Microsoft released Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) on Tuesday. Since the initial platform preview release just a year ago, the company has added many features to the browser.
Microsoft has lost browser market share since the release of IE8 two years ago, so the IE9 development team has put a lot of effort into IE9 to try to reverse that decline.
Browser market share statistics
Internet Explorer slightly gained market share in February with a global market share of 56.8 per cent, compared with 56 per cent in January, according to NetMarketShare.
In the same period, Google’s Chrome browser gained 0.23 per cent while the biggest loser was Firefox, dropping a full percentage point to 21.74 per cent.
We downloaded IE9 and installed it on several systems, including our Labs Dell Optiplex 980, our Labs Dell Optiplex GX280, and a Core 2 Duo laptop.
Installation took just a couple of minutes, but needed a system restart to complete – unlike its competitors Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari.
IE9 is supported on 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008. IE9 for Windows Server 2008 R2 is a 64-bit-only option.
Windows XP systems are not supported, even though XP is installed on most of the world’s desktops, and all IE9’s competitors support XP.
Industry cynics see the software giant as using the launch as another reason to push firms to move to Windows 7.
Windows XP has a global market share of 55 per cent, and Windows 7 and Vista have a share of 23 per cent and 11 per cent respectively, according to Net Applications NetMarketShare.
However, for enterprises the figure for XP usage is likely to be significantly higher due to the delay in desktop refresh strategies as a result of the economic climate.
This being the case, the majority of companies will not be affected by Microsoft’s IE9 launch.
From a web application compatibility perspective, Paul Schnell, chief technology officer at application migration expert App-DNA, said: "IE8 equals IE9 plus a few extra things. So, going from IE6 to either IE8 or IE9 is basically the same. And going from IE8 to IE9 has virtually zero issues."
IE9 features added since IE8
User interface enhancements
Perhaps the biggest change users will notice when installing IE9 is the cleaner, less fussy interface, which now includes a combined search and URL address bar [see picture].
Another neat feature is "pinned websites", which allows users to attach web sites to the Windows Task bar or start menu, or drag it onto the desktop, making the pinned web site simulate the characteristics of locally installed Windows applications [see picture].
Company favicons (the graphic attached to the URL in the address bar) can be changed to a 64x64 bitmap so the pinned web site looks better on user/customer desktops.
Another benefit for users is IE9's "jumplists" feature. These save time by letting IE9 users jump straight to specific points on firms' web sites without having to click several links to get there. You also do not need to bookmark the link you are trying to access – the web site has done that for you. However, the feature needs to be supported by the web site the user is visiting, and has to be coded into the web pages.
Web standards support
The better web standards support, the less effort web developers have to put into tailoring each site to work with different brands of browser.
One criticism levelled at Microsoft in the past has been its lack of support for web standards. We tested this version by running the Web Standards Project Acid3 test page and it gives a score of 95 per cent for IE9 – a massive improvement on IE8's 12 per cent. But by comparison, Google Chrome 10, Opera 11.01 and Safari 5.0.4 all score 100 per cent.
W3C geolocation API support
With geolocation support, IE9 allows visited web sites to get your location as a latitude-longitude co-ordinate pair, and send content targeted to you at your location, if you agree. IE9's gelocation support uses a Microsoft service to track you using IP address and extra Wi-Fi connectivity data – if available.
Among the security enhancements Microsoft has added to IE9 are a dedicated download manager enabling IE9 to check downloaded files for malware, ActiveX filtering, and also tracking protection.
A download manager has been a critical omission from previous versions of IE, and Microsoft has finally addressed this problem. Clicking the "view downloads" button gives an estimated time left for the download and the current data transfer rate [see picture].
After downloading, the file is scanned for viruses with Microsoft’s own technology, before you can run the file.
ActiveX-filtering and tracking protection
Hitting Tools > Safety allows users to switch on ActiveX-filtering, a security option which gives users the option to manage ActiveX controls, which are normally used to add functions to web sites.
ActiveX controls could easily introduce security and/or privacy issues when users are web browsing and this feature provides added protection.
Tracking protection enables users to allow or block web sites from tracking and reporting their browsing habits on specific web pages. In the tools drop-down, selecting tracking protection starts a pop-up box which can be edited to define which content providers you want to block [see picture].
Users can define their own list of which content providers to block, or download one of the five tracking protection lists (TPLs) available from Microsoft.
However, as we went to press, a flaw in the feature was uncovered by Which? Computing, which found that if there are multiple definitions of content providers in the lists, allowing tracking takes precedence over blocking tracking. This could lead to a situation where users think they are not being tracked, but they are.
In our review of the IE9 release candidate we said that tracking protection appeared so new that hitting the "Learn more about Tracking Protection" link brings up a link saying "Topic not found". This situation has not changed with the final release of IE9.
Graphics hardware acceleration
A big plus with IE9 is its implementation of graphics hardware acceleration through support for the HTML5 canvas element. With canvas supported, IE9 draw commands bypass the software rendering engine and go directly to users' onboard graphics card, allowing a 2D drawing surface without requiring a plug-in to be downloaded.
An indication of the quality of the graphics acceleration is offered by Microsoft's Fish Tank demo, a web page allowing IE to show its graphics hardware acceleration prowess.
The main parameter in the demo is the number of fish that can be rendered at a specific number of frames per second.
We used our Labs Core 2 Duo laptop with an onboard nVidia GeForce 8600M graphics subsystem.
IE9 rendered 1,000 fish at between 38 frames per second (fps) and 45fps on a 1,200x600-pixel window [see picture].
Google Chrome 10 shows 1,000 fish between 10fps and 11fps. However, once you have set the flags to enable graphics card acceleration, Chrome 10 can render 1,000 fish between 35fps and 39fps.
Opera Software ASA's Opera 11.01 browser is set to roll out graphics hardware acceleration soon, but currently accelerates 1,000 fish between 7fps and 9fps.
Microsoft has rejigged its add-ons manager to cut the time it takes for the browser to start.
On our Windows 7 Ultimate system, for example, one of the gas guzzlers is an HP Print Enhance function which Microsoft's add-on manager calculates adds 1.64s to the start process [see picture].
Microsoft has also fixed the problem in the IE9 beta version, which meant that when you disabled an add-on, it was not removed from the add-ons list.
Browser-based battery life conservation
A sea-change browser for Microsoft, putting it squarely back into the top browser segment. The cloud computing push currently under way in the IT industry, in which a lot of applications will be delivered through browsers, means that Microsoft will not let Internet Explorer get as far behind competing browsers as IE8 was allowed to do.
Other browser vendors have not been idle. Opera Software ASA's Opera 11.01 was released in January, and Google recently released the first stable version of Chrome 10 earlier in March.
But the lack of support for Windows XP, which is installed on the majority of the world’s desktop systems, is outrageous.