6 things we like about Internet Explorer 9 beta (and six not so much)

Since the release of IE9 beta on Sept. 15, we've been playing with the 32-bit Windows Vista and 64-bit Windows 7 versions -- doing nothing technically fancy with them, like benchmarking, but just using them in our everyday Web surfing routine.

Internet Explorer 9: A visual tour

Here are six things about the latest Microsoft Web browser we really like. And six which we think could use some more work before IE9 sees a final release.

Six things we like...

1. Yep,it's really fast

The overall Web experience with IE9 definitely feels "snappier" than previous versions of IE, especially when we tested both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of IE9 on JavaScript-heavy sites such as Facebook and Gmail, and on Flash-based Web destinations including YouTube.

We tried the famous fish tank demo on the 32-bit version of IE9 and on the latest 32-bit Google Chrome beta. On a low-end notebook (a 6-year-old Dell running Vista), Chrome could only render 20 fish at a pitiful 1 frame per second. Barely. IE9? Around 15 to 20 frames per second.

Besides better coding, IE9 incorporates GPU acceleration -- which basically means the browser passes on the heavy-duty processing of such Web animations to your computer's graphics chipset.

2. Sharper looking font

IE9 features a new font set that makes small text easier to read. We found this very obvious when comparing Gmail on IE9 vs. the latest Chrome beta. Not only was the font clearly darker and more legible on IE9, it was subtly narrower, enabling more text to occupy each line.

The font also scaled up, enlarging, quite well.

3. Web address + search bar = convenience

The URL address box pulls double duty as an Internet search box. Type in a word or phrase, and you'll be presented with icons representing the search engines you have selected to be used directly within IE9. Click on a search engine's icon, hit "Enter," and search results from that service will be shown inside the browser window.

We found this way in which IE9 handles multiple search engines quick and convenient.

4. Tear-out tabs

A feature popularized by Chrome, IE9 lets you tear out tabs: you click on a tab, drag it outside the main browser window, let go, and the tab sprouts into a separate running instance of the Web browser.

The opposite of this function also works like the way it does in Chrome. Click and drag a tab, or an entire IE9 browser window, over to another running instance of the browser, and they will merge into one browser, combining their tabs.

This tab tearing and merging works flawlessly in IE9 beta.

5. Add-on alerting

If your installation of IE9 appears to be bogged down with too many or malicious add-ons, the browser will alert you of this upon start up. It will list the add-ons that have been installed, and let you choose which ones you want to shut down or allow to continue running.

We found this security feature surprisingly helpful as a means to audit and prune unnecessary add-ons. You can also imagine the obvious benefit this has for alerting you of any spyware, useless toolbars, or other rogue add-ons you don't remember installing on IE9.

6. Pin-able links

On Windows 7, you can pin links onto the operating system's taskbar, turning them into icons that open the page when clicked. Essentially, this function -- similar to one found in Chrome -- turns a site into a "virtual application."

Six things about IE9 that could use some work...

1. Crowded user interface

To be sure, there is much more screen real estate devoted to displaying a Web page. But this is simply the way IE9 looks under its default setting. Wait until you activate the Favorites bar and Command bar, both of which will take up space below the URL address/tabs bar. In addition, the status bar takes up additional space running along the bottom.

The problem is the combined URL address/tabs bar. Both functions share the same bar. If you keep more than a couple of tabs open at once (which most of us do), the tabs start to narrow and things can become cramped quickly.

Additionally, when you have either the Favorites or Command bar turned on, the graphical design of an active, selected tab doesn't look like it's directly connected to the Web page you're viewing.

2. Wonky color coding

We found the color labeling of tabs to be enigmatic. When we had multiple tabs open, they would sometimes become colored differently, such as light blue, green, violet or yellow, along with shifting gradients of these hues. Even when the pages were fully loaded, these colors remained. What do they represent? Their purpose is not obviously presented, and we shouldn't have to look this information up.

3. The new "dialer" page

IE9 includes a "dialer" page, an idea popularized with Opera. Every blank tab you open shows thumbnails of the 10 sites IE9 deems you tend to visit most. Clicking a thumbnail opens a new tab connecting you to that site.

However, like the color coding system applied to tabs, the additional graphical information shown in this feature is ill-defined. Each thumbnail has a bar below it, and this bar's length is based on the site's supposed status ("very active," "active," and "less active"). Huh? We'll assume this reflects the amount of memory, CPU cycles, or karma points each page uses, but this isn't clearly stated.

Worse, the color of the bar below a thumbnail is meaningless -- it is pulled from one of the colors used for the Web site's favicon and, otherwise, does not appear to convey any important technical information.

4. The new download manager

Although it's clearly an improvement over what's found in previous versions of IE, this new manager doesn't seem to track some file types downloaded with it (particularly, image files).

5. No improvement in editing bookmarks

Putting it bluntly, editing your list of Favorites (i.e. bookmarks) still stinks in IE9 beta. No improvement has been implemented for the way your Favorites list is managed (i.e. renaming, deleting, moving, etc.) in IE9 beta. To be fair, none of the other major browsers present managing your bookmarks in a good way.

We're hoping this is one area that the IE9 developers will address before the browser's final release.

6. No XP for you!

Like all the other cool new toys that Microsoft will soon be releasing (such as Windows Live Essentials 2011), IE9 will not be available for Windows XP.

So for you XP hold-outs, IE8 will be the last browser you ever get from Microsoft.

Howard Wen reports on technology news, trends and products as a frequent contributor to Network World and Computerworld.

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