Internet Explorer 9 beta strips down for speed

Microsoft's latest version of its upcoming IE9 browser may finally be competitive.

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IE9 has turned that around in dramatic fashion, using hardware acceleration and a new JavaScript engine it calls Chakra, which compiles scripts in the background and uses multiple processor cores. In this beta, my tests show it overtaking Firefox for speed and putting up a respectable showing against Safari, Opera and Chrome.

On my machine, IE9 completed the SunSpider benchmark in an average time of 432 milliseconds, faster than Firefox 4 Beta 4, which completed the test in 535ms. IE9 still lagged behind Safari, which completed the benchmark in 387ms, Opera (343ms) and Chrome (322ms).

IE9

In this beta, my tests show IE9 overtaking Firefox for speed and putting up a respectable showing against Safari, Opera and Chrome.

Click to view larger image.

With this beta, sluggishness is no longer a reason to avoid IE; not only does it outdo Firefox, but it's also close enough to the leaders so that it's now a reasonably speedy browser.

IE9 also uses hardware-accelerated graphics and video. The only other browser to do this currently is the Firefox 4 beta. (The developer version of Chrome 7 features hardware acceleration, so that it appears to be in the works for that browser.) If you go to Microsoft's IE9 Test Drive site, you'll find a variety of tests that Microsoft built to test the speed and compatibility of its browser. (Of course, it should be no surprise that IE9 significantly outperforms Firefox 4 beta on them, given that Microsoft built the tests.)

Integration with Windows 7

IE9 offers some features for Windows 7 users that aren't available to those who use it in Windows Vista. The most compelling of these is the ability to "pin" a Web site to the taskbar by visiting the site and dragging its URL to the taskbar. The site's icon then appears in the taskbar; you only need to click that icon to launch IE9 and visit the site.

At that point, your browser will appear to be branded by the site: IE9 will automatically color the forward and back buttons with the colors of the pinned site and will display the Web site's icon on the upper left of the browser. Web developers do not have to do any programming to accomplish this; IE 9 does it automatically.

At first, this doesn't seem as if it's particularly important; after all, you can always visit those sites by typing in their URL, or visiting them from your Favorites list. But in a world in which Web sites are becoming applications, it puts all of your Web-based apps within easy reach.

In addition, Web developers can use Windows 7's Jump List to add site navigation and additional features to the pinned icon. When you right-click on an application's icon, you can choose from a variety of options -- such as music controls on a media player. With IE9, Web site developers can, for example, put navigation on a pinned site's Jump List, so that you could immediately visit the sports section of a news site by clicking it in the site's pinned Jump List.

IE9

The most compelling Windows 7 feature is the ability to "pin" a Web site to the taskbar.

Click to view larger image.

Microsoft has somewhat of a problematic history getting Web sites to develop special features. In IE8, the company introduced Web Slices -- which allows you to get "slices" of Web pages delivered to the browser -- but few sites ever built them. So it's not clear at this point if developers will flock to use the IE9 Jump list capabilities.

By the way, one downside to pinning a Web site is that the pinned site launches its own browser instance rather than appending itself as a tab to your already-open browser. So if you run several pinned tab sites, you'll have to switch from browser instance to browser instance, rather than switching from tab to tab.

IE9 includes another small extra for Windows 7 users: It makes use of Window's Snap feature for individual tabs. So if you tear a tab away from the browser and drag it to the side of the screen, it automatically resizes the tab, which is now in its own window, to fill half the screen.

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