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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HTML 5 and compatibility

IE9 displayed pages without problems on all the pages I normally visited in my Web browsing, with one exception -- it did not properly display the Google Tasks widget on my iGoogle home page.

Microsoft claims that IE9 offers extensive support for HTML 5 and other Web standards. It scored a 95 on the Acid3 test, which shows how well a browser adheres to several sets of Web standards, notably those related to JavaScript and the Document Object Model. In the first developer preview, IE9 rated only a 55, so Microsoft has made significant improvements.

On the same test, Firefox Beta 4 scored a 97, Safari scored 100, and Opera scored 100. Chrome also scored 100 --- except that on some systems it does not render the boxes and colors at all.

Better handling of downloads

IE9 also introduces a useful downloads manager that keeps track of your downloaded files, and lets you search them by file name.

Even more important is a planned change to the SmartScreen Filter. Designed to prevent users from visiting phishing sites, the SmartScreen Filter now includes a "download reputation" feature to protect against malicious files.

When you download a file in IE9, the SmartScreen Filter will examine the file's reputation -- that is, whether it has been downloaded by many other people and, if so, whether those people have found the file to be safe or malicious. If a file is safe, you download the file as you normally would. But if the file has a reputation of being malicious, or whether it is so new that it has no reputation at all, you'll get a warning. It's then up to you whether you want to download it.

Given that anti-malware programs already check downloaded files to see whether they are malicious, why bother with this feature? Because it's designed to protect people against malicious files that are so new that anti-malware programs have not yet had a chance to recognize them.

Note that the feature has not yet been enabled. When Microsoft decides it has gathered enough data about the best way to use the reputation model, it will turn the feature on.

IE9

A useful downloads manager keeps track of your downloaded files and lets you search them by name.

Click to view larger image.

The bottom line

With IE9, Microsoft has fixed one of Internet Explorer's biggest drawbacks -- speed. IE9 also has a stripped-down interface that puts Web content center stage, and it has plenty of nice extras, such as the Address Bar now doubling as a search bar. The Windows 7 pinned site feature is certainly nice and could be useful, but it's not absolutely vital.

Those who use many add-ons will still favor Firefox over IE9, because IE9 simply doesn't have nearly the same number of add-ons that Firefox has. But the IE9 feature that warns about add-ons that drag down browser performance is a nice tool that Firefox should consider adding.

IE9 doesn't have a new killer feature like Firefox's tab-organizing Panorama. Still, given the new speed and the simpler, stripped-down interface, it represents a big improvement over IE8. And it puts IE back as a major competitor in the browser wars.

Internet Explorer 9 is available for public download at www.beautyoftheweb.com.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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