File Under: Browsers

Internet Explorer 9 Arrives With More Speed, Better Web Standards Support

IE9 running on Windows 7

Microsoft has released Internet Explorer 9, the first major update for Microsoft’s browser in nearly two years. Internet Explorer 9 is a huge leap forward for the IE line, bringing much-needed web standards support, better performance and hardware acceleration for faster graphics and animations on supported PCs.

To upgrade Internet Explorer, download IE9 from Microsoft. Only Windows 7 and Vista are supported, as IE9 will not work with Windows XP — not surprising, but a bummer for those on XP notebooks, where IE9′s speed improvements would be great news.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference for longtime Internet Explorer users will be IE9′s totally revamped, minimalist user interface. The numerous menus, icons and tools at the top of the browser in IE8 have been cleaned up and replaced with a single combined URL-and-search bar and new main menu icon that leads to all the old menu options. The interface is clearly taking its influence from, and even looks nearly identical to, Google’s Chrome web browser.

As you would expect, IE9 is tightly integrated with Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system and offers new features like the ability to pin websites to the task bar. To use the pinned sites feature just grab a site’s icon from the IE9 address bar and drag it to your task bar. In fact, the pinned sites feature isn’t limited to the task bar, so if you’re still using Vista, fear not, you can pin sites to your start menu.

Webmonkey pinned in IE9

The pinned sites feature offers websites a chance to integrate additional features into the task bar. For example, developers can add a meta tag and some other information to customize jump lists, add links to common pages on a site or send updates and notifications directly to the task bar.

The new hardware acceleration means IE9 moves at near light speed compared to its predecessor. IE9 also holds its own with and even bests Chrome 10 and Firefox 4 (which both feature hardware acceleration as well) in some tests. That means complex animations and native web video are plenty fast in the latest version of IE. IE9 also includes a revamped JavaScript engine that makes JavaScript-heavy websites like Gmail or Facebook considerably speedier.

To help ease users’ growing privacy concerns on today’s web, the new IE9 adds some privacy controls similar to those Mozilla and Google have been adding to their browsers. In IE9 you’ll find a new preferences option to enable Tracking Protection Lists, which can block cookies, beacons, pixels and other tricks that advertisers use to track your movements around the web.

Perhaps the best news in Internet Explorer 9 is the new web standards support. Despite some outlandish claims from Microsoft, IE9 is not perfect and it still lags behind its peers when it comes to supporting the latest and greatest features on the web, but it’s certainly a huge improvement over IE8.

Microsoft has opted for a conservative approach to new web technologies in IE9. While the nearly complete Firefox 4 and the recently released Chrome 10 support more of the HTML5, CSS 3 and web API stack, IE9 is a huge step forward for Microsoft. IE9 offers support for the most widely used elements of HTML5 — like the new audio, video, canvas and semantic tags. Still, Microsoft has decided to pass on many of the new APIs. Cutting edge web tools like the offline web applications API, the File API, Web Workers API and the Web Notifications API won’t work in IE9. That’s bad news for web developers, but it’s also bad news for IE users since the web shows no signs of slowing down to accommodate IE.

In Microsoft’s defense, many of these APIs are still in the last call stage and won’t be finalized until 2014. But, in opting to take the more conservative approach to emerging web standards, Microsoft is risking IE9 being out of date even as it launches. Hopefully Microsoft will include support for the emerging APIs in future updates.

To get an idea of how IE9 stacks up against the competition, I ran IE9 through the HTML5Test suite. The HTML5Test suite ranks browsers based not only on W3C-approved components of HTML5, but also some experimental stuff, and some components that aren’t in the spec at all but are widely considered important tools for building more powerful HTML5 web applications, like geolocation. IE9 scores 130 out of a possible 400, which is a huge improvement over IE8′s meager 32. For comparison, Google Chrome 10 scores 283 and Firefox 4 RC1 gets 255.

Despite some shortcomings in the web standards department, IE9 is a competent browser and well worth the upgrade from IE8. If you’re interested in taking advantage of the latest tricks on the web, clearly IE9 is not the browser for you. Still, for those that have no choice in their browser — for example, on a work machine, in a corporate environment — IE9 is obviously good news. For the web at large IE9 represents a step, if not a giant leap, forward.

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