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Internet Explorer 9 Beta Review: Does Microsoft Deliver?

Internet Explorer 9
It's no secret that Internet Explorer has been the lame duck of the browser market since Firefox landed on the scene. One of the first things most tech-savvy people do with new PCs is install Google Chrome or The Fox, and with good reason. Though IE7 and IE8 did a lot to modernize the look and basic feature set of the default Windows browser, the truth is that, under the hood, it still couldn't compete with the other entrants in the market. But, with today's much-hyped release of IE9, Microsoft is promising to offer a serious contender in the browser market for the first time since Netscape was a household name.

Read on to find out whether or not the crew in Redmond succeeded in putting together a compellingly modern browser that can stand its ground with the competition.

The Interface

The New Interface
With version 9, Microsoft's browser has been seriously streamlined, and finally starts looking like an application that belongs on modern PCs. The condensed top bar, which squeezes the OneBox (more below), tabs and navigation buttons into a single row, is a welcome change that lets you see more of a website. With all the user interface elements smashed together, you might think IE9 would feel cramped, but it doesn't. If you're the sort of person who often has two dozen or more tabs open, it might get cumbersome, but, for less intense use, it's perfectly comfortable. Users will also notice that the oversized back button now changes color to match the site displayed (e.g., blue on most Microsoft pages). Functionally, the feature doesn't add much, but it's a slick-looking touch that makes IE9 stand out from the crowd.

OneBox

OneBox
OneBox is Microsoft's answer to Chrome's Omnibar and Firefox's Awesome Bar. From here, you navigate directly to a site, search Bing, Google and other services, and pull sites from your history and bookmarks. In our brief testing, it's not as intuitive as the Omnibar, nor is it as smart and powerful as the Awesome Bar (one of the features that keeps us coming back to Firefox). Still, the in-line search previews from Bing are impressive. For example, type "Weather NYC," and you'll get the current conditions.

Pinned Shortcuts

eBay Jumplist
Perhaps the most exciting feature in the newest IE is Pinned Shortcuts. Drag the favicon from the OneBox to your taskbar, and Windows will treat that site as if it were its own application. Clicking on the shortcut will launch the page in its own browser window. Some sites even support integration with Windows 7 jumplists, making them feel more like proper applications than glorified bookmarks. Our one complaint is that, unlike Chrome and its application shortcuts, IE doesn't strip away the rest of the browser interface. You'll still have access to the address bar and tabs, something we'd gladly swap for additional room in a single-site browser.

Speed and Standards

GPU Accelerated Rendering
The big news about IE9 was that it would finally be competitive in terms of speed and standards support, and we've got to admit that we're impressed. IE9 doesn't feel quite as snappy as Chrome or the latest beta of Firefox 4 (although, in our unscientific tests, it did best Firefox 3.6), but it's not far behind. Most sites we visited loaded quickly and responded without any hiccups. The new browser also scores an impressive 95 out of 100 on the Acid3 standards test, which should mean fewer inconsistencies when viewing a site alongside different browsers. Unfortunately, though, IE still doesn't support drag-and-drop attachments in Gmail. Bummer.

IE9 also adds GPU-accelerated rendering to the browser. At the moment, this is only minimally useful, but it will eventually enable better video playback and high-quality 3-D graphics on the Web. Right now, IE is the only browser with this feature, although Firefox 4 does plan to support it. Sadly, GPU-accelerated browsing will be Windows-only for the foreseeable future.

Is it worth the upgrade?

Has Microsoft finally released a browser that can actually stand up to the competition? In short, yes. Right now, the choice between IE9, Chrome 6 and Firefox 3.6 is really one of personal taste. If you're an add-on junkie, you'll still want to go with Firefox. And, if you absolutely must have the fastest browser on Earth, Chrome is the way for you But the tight integration with Windows 7 and support for graphics acceleration makes IE9 quite attractive for PC users. After years of complacency, it looks like the IE team has finally decided to start fighting back in the browser wars.

Grab the Internet Explorer 9 beta here.

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