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Internet Explorer 8 released today: Extensive hands-on report

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 will be released to the public today. We were given advanced access to the final version and have been using it for a few days, exploring the Internet, Microsoft-style

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 will be released to the public later today. We were given advanced access to the final version and have been using it for a few days now -- ditching Chrome on the PC and Safari on the Mac -- and exploring the Internet, Microsoft-style.

A number of new features have been added since IE 7, along with a multitude of optimisation to the way the browser handles functions such as page rendering, JavaScript and privacy. We'll break these down in detail over the next few pages.

Visually it's similar to its predecessor, and significantly faster at rendering Web pages and JavaScript. Although scoring 5,995.6ms in the SunSpider suite of JavaScript benchmarks during our tests, means Safari 4, Google Chrome, Firefox 3 and Opera 9.6 still handle JavaScript more efficiently.

But we're most interested in how it works, so let's take a look at some of the new features the final version will ship with.

Accelerators are IE add-ons -- new contextual menus that Web developers can write to allow IE users to more quickly interact with their sites. For example, highlighting a street address and choosing 'Map with Google Maps' takes you straight to that address in Google Maps -- no copying, no pasting.

Web Slices are currently less compelling, but we foresee a rosier future, with brighter hats and bigger balloons. They look like bookmarks on your favourites bar, but pop up a small 'slice' of content from your favourite sites, such as new blog posts -- essentially glorified RSS feeds that developers have to write especially to work with IE, we felt.

Ryan Servatius, Microsoft's senior product manager for IE 8, told us all kinds of content -- including Flash objects, JavaScript and advertising -- can be embedded in a Web Slice, however. A site could sell ads on Web Slices, for example, making them more compelling to develop.

Microsoft has made improvements to IE's support for Web standards. Using the industry-favoured Acid3 test for analysing its compliance with many of these standards, however, IE 8 scored 20 out of 100 marks -- an improvement, yes, but a far cry from what developers hope modern browsers will strive to achieve.

It's safe for many people to ignore these figures though, as for day-to-day tasks, the vast majority of users will find it to be a perfectly responsive browser. Unless you're using a netbook.

IE 8 splits individual tabs into their own processes, a la Chrome. This means a Web page can crash without taking the browser and all other open tabs with it, and it works really well. But it also gobbles system resources. At one point we saw IE's processes collectively using almost 500MB of RAM. On a netbook with limited memory, this could be an issue -- an issue perhaps best solved by installing Opera instead.

New security features have made IE 8 far more secure, and shove a big fat cake of reassurance into the paranoid mouths of Mr and Mrs Scared O'Computers.

InPrivate browsing lets you browse sensitive sites without usernames, passwords, browsing history and cookies being saved by the browser. It's also now possible to stop private data being sent discretely to sites that collect such information -- such as display ad-serving services -- by using InPrivate Filtering. You can just block a Web site from seeing your data by adding its domain to a list within IE 8's settings.

A threat known as cross-site scripting, which can be used by hackers to steal private data even if the Web page looks completely legitimate, is looked out for in real-time in IE 8, and is offered a swift and painful axe to the face before your private data is passed on.

The search box in the top right-hand corner of IE 8 now delivers real-time search results. Providers need to write their search plugins to support this, but it means as you type a Wikipedia search, suggestions appear in real-time underneath, complete with thumbnail images, rather than just plain text. It's a small but useful feature.

Tabbed browsing has been cranked up a small notch too. Tabs are automatically colour-coded and grouped together, so you know which tabs are related to each other. While this seems like it should be really useful, we didn't find it helped us at all. If we click an advert in a Web site, why would we want the tab it opens to appear to be related to the Web page it was opened from? It's pointless.

A far more useful implementation would be manual colour coding based on domains. So, all Google search sites -- Web search, image search, product search -- all showed up as blue tabs, while your Web site's blog homepage, forum and admin pages show up as green.

Conclusion

These new security features show some promise. Internet Explorer is the most popular browser because it ships with Windows, thrust straight into the hands of Internet n00bs and inexperienced online bankers when they unbox their first PC. It's crucial that security is put before cute features such as coloured tabs and other disposable perks, and that's what Microsoft seems to have done, intentionally or otherwise.

In the real-world, however, for more experienced users -- such as in the CNET UK offices, where it's been used exclusively for several days -- we found usability, speed and features to be less inspiring than we'd have liked when compared to Firefox, Chrome or Opera, and we doubt we'll be sticking with it after our tests.

If IE 7 had shipped with the features of IE 8, we'd be less dismissive, despite its solidity as a browser. It's easily the best version to date, and that's worth an applause, but in terms of dragging people away from the perks of Firefox, it feels like too little, too late.

You can download it after 4pm this afternoon from microsoft.com/ie8.

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