videos and other features. However, the <video> tag didn't work in IE9 when I tested it elsewhere. I tried Chrome and Opera and they did somewhat better, although they also didn't display every video, either.
As a practical matter, this is moot at this point, because you'll have to search long and hard to find Web pages that use the <video> tag. If the tag ever becomes popular, I would assume that all browsers would end up supporting it.
To test overall HTML 5 compatibility, I ran IE9 and other browsers through the HTML5 test page. IE9 scored at the bottom with 130 out of 400, while Firefox 4 Release Candidate scored 240, Opera scored a 234, Chrome rated 288, and Safari came in at 228. Of course, given how little HTML 5 is used at this point, it's not clear how relevant these numbers are at the moment. But Microsoft needs to do some work to prepare Internet Explorer for HTML 5 when it becomes widely used. At this point, it's the least compliant browser, at least according to the HTML test page.
As for normal Web browsing, IE9 displayed nearly every page I visited properly, with a few exceptions. On my iGoogle home page, it would not render the Web-based version of Google Talk. And on the Computerworld blogs, it didn't show any of the comments that readers made. I was able to solve the problem with Computerworld blog by clicking on IE9's Compatibility View button, which displays the page as thought it were being rendered by Internet Explorer 8. In subsequent visits to that page, IE9 remembered to display it using the earlier version of the browser. However, Compatibility View didn't solve the problem with rendering Google Talk.