Internet Explorer has had a long and successful journey. Despite being outclassed by other browsers in almost every aspect it continues to dominate the browser market. It is able to do this simply because it was being shipped by default along with the most popular operating system in the world.
It would be wrong to say that Microsoft has been sitting on its laurels and doing nothing about improving their browser and bringing it up to speed with other browsers and more importantly, web standards. However, it seemed they either did not care much about the browser or the people using it, as the last couple of updates have mostly been cosmetic with nothing major been done with respect to performance. For those enlightened few, Internet Explorer has always been the browser used to download other, better browsers when you first buy your computer or re-install Windows.
But with Internet Explorer 9, things have always seemed different from the start. It seems that the software giant has finally woken up and has decided to do something significant about its browser. Whether it was the slowly decreasing market share or the fact that it finally got fed up of all the IE jokes, but Microsoft is finally taking significant steps in making this next version of their web browser not just better than the one that came before it, but also better than what the others have to offer.
After a series of developer previews and a beta, Microsoft recently released the release candidate of Internet Explorer 9. So we decided to take it for a spin and see just how much better is this new version and more importantly, if it is on par with what Mozilla, Google, Apple and Opera has to offer.
Microsoft claims that Internet Explorer 9 has the least amount of UI chrome of any web browser out there and they really do deliver on that front. Internet Explorer 9 by far has the slickest and most minimalistic interface of any web browser we have seen. It is because of a combination of several UI changes that were first demonstrated by Google Chrome. It gets rid of the menu bar altogether and instead places the menu options in a concentrated menu on the right.
Internet Explorer 9, however, goes one step ahead of Chrome and places the tab bar in the same row as the address/search bar, thus saving an extra row. This does have its disadvantages, which are quickly apparent when the tabs start piling on but those who indulge only in light browsing won't really be bothered by them.
One good thing about the release candidate is that it allows you to place the tabs in a separate row below the address bar. We noticed that while the browser UI doesn't look nearly as attractive once you do that, it feels less cramped if you happen to have a lot of tabs open all the time.
Microsoft has also removed the status bar from the bottom, although it can be enabled from the menu. Instead you get a floating status bar like the one in Chrome, the displays the URL when you hover over a link.
The new tab page in Internet Explorer 9 now shows the most visited sites, just like in Chrome and Safari. Unfortunately, you cannot pin sites the way you can in either of the browser nor can you add your own sites the way you can in Opera. You can hide the sites but then you get ten empty windows - which looks weird. There is a suggested sites feature which, when enabled, shows you sites that you might like based on your browsing history. You can also reopen last session instantly or activate the InPrivate browsing mode, which first debuted with Internet Explorer 8.
Unfortunately, even though the tab page is pretty good, you cannot set it appear when you start the browser. For some odd reason, the first page can only be the homepage, which you can leave blank if you like. It would be nice to have the most visited sites when you start the browser.
Above the shiny exterior of the new Internet Explorer 9, if you dig down to the settings menu, you would notice that it has hardly changed since Internet Explorer 6. There isn't anything terribly wrong with it, but since they have changed every other aspect of the UI, a new settings menu would have been welcome as well. Even the right control menu is the same, which still has the "Open" on top, which is unnecessary as you could easily just left click the link instead of right clicking and then selecting Open.
Internet Explorer 9 brings a host of new features to the table. One of the biggest is hardware acceleration of multimedia content. This means that Internet Explorer 9 can now use the GPU to accelerate content such as videos, 3D graphics rendering. This cuts down the strain on the CPU, leaving it free to do other tasks. A similar feature can be found in the upcoming Firefox 4 and Chrome 10 as well.
The other major addition is the improved HTML5 video and audio tag support. If a web developer chooses to have HTML5 video/audio tags to embed content on the web page instead of the Flash then Internet Explorer 9 should have no problem playing them back, provided the audio/video content is in a format that it understands. Internet Explorer 9 currently supports only H.264 video codec and MP3 and AC audio formats.
We particularly liked the new address bar, which can be used to search as well. The default search engine is Bing, but we chose to use Google as it worked better. When you select Google as the search provider, you can just type the name of the website and then the browser search for it on Google and automatically take you to the first link. This is similar to what happens if you select the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button on Google.com, however, it only works if you put in the name of a website and not if put in random text, in which case it just opens Google's search page. If you select Bing, however, all it does it search for it on Bing and then you have to manually select the first link.
Another addition is the presence of Aero Snap for the tabs. It's not too different from what you do on other browsers. All it does is add a cool looking effect to the mundane task of pulling tabs out of a window or placing them back. Internet Explorer 9 also groups tabs that originate out of a single tab with the same color, a feature which it picked up with Internet Explorer 8. It's a useful feature that makes switching between tabs easier.
A new feature in Internet Explorer 9 is the ability to pin tabs to Windows 7 s taskbar. To pin a tab, you have to drag it out of the window and over the taskbar. Apart from letting you quickly access your website, this feature also has another cool function. Websites can add additional functionality to the pinned tab in the taskbar that can be accessed by right clicking it. So Facebook, for example, shows options such as News, Messages, Events and Friends and clicking those launches the browser and opens that section of the website. Similarly, Twitter has functions such as New Tweet, Mentions, Direct Messages, etc. Some of the other websites that have this functionality right now are Amazon and IMDb. You will notice that in pinned tabs the browser controls take the color of the website, which means on IMDb they would turn yellow and red in Gmail Developers can easily have this functionality for their websites; although it remains to be seen how often people use this function. Since out browsers are always open, we rarely had to.
Every tab in Internet Explorer 9 runs its own process on the OS, which means if one tab crashes it won't bring down the entire browser. This feature was first introduced by Chrome and is slowly trickling down to other browsers. One disadvantage of this is that the browser takes up more RAM, thanks to the multiple processes it runs.
Internet Explorer 9 also has a new download manager, which was a long overdue feature. It finally shows you multiple downloads and now in the Release Candidate the speed of the downloads without you having to hover over the downloading file. One thing we noticed about it is that it keeps asking you every time you wish to download something. Other browsers let you mark a particular type of file as safe and after that the browser won't ask before downloading. We hope Microsoft adds this functionality in the final version, because frankly it can get on your nerves if you are downloading several files.
One area where Internet Explorer 9 lags considerably behind the other browsers is in add-on or extension support. Although it does support add-ons, there are a few to choose from right now. In comparison, browsers like Firefox and Chrome have thousands and even Safari has more than you'll ever need. Opera recently joined the add-on party but somehow did not see the same enthusiasm from the developers for creating new add-ons for it.
Before we get on with the benchmarks, we must say that we are generally very impressed with the way Internet Explorer 9 performs. The biggest reason for this is speed, which is on par with the best that the other browsers have to offer. Even scrolling is smooth, thanks to the hardware acceleration, which reduces the strain on the CPU. Those coming from an older version of Internet Explorer will be greatly impressed with how much it has progressed over the years.
We did face some trouble with certain websites, where the content wasn't displayed in the correct order. We also had severe issues when working with the CMS of our website, which we never faced with other browsers. At times websites used to stop responding and this was a recurring problem with some of them. Because of these things we were vary of using the browser for doing important stuff, such as online shopping, in case things don't work out well. Some of the issues were just bugs, which would no doubt get sorted out in the final version. Others felt more like something that will continue to stay for a while.
Internet Explorer 9 uses DirectWrite for rendering the text using hardware acceleration. The text looks slightly different than it did in previous versions of Internet Explorer or in other browsers. It s a lot smoother than, say, that in Firefox 3, Opera or Chrome but not as much as in Safari. Also, it only works well with larger fonts, which look really nice but makes smaller fonts look fuzzy, unlike in Safari. The upcoming Firefox 4 suffers from a similar problem, although it is much worse in its case.
As you can see in the benchmarks below, Internet Explorer 9 also came last in most of the benchmarks that we performed. The most surprising one of the lot was the HTML5 Test, in which Internet Explorer 9 performed quite poorly, despite Microsoft boasting otherwise. We compared it against the latest stable versions of all the other major browsers. We wanted to include Firefox 4 but for some reason it wasn't working so well and was stuttering badly, so we had to remove it from the test. Internet Explorer 8 failed to work with many of the tests, so we had to remove that as well.
The benchmarks were run on an Asus G73Jw Notebook, running on a 1.73GHz Intel Core i7 Q740 CPU, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460M GPU, 8GB RAM and Windows 7 Ultimate 64-Bit.
Peacekeeper Scores (Higher values are better)
Sunspider Scores (Lower values are better)
V8 Benchmark Suite (Higher values are better)
HTML5test.com Scores (Higher values are better)