First look at Microsoft Internet Explorer 9

Microsoft's IE9 provides a browsing experience that even Chrome and Firefox users may find compelling.

It's no secret Microsoft's browser lost ground as savvy Internet users ditched Internet Explorer for the faster, more modern Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. But Microsoft has a real competitor once again with IE9, released at midnight Monday night on Windows 7 and Vista after several months of beta testing. The focus is on speed, privacy and simplicity, with a stripped-down interface, tracking protection, pinned sites, jump lists and enhanced support for HTML5.

Related slideshows: First look at Chrome 10

Retro browser smackdown: IE6 vs Netscape in 2011

A Windows error message? How about that

My first attempt to update to the stable release of IE9, naturally, was met with a Windows error message. But the problem fixed itself within about 15 seconds and I was ready to go.

Improved interface

Taking a page from Google Chrome, Microsoft has ripped the clutter out of IE9's interface, leaving more room for browsing. To add space for Web pages, Microsoft put the URL/search bar and the tabs in the same row. But users who prefer extra room for tabs can switch to a more Chrome-like interface in which the tabs and URL occupy separate levels. To make that change, or to add a menu bar and favorites bar, simply right-click near the URL bar to bring up a menu.

Microsoft brags about HTML5…

Like all major browser vendors, Microsoft is boasting support for HTML5 video and other media, even though the HTML5 specification is still several years from final approval. Microsoft claims hardware acceleration puts it ahead of the competition, and has set up numerous demos, including this Bejeweled-like tile switch game, to show off IE9's HTML5 chops.

… but falls short on HTML5 test

IE9 scored 135 out of 400 on a test to determine support for the HTML5 standard. On my Windows 7 computer, Firefox scored 159 and Chrome led the way with 301. Caveat: The test seems to indicate what percentage of HTML5 features each browser supports, but not the functionality of each supported feature. The test does not cover all HTML5 features, either.

JavaScript benchmarks

JavaScript benchmarks

IE9 scored 477 on this JavaScript benchmark, well short of the 811 score posted by Chrome 10. The stable version of Firefox scored only 166. IE9 did better on the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark by WebKit, scoring a little better than Chrome and heads and shoulders above Firefox.

Privacy: Do not track

Privacy: Do not track

IE9's tracking protection is like a "do-not-call" list, letting users control whether third-party site content can track them online. "Many webpages include content from other (third-party) websites," Microsoft says. "When content is loaded from a third-party site, standard information, including your IP address and the address of the webpage you're viewing is sent to each of the third-parties that have content in the page you're viewing."  This is an opt-in service letting users subscribe to tracking protection lists, which block page elements from third-party sites, preventing those third parties from tracking you online.

InPrivate browsing

InPrivate browsing

While tracking protection prevents Web site operators from collecting information about you, InPrivate browsing prevents Internet Explorer itself from storing data about your Web surfing habits, including browsing history, temporary Internet files, usernames, passwords and cookies. "InPrivate Browsing prevents Internet Explorer from storing data about your browsing session," Microsoft says. "This helps prevent anyone else who might be using your computer from seeing where you visited and what you looked at on the web." InPrivate browsing has been around since IE8 but remains a key privacy tool for users in IE9.

ActiveX Filtering

ActiveX Filtering

Web sites are loaded with ActiveX controls, browser plugins often written by third parties to enhance a page. But such controls may "display content that you don't want to see," and "introduce performance, reliability, security or privacy issues while browsing," Microsoft says. Microsoft's solution is ActiveX Filtering, which, when enabled, prevents sites from running ActiveX controls except when the user specifically grants permission to the site. The feature could be cumbersome, because users have to turn off filtering on a site-by-site basis when they encounter sites with ActiveX content they want to view.

Pinned sites and jump lists

Pinned sites and jump lists

A nice example of how IE9 integrates with a Windows desktop can be seen in pinned sites and jump lists. Users can pin a site to the taskbar at the bottom of their desktops, just like they can with an application. Right-clicking on the pinned site brings up a list of possible actions or portions of the Web site to navigate to. The Amazon.com jump list, for example, provides quick links to best sellers, new releases, or personal account management tasks like viewing your cart or checking order status.

Developers developers developers!

As always, Microsoft is all about developers. If you're a Web developer looking to build sites for IE9, make sure to check out Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 Guide for Developers.

Related slideshows:

First look at Chrome 10

Retro browser smackdown: IE6 vs Netscape in 2011