Digg If you're anything like us, as soon as you get a new PC there's a laundry list of things you do: uninstall every piece of crapware, change the desktop wallpaper, and fire up Internet Explorer 8 to download a new browser like Firefox or Chrome. Without fail, we've repeated that last step on every Windows laptop we've reviewed in the last year. Why is it that we almost instantly replace IE with another option? There are lots of reasons, but to name a few... the browser usually comes plastered with toolbars, which makes it painfully slow to load even just a simple news site. And even when those are uninstalled it feels sluggish in comparison to Firefox and Chrome. Also, it's just not as attractive or intuitive as the others. Oh, and then there are the smaller items, like the fact that it lacks a download manager or uses more RAM than the competition.

That's no short list of complaints, but you can't say Microsoft hasn't been listening. It's been saying for months that Internet Explorer 9 -- which is now available for download as a public beta -- will mend all those issues and then some. A lot of the improvements come in speed -- Redmond's been talking about hardware acceleration since November of last year -- but there are some other interesting features such as "Pinned Sites" and "One Box" that Microsoft's been less vocal about. So, does IE9 live up to the hype and will it finally give us a preloaded browser that's fast enough to run with the others? Should you run along and download it right now? We've spent the last week using it as our primary browser on a number of different laptops to find out. We'll meet again in our full review after the break.
Gallery | 17 Photos

IE9 screenshots

Microsoft

Internet Explorer 9 Beta

Pros

  • Extremely clean interface
  • Much faster than previous version
  • Can pin websites to taskbar, other new features

Cons

  • Still not as fast as Chrome for everyday browsing
  • Only available for Windows Vista and Win 7
  • Beta build failed to install on one test system
Summary



Design and user interface

"Unlocking the beauty of the Web." That's Microsoft's new tag line for Internet Explorer 9, and while it's marketing jargon at its best, we understand what Redmond's getting at. The company's finally realized that, you know, web surfers want to see more web -- i.e., less browser and ugly toolbars. And as you can tell from the screenshot above it's done quite a bit of cleaning up with a new minimalist design that truly focuses on the content. Actually, Microsoft claims with the new design more of a web page can be seen than in Firefox and we were able to confirm that – even if it's only by a few centimeters. It appears that Chrome actually allows you to see a bit more of a page, but honestly the difference in space really seems insignificant to us.

Most of the layout changes should be pretty obvious: the menu bar has been removed and the navigation controls / address bar are now at the forefront. We don't need to tell you that it looks a lot like Chrome – our guess is that Google's not exactly flattered by that since we're actually feeling the look of IE9 more than the cartoony aesthetic of Chrome, but we realize that's a personal preference. The compatibility view, refresh and stop buttons have been just latched on to the address bar and there are dedicated favorite and tools buttons on the far right side.

There are some other neat aesthetic additions worth mentioning. Our favorite is the changing color of the backwards and forwards button to match the rest of the site. For instance, when you launch Gmail, it takes a few seconds for the buttons to turn to red. With its glass frame and translucent windows, IE9 really matches the look of Windows 7, and we really see nothing wrong with that.

New features

Microsoft may have tidied up a lot, but IE9 is actually stuffed up with new features. There are a number of new options that make surfing easier, and a few that help integrate browsing better into Windows 7 or, dare we say, Vista (the browser isn't going to be compatible with XP, as that guy's headed to the grave). Below are a few of the new features and our impressions of each of them.
  • Pinned Sites -- This isn't one of the most obvious new features of IE9, but it may just be our favorite. If you're anything like us, you keep the same web applications open all day – Gmail, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook – but mistakenly close them when they are lumped together with a bunch of other sites. IE9 lets you separate out those sites and lock them right to the Windows Taskbar. You drag a site to the bar, and when pinned it pulls the favicon so it looks like it's actually a separate program. Some sites will also support jump lists, which is the list of shortcuts that appears when you left right click the icons. For instance, we pinned Twitter to our Taskbar and could jump straight to our Direct Mentions, Mentions, etc. We're hoping more sites build in this functionality -- it's really a neat trick.
  • One Box – The address bar in IE9 still doubles as a search field, but it now has more capabilities. The default search engine is obviously Bing, but you can install Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, Facebook and lots of others through the Add-On page. We're actually becoming bigger fans of Bing by the day, and keeping it as the default search engine has its advantages: typing in terms like "Weather NYC" brought up the temperature and conditions inline, and typing a name like "Hillary Clinton" an image of our lovely Secretary of State. The bar also displays history results.
  • Tab functionality – Tabs aren't new to Internet Explorer, but Microsoft's added a few new tricks. They're really easy to snap out of place now, and even if you're doing something like playing a video in YouTube, detaching it doesn't lose your place as content is continuously rendered. Like Chrome, there's now the ability to just shut down one tab when a website starts to hang.Instead of having to shut down the entire browser, you can go into the task manager and just kill that particular tab. The new tab page shows frequently visited sites along with a meter of how actively you visit them. Shocker: Engadget is our most visited site.
  • Download manager – Can we get a loud "finally" on this one!? Yes, IE9 adds a real download manager that lets you see what you've recently downloaded as well as see the progress of a current download. Our program downloads appeared in the manager, but oddly a picture download didn't. It also has a SmartScreen Filter, as it's been dubbed, that alerts you to security issues. Alerts appear within the browser window now rather than as a pop-up.

Performance and more performance

Anecdotal experience

All those additions make IE9 easier to use than ever, but as Microsoft's been telling us for quite awhile, it's also faster than ever. We've been hearing for months about IE9's HTML5 video support, the new "Chakra" JavaScript engine, support for new-fangled web technologies like CSS3 and SVG2, and its GPU acceleration – but is it really all that much faster?

Based on our experiences using the browser over the last week, our answer is a definite "yes." First of all, we can't tell you enough how much of a difference the new "Add-on Performance Advisor" tool makes. You remember how we mentioned all those PC manufacturers that preload IE with toolbars and thus slow down the browser? Well, the first time you boot up IE9 a small notification appears on the bottom asking if you'd like to "speed up browsing and startup" by disabling them all. It's like a miracle come true: you don't have to go searching to disable them and it tells you how much time each of them adds to the browser start-up time.

Beyond that though, Microsoft has also sped up the start-up time of the browser. On the Alienware M11x it took 9.2 seconds to open a clean version (no toolbars or add-ons) of IE8 and Google.com after a cold boot, while conversely it took only 8.7 seconds to open IE9. That's definitely an improvement, but as you can see in the chart below, it still took Firefox and Chrome less time to open the same page. We should note that these are by no means "scientific" tests – it's just us opening the program and timing it with a stopwatch application. We did repeat the test three times in each browser, each after a system restart, and average the speeds.

Open browser / Google.com
IE8 9.2 seconds
IE9 8.72 seconds
Firefox 3.6 6.13 seconds
Chrome 6.0.4 3.59 seconds

How about actual browsing? That also feels snappier. We're not sure page load times really illustrate the speed all that well, though we have some of those in the chart below, but the browser just feels less laggy than IE8 when working with lots of tabs open. Using it to simultaneously write posts, listen to music in Pandora, chat in Meebo, manage our RSS feeds and check two Gmail accounts we found it to be a heck of a lot more responsive than IE8 ever was. We also had no issues with page compatibly – sites like Meebo, Hulu, Flickr, Picasa and Netflix loaded perfectly. There's a compatibility button, but we didn't reach for it once. Does it feel faster than Firefox 3.6 and Chrome 6? Honestly, in our everyday experience it feels very comparable in speed to Firefox, but Chrome still feels a hair faster -- at least at loading sites.


NYTimes.com
MSNBC.com Hulu.com YouTube.com
IE9 5.48 seconds
6.36 4.59 6.08
Firefox 3.6 6.33 seconds 9.98 5.97 6.06
Chrome 6.0.4 6.41 seconds 5.18 3.89 5.62

We also want to note that using IE9 didn't slow down the rest of our system and it didn't hog much more memory than other browsers. On the M11x, it used about 124,680K with four tabs open (Pandora, Firefox, Gmail and Engadget). Firefox 3.6 used 101,180K with the same tabs open, and Chrome 136,768K.

Benchmarks

Our impressions above are based on our last week with the browser, and are far more anecdotal than scientific. For the more concrete stuff, we've got benchmarks! Anyone can run these in-browser benchmarks and we'd love to hear some of your results, but we figured it was valuable to provide some of the numbers and test the top browsers on different types of laptops. As you'll see in the charts below, IE9 bested Firefox 3.6 in lots of the tests, but Chrome still won out in them all. We also threw Firefox 4 Beta 5 into the mold for a few of them.

A quick note on the test systems. We thought it best to try these out the browsers on a range of laptops (sorry, we didn't have any new desktops around!) The Alienware M11x we used packed an 1.06Hz Core i5 520UM processor, 2GB of RAM and 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 335M GPU. The ASUS Eee PC 1215N had an Intel Atom D525 CPU, 1GB of RAM and NVIDIA Ion graphics. The HP Envy 17 is obviously the powerhouse of the bunch -- it has a 1.6GHz Core i7 Q720 processor, 6GB of RAM, and 1GB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5850 graphics.

SunSpider JavaScript – This benchmark tests JavaScript. The lower the score the better.


Acid3 – This one also tests JavaScript as well as DOM – it's really about standards-compatibility. Of course, the goal is for the browser to hit 100. Only Chrome hit the 100 mark, though IE9 did score an impressive 95 across all systems.

ASUS Eee PC 1215N Alienware M11x
HP Envy 17
IE9 95 95 95
Chrome 6.0.4 100
95 100
Firefox 3.6.9 94 94 94
Firefox 4 Beta 5 97 97 97


PeaceKeeper – This benchmark runs a script modeled on real world usage and tests JavaScript. Higher is better here!

GPU Acceleration, HTML 5 performance

What doesn't really come through in those benchmarks is the browser's hardware accelerated graphics. Microsoft's designed the browser to take advantage of the GPU in graphics intensive situations, and we obviously jumped at the chance to test the browser out on a few laptops with discrete GPUs. There isn't all that much in terms of graphics-heavy HTML5 sites at this point in time and Flash 10.1 already relies on the GPU, but we did try Microsoft's Test Drive suite of sites in a number of different browsers.

The JavaScript-based Amazon Shelf demo, which you can check out in the video below, is pretty stunning; on the M11x with the GPU activated, the demo ran at 60fps (about 55fps when we turned a page in a book). With the GPU off, the experience was a bit more sluggish – it ran at 16fps and 9fps when turning a page. We should mention here that NVIDIA's Optimus had IE9 defaulting to always having the GPU turned on. NVIDIA is working with Microsoft to customize what activates the GPU specifically. How does that Amazon Shelf demo work in other browsers? Both Chrome 6.0.4 and Firefox 3.6 don't take advantage of the GPU, so even when it was turned on it notched 6fps. The results were much better in Firefox 4 Beta 5 which is optimized for GPU acceleration -- it hit the 60fps mark as you can see in the video. Microsoft is claiming that it's only game in town with true hardware acceleration, but our anecdotal experience shows that Firefox can handle graphics just as well by leaning on the GPU.

Those demos clearly show the potential of hardware acceleration or as Microsoft would say "unlocking the web," but they aren't exactly grounded in real world experiences. The HTML5 graphics / video tests are a bit more true to everyday experiences. HTML 5-based video on an IMDb test site played back smoothly in IE9, Firefox 4 (in 3.6 it said we didn't support the H.624 codec), and Chrome 6.0.4 regardless if the GPU was turned on or off. The same goes for Flash content.

Wrap-up

We've hit you with a lot of information here, but at the end of the day our main question remains: do we need to continue to download Chrome or Firefox every time we get a new PC? Our answer: it's certainly not mandatory anymore, or at least it shouldn't be by the time IE9 is ready to ship with new PCs. The interface is attractive and clean, the new features robust and the speed greatly improved. Microsoft has sped up and cleaned up Internet Explorer 9 to a point where it's not only usable, but actually a real pleasure to use.

Is it worth running to download right this second, and will it replace Chrome or Firefox on your desktop? That's really up to you. We'd suggest testing it out – what's there to lose, right? (We should note we couldn't get it to install properly on a Gateway ID laptop and had to do a system restore to get IE8 back correctly.) We still find Chrome to be a faster browser and those seeking just raw speed will probably be happier with Google's product, but now with IE9's improved feature set and interface it's ultimately going to come down to personal preferences.

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Internet Explorer 9 Beta review