An important new software release is coming that warrants your complete attention. Microsoft's next browser, Internet Explorer (IE) 9, is now available in a public beta version. Here's what you need to know.

IE 9 Public Beta

After years of waffling, Microsoft has finally embraced the standards-based web, and it has done so in a big way with IE 9. The software giant’s next web browser takes on the same high-level ideals as such products as Windows 7 and Windows Phone—that is, get out of the way visually so that content can take center stage. IE 9 pushes compatibility and performance boundaries while retaining the browser's deployment and management advantages.

User-Experience Changes

The public beta of IE 9, released in mid-September 2010, offers a first look at the browser's streamlined new UI. You’ll see that IE 9 is clean and minimalistic. Where IE 8 was busy with UI "chrome" (features such as the Favorites Bar and web slices that were arguably useful, but took up lots of onscreen real estate), IE 9 offers up a basic UI that takes up less space onscreen than the UI of any competing browser (let alone previous IE versions).

This is all by design. According to Microsoft, the central design mantra for IE 9 was that the browser must get out of the way, visually. People care about the sites, not the browser, I was told, in the same way that they care about applications, not the Windows OS on which they run.

Speaking of which, IE 9 gives websites many of the same capabilities as applications, especially under Windows 7. You can now pin website shortcuts to the Windows 7 taskbar (and Start Menu), just as you can application shortcuts. The effect is interesting and immediately logical, since most users access a combination of applications and websites. Putting links to both side by side is natural and intuitive.

Websites that aren't yet ready for IE 9 will display a regular static icon based on the graphic the sites already use. But websites can also be easily modified to take advantage of specific IE 9 and Windows 7 features, including Jump Lists, hover effects, and even pop-up media players (for sites like Pandora).

Sites that need to provide notifications—such as email services—can do so via a badge on the site's taskbar icon. And IE uses Aero Snap in Windows 7 to provide drag and drop "snapping" of web pages on the screen so you can view pages side-by-side just as you do with individual applications.

Like Google Chrome, when you do pin a website to the taskbar (or Start Menu), IE creates a specialized version of the IE window designed for that site. The navigational controls and other UI elements are automatically colored to match the design of the site, and the browser's home button is replaced by a site-specific home button so that the site is always "home" for that window. In short, pinned sites are treated like individual applications. It's a neat capability.

Also like Chrome, IE 9 dispenses with a separate Search box and integrates search functionality into the address bar, which is now called the One Box. This single UI element can be used to navigate to specific sites, search via the configured search engine, switch search engines, and access browser history and favorites. It won't transmit any of your keystrokes to your configured search engine on the fly unless you okay that behavior. And IE 9 will keep your searches private by default.

The notification bar that debuted back in Windows XP SP 2 has proven so popular that virtually all browser makers have copied the feature. But with IE 9, Microsoft is offering a new, even less intrusive notification bar that pops up from the bottom of the browser window.

And unlike its predecessor, it's not modal, and won't prevent you from browsing along as you ignore it. (There are a few security-oriented exceptions to this rule.)

The new notification bar is also easier to understand, with simple, clear language. When a website hangs, you'll see a warning message that's very similar to what you see when an application crashes.

Tabs get a big boost with IE 9. They can be rearranged and torn off of individual windows and, as noted previously, "snapped" to the screen sides and pinned to the taskbar. There's also a clean-looking New Tab page that simply shows you the sites you've visited most frequently. There's also a link for InPrivate Browsing, which debuted in IE 8.

From a performance standpoint, IE 9 is a mixed bag in this initial beta release. On a clean install, it's a speed demon, starting up quickly, launching new tabs in a flash, and rendering sites as fast as any other browser.

However, most users won't be getting IE 9 as part of a clean install of the OS. Instead, they'll be upgrading from their previous browser. And that's where the problems start, because IE 9 uses the same add-on model as its predecessor, and it loads—and works with—whatever add-ons you've already configured, knowingly or not.

In such cases, IE 9 does throw out one bone: It provides a notification pop-up asking if you'd like to disable add-ons to speed performance. And if you choose to view this UI, you'll see a useful interface that lists your installed add-ons in order, with the slowest performing ones first. A graphical scale explains how long each takes to load, too, so you can gauge the effect of disabling them.

Unfortunately, the Manage Add-ons UI hasn't changed at all. Neither, for that matter, has Internet Options, a window that dates back over a decade and is long overdue for a remake. Microsoft told me it looked into doing so but wanted to really focus on the parts of the browser that affect users every day. Fair enough.

Also new in IE 9 is a long-awaited download manager. It integrates with the browser's excellent SmartScreen protection system.

Management and Deployment Features

IE 9 can be deployed through the new IE Administration Kit (IEAK) 9, or via Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), or System Center Configuration Manager 2007, and it can be customized in a myriad of ways. Admins can also slipstream IE 9 into their Windows Vista and Windows 7 install images.

IE 9 also features almost 1,500 Group Policy settings, including many that are new to this release and relate to new IE 9 functionality. For example, you can disable add-on performance notifications, enable newly installed add-ons automatically, or prevent the user from reconfiguring One Box search. For those environments that specifically don't want to install IE 9, or wish to delay the update from Windows Update, Microsoft will again offer a Blocker toolkit.

Under the Hood

Microsoft started pushing its modern and powerful IE 9 site rendering capabilities back in March 2010 when the first platform preview debuted, but now that the company has shipped a usable version of the browser, we can see how it works in real-world conditions. The prognosis is very positive: In tests over several weeks, I only ran into intermittent issues with a handful of sites, which speaks well to IE 9's compatibility in even this early test version.

Under the hood, IE 9 takes advantage of the underlying capabilities of your PC to provide better performance than is possible with other browsers. Text, graphics, and digital media rendering is now hardware accelerated, as it is in native Windows applications, providing a new benchmark for browser performance.

While other browser makers are racing to add hardware acceleration to their own products, Microsoft notes that only IE 9 offers true, across-the-board hardware acceleration that fully utilizes the underlying Windows capabilities. Other browsers, constrained by their cross-platform needs, can offer only partial acceleration, and that's using inefficient intermediate cross-platform code layers.

IE 9 is the most standards-compliant browser Microsoft has ever created, though it still lags behind such forward-leaning browsers as Chrome and Safari. It supports many HTML 5 features, including video and audio playback that doesn't require a plug-in, full Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) 2.1 and partial CSS 3 support, ECMAScript 5 (the successor to JavaScript) support, and more.

IE 9's new scripting engine, called Chakra, utilizes multiple CPU cores to interpret, compile, and run code much more quickly than is possible with IE 8, offering performance similar to that seen in the fastest browsers available today. HTML and CSS rendering, scripting, formatting, layout, and other activities all contribute to the real-world rendering of sites, as does IE 9's new hardware acceleration capabilities, which offload tasks from the CPU.

What Microsoft Learned With IE 9

One side effect of the IE 9 development schedule is that the software giant was able to quickly evolve the product based on feedback. Microsoft says the IE 9 development process was a useful experience that will guide subsequent releases. When you consider the speed at which its competitors move with products such as Mozilla Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, it's hard not to imagine Microsoft at least cutting the difference between the schedules of those products and its previously stately progress.

The Schedule to Come

Microsoft tells me that it will issue a release candidate version of IE 9 in the months ahead, followed by the final shipping version of the product. Both of these upcoming milestones will be timed based on the feedback Microsoft receives on the preceding release, so it's unclear if the RC or final version of IE 9 will ship in late 2010 or early 2011. I'm thinking early 2011 for the final version.

Final Thoughts

So far, I'm deeply impressed by the work Microsoft has done to make IE 9 usable, fast, and standards compliant. The software giant has traditionally held back on the latter quality in particular, due to compatibility concerns. Whether this is still an issue remains to be seen, but I could see some legacy intranets causing issues, so testing the new browser early will be key. At the very least, IE 9's legacy compatibility modes should ease some of that burden.

(To see screenshots from Paul's test of IE 9, visit SuperSite for Windows IE 9 review.)