Browser Feature War: IE9 RC1 vs. Firefox 4 vs. Chrome 9

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The browser wars are back with a vengeance.

Microsoft recently launched its first release candidate for Internet Explorer 9 (IE9 RC1), which features hardware acceleration, a simplified interface, Windows 7 jump lists, and a new "do not track" feature.

Not to be outdone, Google Chrome 9, which launched earlier this month, is sporting 3D hardware acceleration, Google Instant Search, and the Chrome Web Store. Meanwhile, Firefox 4 is in on its one-millionth beta (just kidding, it's on beta 11), rocking its own online tracking opt-out mechanism, an updated interface, and WebGL hardware acceleration.

It's a browser battle for the ages. But watch out Chrome and Firefox, the Borg (that was Microsoft's pet name in the 90's, kids) are back and this time resistance really is futile. Let's take a look.

Don't Follow Me

The Federal Trade Commission has been clamoring for Web browsers to institute do not track features that tell online advertisers you don't want them to follow you around while you browse the Web. Internet Explorer 9 has answered that call with a new feature called Tracking Protection. IE9's do not track feature allows you to create lists of sites that you want to block from tracking you. You can created your own list or find some pre-defined lists here on Microsoft's IE9 Website. To enable Tracking Protection in IE9, click on the settings cog in the upper right corner of IE9 RC1 then select Safety>Tracking Protection.

Firefox's answer to tracking is much simpler. The browser has simply instituted a system that puts a message in your browser's metadata that tells Websites you visit that you don't want to be tracked. Of course, it's any body's guess if the sites you visit will honor your request, but it's still a simple and elegant approach. To turn on Firefox 4's do not track feature in Windows 7 go to the Firefox tab in the upper left corner then click Options>Options>Advanced. Then under "Browsing" select "Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked." ??Chrome also has a do not track feature that you can activate by downloading an add-on called "Keep My Opt-outs."

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Simplified Interface

Firefox 4's new look is pretty much the same as it has been since Firefox 4's first beta came out in the middle of last year. Windows Vista and 7 users will see a new orange button in the upper left corner of the browser that houses most of Firefox's menu items. The home button and favorites can be found on the far right side of the browser window. Firefox also has tabs on top similar to Chrome's approach. This means you have less browser to deal with and more room to view the actual Web page.

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Internet Explorer also joined the Chrome-style revolution with IE9 RC1. The toolbar has been shaved down and the tabs have been put on the same line as the URL address bar to maximize the space for Web page views. The downside is that multiple tabs quickly go off the screen in IE9. You can change this by right-clicking any tab and selecting "Show tabs on a separate row." This will move your tabs to a separate row from the URL address bar, but it will cost you a tiny fraction of Web page viewing space.

In my advanced tests (by putting my finger on the screen), I determined that all three browsers now have pretty much the same screen space for viewing Web pages when you run them without toolbars.

Hardware Acceleration

All three browsers are focused on improving browser speeds. Internet Explorer 9 RC1 uses its own brand of hardware acceleration designed to take advantage of multiple processor cores as well as optimizing the power of your machine's graphics processing unit (GPU). IE9 RC1 also uses special Windows APIs to improve performance for 3D graphics, and has an improved JavaScript engine.

Both Chrome and Firefox use a Web standard called WebGL that speeds up the performance of online 3D graphics without the use of plug-ins. Firefox 4 also has a new JavaScript engine called JägerMonkey to improve speed performance. The latest Firefox beta build also uses hardware acceleration to improve speeds.

During my browsing session with each browser, IE9 appeared to react a little faster than both Firefox and Chrome by about two seconds. But we'll have to wait for PC World's official tests to get a better idea of which browser is actually faster.

Chrome Web Store and Instant

Google Chrome users in the United States now have access to the Chrome Web Store in Chrome 9. Just click on "Chrome Web Store" when you open a new tab to check out all the Web-based apps you can subscribe to or try out for free. You can check out this run down of 10 cool Web apps to get started.

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You can also use Google Chrome 9's new search feature, Instant, that shows you web pages as you type and tries to predict just what you're looking for. To turn on instant in Chrome go to click on the wrench icon in the upper right corner and select "Options." Then select the check box that says "Enable Instant for faster searching and browsing."

Jump Lists

For Windows 7 users IE9's pinned Websites can be very handy. If you want to have easy access to sites you visit on a regular basis just drag the site's tab from IE9 into your Windows taskbar to pin it there. This will allow you to open the site in its own browser window with just one click. Some sites are also taking advantage of IE9's jump list feature that give you quick access to specific parts of the site. PC World's IE9 jump lists give you quick access to News, Reviews, Business Center, App Guide and How To sections. You can find out if a site has jump lists by right-clicking the pinned site's icon in your taskbar.

So which browser is best? Well, choosing a browser is more about your own personal taste than anything else. Internet Explorer may not be the dominant browsing force it once was, but with improved performance and a few handy features, it is well worth a look. Can it regain its once dominant position in the browser market with plus 90 percent share? It certainly has a long way to go from its current position of about 56 percent share, according to recent numbers from Net Applications. But IE9 RC1 is an impressive browser and just might let Microsoft dominate the Web browsing market once more. Like I said, the Borg are back baby, and this time you will be assimilated.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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