REVIEW: Beta 2 of Internet Explorer 8 shows promise with strong privacy controls and new usability features.
Despite its market dominance, Internet Explorer has been in many ways the browser that was left behind. IE 6 has lasted well beyond its freshness date and IE 7 was at best a small upgrade that still left the Microsoft browser behind competitors.
But based on initial tests of Beta 2 of Internet Explorer 8, it looks like Microsoft may be on track to release the first significantly improved version of its browser since the release of IE 5 in 1999. IE 8 Beta 2 includes many new features that improve the usability, stability and security of the browser and while many of the new capabilities are basically Microsoft playing catch-up to Firefox and Opera, IE 8 actually showcases a few browsing innovations of its own.
Of course, keep in mind that this is definitely a beta and in the first few days of testing IE 8 Beta 2 has proven to be very unstable (though I did a get a very good and frequent look at the new tab and site recovery features), and a surprisingly large number of popular Web sites needed to be viewed in the browser's IE 7 compatibility mode. Because of this I recommend that only Web developers and the technically curious try out this beta and anyone needing to do serious work with a stable browser should stay well away.
Some of the most significant new features in IE 8 Beta 2 are in the area of Web privacy. The new InPrivate browsing mode let me launch a separate browsing session in which no cookies, history or other personal data were saved. When in this session an InPrivate logo appears in the address bar. To stop the InPrivate browsing session I simply closed this specific browsing window (which means it's possible to have multiple browsing sessions, private and public, live at the same time).
For those times when a user decides to remove the traces of a browsing session afterward, IE 8 Beta 2 boosts the Delete Browsing History feature with the option to not remove data from any site on the user's favorites list. This is a nice step but I would prefer a more granular manual mode for defining which sites' data to keep. Just because a site is on my favorites list doesn't mean I want it to keep data from a browsing session.
Along with the InPrivate Browsing feature is a related new feature called InPrivate Blocking. This feature attempts to make it possible for a user to block data from passing between third-party sites and the sites that a user visits, since in some cases these techniques can make it possible to aggregate data about a user from multiple Web sites. This feature works in a learning mode at first where it doesn't block data but over time it will block third parties that appear too frequently from collecting data. Users will also be able to manually block or allow some sites and also import a list of sites to block.
These privacy features in IE 8 Beta 2 aren't exactly unique; there are third-party applications and extensions that make it possible to add similar levels of protection to other browsers, such as Firefox. But if Microsoft continues in the direction begun in this beta, IE 8 will have some of the best built-in privacy features found in any Web browser.
Of course, not everything new in IE 8 Beta 2 has to do with privacy -- there are also new features that affect how users surf the Web and interact with sites. One of the more unique new features is the IE 8 Accelerators (which were called Activities in Beta 1). The Accelerators icon is activated whenever a user highlights text in a Web page (the icon appears next to the highlighted text). By clicking on the Accelerator icon or right-mouse clicking, users can carry out a number of actions, including searches, translations and even finding maps, and these activities launch in small pop-up window rather than launching an entirely new Web page. I found the Accelerators feature to be very useful and, since the technology is open to developers, any site or company can build custom Accelerators.
Another new feature called Web Slices lets sites and developers build custom widgets that can be installed and added to the browser tool bar to provide quick access to data and information from these sites.
Though IE was the last browser to add support for tabbed windows, IE 8 has included some nice wrinkles that improve the use of tabs while browsing. One of the better new features in IE 8 color codes groups of tabs that were all launched from the same Web site, making it easy to identify these related groups of tabs. Also, when launching a new tab in IE 8 Beta 2, instead of a blank page users now see a set of options that include InPrivate Browsing, Accelerators, history and clipboard data.
However, out of all the new features in IE 8 Beta 2, the one that I probably used the most was the compatibility mode that switches the browser to the IE 7 engine. Clicking the button, which looks like a broken file icon and appears next to the address bar, reloads the site in compatibility mode, and in my tests I had to use this quite a bit, including on many popular and common sites such as for Web mail and even many of the Google application sites. Somewhat surprisingly, since Microsoft says you need to use compatibility mode only for older sites that aren't fully standards-compliant, one of the sites that I had to use compatibility mode on was webstandards.org, the site of the Web Standards Project and the Acid Web standards tests.
Many of the new features in IE 8 Beta 2 are updates that add capabilities already found in competing browsers such as Firefox and Opera. These include an improved find in page feature (inline now instead of as a separate pop-up), contextual autocomplete in the address bar, contextual search field suggestions and protection against malware-infested Web sites.
Another set of IE 8 features that really got a workout in my tests were the new crash protection and page recovery features, since, as I mentioned earlier, Beta 2 proved to be pretty unstable in my tests. Luckily, the new recovery features worked well. In cases where a Web site on a single tab was causing a problem, just that tab was reloaded with data intact, with no impact on sites in other tabs. When the entire browser crashed, it automatically recovered with all of my tabs and site data still intact.
Standards support in IE 8 Beta 2 is considerably better than in IE 7, and IE 8 does pass the Acid2 test from the Web Standards Project. However, the beta does very poorly on the newer Acid3 test, scoring well behind all other current-generation Web browsers.
From a developer standpoint, IE 8 Beta 2 looks to be more friendly than previous versions. A very good developer tool is integrated with the browser which makes it simple to quickly test and debug Web site code. Also, many of the new features are accessible to developers.
For developers and those who want to experience the latest in Microsoft Web technology, Beta 2 of Internet Explorer 8 can be downloaded at www.microsoft.com/ie8.