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Microsoft Internet Explorer 9

  • Category: Software
  • Review Date: 03/14/11
  • Bottom line:

    Microsoft's new browser is faster, trimmer, more compliant with HTML5—a major improvement over its predecessor. It also brings some unique capabilities like tab-pinning and hardward acceleration, but only Windows 7 and Vista users need apply.

  • Pros:

    New JavaScript engine and hardware acceleration mean greatly improved speed. Minimalist interface leaves more room for webpages. Download manager with malware protection. Improved tab function. Many security features. Tracking Protection. Improved standards support. Pinned tabs make sites like apps in Windows 7.

  • Cons:

    Only works in Windows 7 and Vista. Still some occasional site incompatibilities.

Editor Rating:

4.00

By Michael Muchmore

Just a month after Microsoft presented a Release Candidate of the new, completely rebuilt Internet Explorer 9, the company has delivered the final version at this year's SXSW. IE9 is the result of an enormous effort by Microsoft's browser development team (detailed on the IEBlog), and benefited from more beta tester feedback than any previous product from the company. It's a huge advance from the Internet Explorers of the past in terms of speed, trimmed down interface, and HTML5 support. The new browser is available for download at beautyoftheweb.com, but only for users of Windows 7 and Vista. For users of those OSes, it's a highly recommended upgrade, and in time, if graphics-intensive sites become the norm, it may be the best choice of all.

Among all current browsers, Internet Explorer 9 gives the most space to the webpage, with a drastically cropped top-window frame that takes up just 63 pixels, compared with Chrome's 89. Microsoft has also built in the unique new Tracking Protection, which gives users more control than Chrome and Firefox's solutions to this privacy issue. In some performance measures, particularly graphics manipulation tasks, IE9 outperforms all comers. On two out of three JavaScript benchmarks, however, it's bested by both Chrome and Firefox 4. Finally, IE9 tweaks tabs, search, and its unique pinned site capability that places site icons in the Taskbar.

Setup
If you're running the IE9 RC, there's no need to uninstall it: IE9 will replace it, and will become your only version of IE. There are already language versions in Chinese traditional and simplified, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and German in addition to English, with many more presumably to follow. But remember, IE9 only runs on the most recent flavors of Microsoft's operating system—Windows 7 and Vista—and there are separate installers for the two and separate versions for 32-bit and 64-bit editions. After downloading the correct installer, running it takes longer than installing Chrome, Firefox, or Opera (Free, 4 stars), and, also unlike those, it requires a reboot and OS updates.

Once it's installed, you don't have to run through a wizard making choices about search suggestions and other things as you did for IE8 (a simple task all too often not completed), it's just ready to browse—another nice simplification. The first page you'll see in your new browser is the "welcome to a more beautiful web" site, which explains some of IE9's more-prominent new features. It also links to sites that demonstrate these, like Hi5, Rotten Tomatoes, and a game site called Pirates Love Daisies." All good fun, while showing some nifty new Web technologies off.

First Look at the New Browser
IE9's interface hasn't changed from the Release Candidate. The new trimmed-down window header even still has the back arrow button clipped off to give space to the Web page. The tabs are squared off—I prefer the slightly rounded corners of the beta's, but Microsoft reps told me testers wanted more space for tabs, and moving the browser around the screen seemed snappier, though the PCMag.com home page seemed jumpy while I resized its window. The first time you run the new browser, you no longer have to go through a wizard for choosing search suggestions and other options, as you did for IE8—another welcome simplification. The first page you see is the "welcome to a more beautiful Web," which explains and demonstrates some of IE9's new capabilities.

Most pages displayed correctly, but occasionally I saw jumbled text, though this usually corrected itself when I scrolled down and back up on the page. This happened on a PCMag review page. And on one test machine, the browser occasionally just stopped responding, even preventing me from switching tabs. Not long after this, I encountered a "Not Responding" error, with the browser window going dim and the blue doughnut spinning. After IE9 recovered from this, I checked out typing in our Vignette content management Web app, and, as in the beta, the characters appeared with a delay after my typing—something not evidenced by Chrome.

Interface
As mentioned, the interface is nearly identical to that of the IE9 beta. Its minimalist window leaves more room to the webpage contents than any other new browser, keeping controls to a single row and combining the address and search boxes into one. It's not as drastic, however, as Google's reduction of the interface to a single gear icon, and you can still enable IE's menus and toolbars, by right-clicking on the top window border.

Tabs
Microsoft has improved tabs work in IE9, bringing them up to date with the competition's. IE9 lets you drag tabs out of and back into your browser window to create new windows, as other browsers have done for a couple years. It even does a couple cool tricks with dragging tabs to a new window: If you do this while playing a video, the video continues to play as you drag it. Also, when you drag to the left or right edge of the screen in Windows 7, the new browser window created fills exactly half of the screen. This is as it should be—adhering to Aero Snap in Windows 7—but other browsers don't do this.

You can now place IE9's tabs on their own row if you find you're opening too many to fit. The tab with the focus is now brighter, making it stand out. I quite appreciate that I can now close a tab without switching to it, as I can in every other modern browser. But this only works if the window was sized large enough—nearly full screen on a laptop. Since IE crams everything on one row—the address/search box, tabs, and controls—tabs can get mighty narrow. But there's some help for that: arrows appear on either side of the tab bar if you open too many tabs to display in the allotted space.

The new tab page helpfully shows your most frequently visited pages, but you can hide these if you'd rather not have everyone seeing some sites you frequent. The new-tab page also lets you reopen closed tabs or your whole last session, or you can star InPrivate browsing from it. Now there's also a "Discover other sites you might like" icon there and link at the bottom which encourages you to use the Suggested sites feature.

Pinned Sites
Instead of trumpeting its own branding, IE9 gives the site you're visiting center stage. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the new pinned-site feature. By simply dragging a webpage's icon down to the Windows 7 taskbar, you create a pinned site. This gives the site equal billing with an application. This is strongly reminiscent of Google's idea of every app as a Web app. With its pinned sites, IE9 goes further than Chrome in this regard. Chrome does have Web applications shortcuts, but they don't get IE9's OS integration. These include Windows 7 jumplists for sites that supply the necessary XML data in their code.

IE9 pinned sites not only get their own taskbar icons, but their favicon is used where a browser logo would normally be, in the upper left corner of the window, and even the back and forward buttons take on the color of the site icon. The logo and colors for IE9 pinned sites are automatically grabbed by the browser for display in the window border. If you navigate to a different domain, the icon remains the same as the original pinned site, which struck me as a bit disorienting. One final difference for pinned sites is that the Home button disappears from their menu bar.

A recent twist on IE9 pinned sited is that you can now add multiple sites to a pinned-site icon. Just open a new tab, right-click on the site icon, and choose "Add as a home page." Though I think that wording could be clarified and the feature made more obvious, the feature offers a convenient way to open a set of frequently visited sites.

Pinned sites are a big ace-in-the-hole for IE9, at least for Windows 7 users, and site owners can promote their sites for pinned treatment and offer buttons on their pages that pin a site automatically. Chrome's application shortcuts do have the advantage of giving the whole window to the site, but Microsoft's giving full app citizenship to sites is commendable.

The One Box
Internet Explorer team lead Dean Hachamovitch used to criticize Chrome's use of a combined address and search box, citing privacy concerns, but IE9 now has a single text box for addresses and search, too, called the One Box. Hachamovitch told me that IE9's version adds privacy, by letting you turn on an off the autosuggest feature of your search engine at will.

The IE9 One Box doesn't offer Chrome's brilliant Instant feature, which loads previously visited sites before you even finish typing their address, but at least it lets you choose among search providers at the bottom of its dropdown suggestions.

One welcome behavior of the One Box is that after you enter a search and get your result page, the box doesn't switch to a URL, but instead your search terms remain there, in case you want to further refine it. And unlike in the IE9 beta, you can now enter searches like "site:site domain" into the One Box to limit results to a specific site.

Tab isolation and Security, and Privacy
There's still a fairly widespread perception among Web users that IE has security problems, and we do occasionally hear about exploits that need to be plugged. But a report by the NSS Labs showed that IE8's SmartScreen filtering did the best job at thwarting socially engineered malware and phishing attacks (okay, the study was commissioned by Microsoft, but it is an independent lab). On the other hand, at the annual, pwn2own hacking contest, only Chrome wasn't penetrated, thanks to its total sandboxing. IE9 does run plugins in a sandbox, and adds ActiveX filtering for more safety.

Internet 8 started a trend of browsers running tabs in more than one process, to prevent a total browser crash if one bad site acted up. But IE8 bunched 3 or 4 tabs per process, while Chrome actually ran each tab—and each plugin—in its own process. IE9 now gets closer to this extreme: When I had 12 tabs open, there were 9 running processes, so figure two tabs per process and three for plugins.

Microsoft has done more than separate processes for tabs, though. They've added "hang recovery," for when a website script runs on forever, and crash recovery can either restore a bad-acting tab or reload a group of tabs to the last good point if the browser closes. In addition to the download manager's scanning for malware, IE's SmartScreen has been updated to block malicious content even when it's on a good page, such as an externally served malicious advertisement on a legitimate news page.

When it comes to private browsing, Internet Explorer's InPrivate mode is still the only one among popular browsers that by default hides site's activities from other third-party sites. This has been around since IE8, so I'm surprised other browser makers haven't included it (there is a Firefox add-on that allows control over third-party snooping).

Tracking Protection
Microsoft goes even farther towards protecting users from third-party site tracking. The browser's innovative Tracking Protection feature is the company's response to the FCC's call for such a feature. This allows users to block tracking sites (such as DoubleClick) from following your Web surfing history and tracking you. The tracking it protects you from is mostly a technique for Web advertisers to profile you, and this IE9 feature is akin to the "Do Not Call" list aimed at telemarketers.

You can enable the feature explicitly in settings and choose a list provider of sites to block, or have it automatically create a list based on how often a third-party site phones home from different sites you visit. For example, if you go to ten different sites, all of which contain DoubleClick elements, DoubleClick gets added to your personal list. You also have the option to allow these tracking sites, if the idea of targeted advertising appeals to you. This technique requires less buy-in from all sites than Mozilla and Google's anti-tracking initiatives, so I consider it more flexible and comprehensive.

Performance and Compatibility
Speed was the reason so many turned away from Internet Explorer (and Firefox) to Google's Chrome. IE8 trailed Chrome on JavaScript benchmarks by orders of magnitude. IE9 rights that, with top performance among all current browsers on some tests. It also adds speed through its innovative hardware acceleration, which works for more than just 3D graphics. By precompiling JavaScript on a second CPU core, the browser can take performance up a notch.

In one measure of performace that's important to everyone—the time it takes to start up the browser—IE9 has nothing to worry about: I tested the big three browsers on a weak netbook with a 1.66GHz Atom CPU and 1GB RAM running 32-bit Windows 7. After a reboot, IE9 took 3.5 seconds to start up, Chrome's 2.6 took seconds, and Firefox 4 took 6 seconds. Closing and restarting the browser without a reboot took IE9 1.1 seconds, Firefox 2.2 seconds, and Chrome .9 seconds.

IE9 now wins the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, with 246ms on my 2.6GHz dual core laptop, compared with 283 for Google Chrome. Microsoft has been accused of optimizing for this benchmark, but, as we'll see, the browser does well on other JavaScript measures, too (though this is the only one it wins). It would be naïve to think that browser makers don't optimize their engines to do well on these widely cited tests, too. To get the following results, I shut down any unessential processes for three averaged test runs on a Core 2 Duo 2.6GHz Windows 7 (32-bit) laptop with 3GB of DDR2 memory:

Browser SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)
Internet Explorer 9 246
Opera 11 277
Firefox 4 RC 280
Google Chrome 10 283
Safari 5 357
Firefox 3.6 853
Internet Explorer 8 4020

On Firefox maker Mozilla's Kraken, another JavaScript benchmark, IE9's final release makes big improvements over its beta, but Chrome 10 improved even more. Mozilla contends that this benchmark reflects more realistic workloads than the other two JavaScript benchmarks, and it takes quite a bit longer to run.

Browser Mozilla Kraken 1.0 Score in ms
(lower is better)
Firefox 4 RC 6760
Google Chrome 10 8171
Opera 11 12413
Internet Explorer 9 15050
Safari 5 17603
Firefox 3.6 25969

IE9 also shows a huge improvement over IE8 in its performance on Google's V8 benchmark, though it still significantly trails the benchmark maker's browser, and Firefox 4 RC. Google's Chromium blog claims that the benchmark is designed to "capture the areas in which a JavaScript engine has to perform well to support the well-structured, maintainable, and high-performance Web applications of tomorrow." Here are my results on the same machine:

Browser Google V8 (v.6) Score
(higher is better)
Google Chrome 10 8305
Firefox 4 RC 3751
Opera 11 3527
Safari 5 2567
Internet Explorer 9 2360
Firefox 3.6 553
Internet Explorer 8 128

These script speed tests measure just a small piece of performance, though, and in normal browsing, I was hard pressed to see a difference between Chrome, IE, and Firefox 4 RC.

To measure a different kind of performance, Microsoft engineers have authored tests on the IETestdrive site. These demonstrate IE9's graphics hardware acceleration. One I like to use is Psychedelic Browsing, which displays a spinning color wheel while playing spacy sounds and reports a result in RPM. While no one touches IE9, thanks to its DirectX hardware acceleration, Firefox 4 beta does thump Chrome 9, though Firefox doesn't play the sound as the test requires and Chrome does. Here were my results for this test:

Browser Psychedelic Browsing
RPM (higher is better)
Internet Explorer 9 RC 3911 (correct sound)
Firefox 4 RC 2830 (no sound)
Google Chrome 10 98 (correct sound)
Opera 11 82 (no sound)
Safari 5 83 (no sound)
Firefox 3.6 19 (no sound)

One final test of hardware acceleration comes from Mozilla, its Hardware Acceleration Stress test, which spins a spiral of photos in the browser window and reports a score in frames per second. This test showed the two browsers furthest along in implementing hardware acceleration to good advantage (note the benchmark no longer reports frame rates over 60FPS, as that's the limit of standard LCDs):

Browser Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test
FPS (higher is better)
Firefox 4 RC 60+
Internet Explorer 9 RC 60+
Opera 11 17
Google Chrome 10 17
Firefox 3.6 8
Safari 5 3

IE8 wouldn't run the test. The upshot of all this is that IE no longer needs to hang its head when it comes to browsing speed, and in some circumstances it's the fastest choice. Still, for day-to-day browsing, most won't notice a difference between Chrome, Firefox 4 RC, and IE9.

Compatibility
When it comes to supporting new Web standards, IE9 is on the right track. Microsoft has moved more deliberately than other browser makers, often submitting cases to the World Wide Web Consortium before implementing a feature. Support for HTML5, CSS3, Canvas, locataion services, and SVG has made its way into Microsoft's browser, but IE9 still trails Chrome in sheer number of supported emerging Web features.

On the widely cited Acid3 test of adherence to Web standards, IE9 is up to 95 out of a possible 100—remarkable for a browser stuck in the 20s for years—but unchanged from the beta. Microsoft has stated that implementing some Acid3 features would constitute a security risk. It's also worth noting that the Web Standards Project that puts out the test isn't an official standards body, and many have claimed it's an arbitrary set of requirements. Still, it's an interesting metric.

More granular is the HTML5Test, which shows how many HTML5 elements and features a browser supports out of 400. It also notes "bonus" points for features that aren't required parts of HTML5, but are good to have, such as extra video codecs. On this test, Chrome leads all other released browsers, with a score of 288 and 13 bonus points. IE9 ups its game from 96 and 3 bonus points in the beta to 130 and 5, but it still trails most other new browsers.

Browser HTML5Test.com Score (higher is better)Bonus Points
Google Chrome 10 288 13
Firefox 4 RC 240 9
Opera 11 177 7
Safari 5 165 0
Firefox 3.6 139 4
Internet Explorer 9 RC 130 5
Internet Explorer 8 27 0

A truly valid test will be available when the W3C finishes its HTML5 Test Suite, but as of this writing, the organization cautions against quoting that. IE9, so far, is among the top in the test's results, and the site gives an eye-opening look at how much is involved in implementing the new standard.

In real-world site compatibility testing, I found that IE9 worked perfectly in far more sites than the beta did—you have to look high and low to find one that doesn't display correctly. I had no trouble signing into my Citibank, Fidelity, and Omniture accounts. Even our Vignette CMA, which has trouble in just about every browser except IE7, again works perfectly in IE9. But in the new Yahoo Mail site, the built-in slideshow viewer didn't display. There will always be some sites that choke any browser, and this was likely a result of IE9 still being new.

It's Trim, It's Fast, and It's Secured, But Is It For You?
Microsoft reps told me that this browser had been the fastest adopted beta in the company's history and benefited from the most tester feedback by far. This should translate into fewer site-compatibility issues going forward. The browser also offers great speed, security and privacy tools, and support for much of HTML5's glories.

Though this is called version 9 of IE, in some ways it feels more like a version 1: it's a complete rebuild of Microsoft's browser. It still lacks some conveniences and frills found in other browsers, like themes and bookmark syncing. Some of these may come, but Microsoft may consider those features to be "the browser getting in the way."

IE9 is the result of a massive effort by a large team of super smart people, and huge number of beta testers. And it's an impressive, innovative app that I'm sure will come to benefit millions of Web users, especially once graphics-heavy sites are common. It's a no-brainer for those using IE8 on Windows 7 or Vista. Google Chrome 10 is my Editors' Choice among Web browsers, because it adds nifty tricks like Instant page display and syncing to already blazing speed and minimalist design—and brings that stuff to every currently popular operating system, including Windows XP.

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