Microsoft has raised the stakes again in the heated browser battle. The company’s recent public beta release of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) shows that the software giant has taken seriously the criticisms levied against previous versions of the browser — especially in the areas of performance and usability. But there’s more to IE9 than faster page loads and fewer hassles when viewing websites. IE9 represents a substantial overhaul of the world’s most popular browser. Does that mean it should have a place right now on your desktop? Read on for some answers.

Q: What’s so special about IE9?

A: IE9 shows that Microsoft has been learning from its competitors — most notably, Google’s Chrome. Microsoft has also clearly been listening to the complaints of the legions who have made rival browsers Firefox and Chrome serious threats to IE’s dominance in the browser market.

The first thing you’ll notice about IE9 is its interface, which is immediately reminiscent of Google’s Chrome. Like Chrome, IE9 is stripped of most screen elements by default. The title bar, menu bar, and most toolbar buttons are hidden by default. Instead, along the top of the browser window, you’ll see only the Back and Forward buttons, an Address bar which doubles as a search field, tabs for your open websites, and View Favourites and Tools icons, reminiscent of similar icons along Chrome’s top edge. The effect of this lack of clutter is that web pages start to feel more like applications rather than pages running inside of another program.

Happily, all keyboard shortcuts for accessing hidden menus and other features still work. Press Alt-A, for instance, and your Favourites menu appears. The interface is also thoroughly customisable and reacts to changes the way you imagine it would. For instance, if the Address bar seems too narrow to you, just grab it by the right—hand side and extend it as far as you’d like.

Also reminiscent of Chrome is the way IE9 shows your “most popular” (favourite) sites whenever you create a new tab. You can change what appears on new tabs, as you can with Chrome, but the default behaviour of the two browsers is now identical in this respect.

Microsoft’s headline feature for IE9 is hardware-accelerated text, video, and graphics. What this means is that IE9 takes advantage of the hardware in your PC in ways that previous versions did not. The result: faster pages loads and faster display of graphics. Most unofficial tests since the beta release of IE9 show the browser’s speed to be at least on a par now with Firefox, with some tests showing IE9 pulling ahead.

Also out in front on the feature list is tight integration with Windows 7. The most notable evidence of this is the Pinned Sites feature, which refers to the ability to drag a tab from the browser and drop it onto the Windows 7 taskbar, where the site then becomes available with one click in the future. In testing, this feature worked only when the taskbar was located at the bottom of the screen, however — not when it had been moved to the left or right edge.

There are assorted other changes in IE9, as well, and most of them again bring IE up to the performance and usability standards set by other browsers. There are beefed-up security features, for instance, to help protect you against phishing attacks or stumbling upon malware-infested websites. There’s a new download manager that arguably makes downloads easier to organise and find. Also to help with the safety of downloads is a new “download reputation rating” system, which will help you know whether you’re downloading a file from a trusted source. Noteworthy, too, is a new “no add ons” option for launching the browser, which should aid in troubleshooting issues caused by browser plug-ins.

Q: Is IE9 compatible with all version of Windows?

A: Unfortunately, no. The IE9 beta is not compatible with Windows XP. And according to Microsoft insiders, the company has no intention of making the final release of IE9 compatible with Windows XP, either.

IE9 is compatible with Windows Vista and, of course, Windows 7. It is also compatible with Windows Server 2008. Its memory and disk space requirements are unremarkable. Essentially any computer running Vista, Windows 7, or Server 2008 should work fine with IE9.

Q: Is IE9 stable enough for me to use now?

A: IE9 is still beta software. That means that it has too many bugs to be considered ready for widespread release. When the final version is available, it will show up in Windows Update as an upgrade option for users of Windows Vista and Windows 7. You’ll also be able to download the final version separately.

That said, however, the current beta of IE9 will work without issue on the majority of websites. Some sites that don’t display properly will be automatically switched to “compatibility view” by the browser, which takes just a few seconds. Some have also reported browser crashes with IE9 that they did not experience before.

The bottom line is that IE9 will run fine on your computer now, but you should be prepared for the occasional glitch. If that idea bothers you, stick with IE8 or whatever browser you’re currently using. It’s important to note that you cannot run IE9 simultaneously with an earlier version of IE. Once you upgrade, IE9 is the only version of Internet Explorer that you’ll have.

Q: Where can I download IE9?

A: Microsoft has set up a Test Drive site (http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive). Click Get the Beta button to begin the process. Note that if you’re using Windows XP, you won’t see the Get the Beta button, since IE9 will not install on XP.

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