Microsoft on Wednesday shipped the Beta 2 version of its upcoming Internet Explorer (IE) 8 Web browser. This version of the product, which will be made available free to Windows XP, Vista, 2003, and 2008 users, adds many functional advances and some new security features. Microsoft previously shipped a Beta 1 release in March.

"While Beta 1 was for developers, we think that anyone who browses or works on the web will enjoy IE8 Beta 2," a post on the IE Blog reads. "We focused our work around three themes: everyday browsing (the things that real people do all the time), safety, and the platform (the focus of Beta 1, how developers around the world will build the next billion web pages and the next waves of great services)."

IE 8 Beta 2 brings with it a surprising number of improvements. It includes such new features as a Smart Address Bar, enhanced Find On Page, Tab Groups, an enhanced search box, various privacy features like InPrivate Browsing, enterprise deployment and management improvements, and better Web standards support, among many others. For more information about the new features in IE 8 Beta 2, please refer to my review on the SuperSite for Windows.

In testing the Beta 2 release over the past few weeks, however, I've seen massive compatibility issues with this browser, which uses a new standards-compliant rendering mode by default. This rendering mode is supposed to work more like Mozilla Firefox and other browsers, and less like previous versions of IE. But it's clear that few Web sites know how to deal with the change. IE 8 Beta 2 does offer a Compatibility View that enables IE 7-like rendering on a site-by-site basis.

In a recent briefing with Microsoft, I was told that the company would evaluate the feedback from Beta 2 before determining whether to ship more beta releases or move the product more quickly towards completion.

You can download IE 8 Beta 2 now from the Microsoft Web site. 32-bit and 64-bit versions are available for various versions of Windows in English, German, Japanese, and Simplified Chinese. Other languages will become available soon, Microsoft says.