Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9, Dissected

ZDNet’s Mary-Jo Foley was lucky enough to see a Russian Microsoft IE9 page when it was apparently up for testing purposes. She grabbed a screenshot, revealing for the first time the new face of IE9, just before Microsoft took down the site again and replaced it with the preview information. Google’s cache was quick as well and eliminated traces of the spicy page, but Yahoo was nice enough to keep the page online and let us know what IE9 will bring.

Granted, it is just a marketing page we would have preferred the release notes instead. However, it went into a bit more detail of IE9 than what we have known so far. IE9 has not just a faster JavaScript engine and integrated hardware acceleration and if you expected the old iE8 interface to return - as I did as well – you were wrong. So let’s look.

Microsoft says there are five major new features:

  • HTML 5 support
  • Reduced Interface
  • More Performance
  • App Tabs for the Taskbar
  • Aero Snap

HTML 5 support is a no brainer as IE8 isn’t really a HTML 5 browser according to WhenCanIuse.com or HTML5test.com. IE8 supports only 27% of HTML5 features, while IE9 is believed to reach 81%, according to WhenCanIUse.com. In comparison, Firefox 4 is expected to be at 96%, Chrome 7 at 96% and Opera 10.7 at 77%. In HTML5test.com, IE9 currently scores 82 of 300 points, while Chrome 7 is at 235 and Firefox 4 Beta 5-pre at 213 (we were not able to convince the current Firefox nightly build to run this test.) Conceivably, IE9 is doing much better than IE8, but we will have to wait if it is enough and if it will turn out as the same disaster when Microsoft said it would make IE8 standards compliant and it fell behind in the Acid 3 test. Right now, IE9’s HTML 5 features are not enough to match its rivals. Nevertheless, Microsoft says that IE9 has added “many features” for HTML5, CSS3, DOM L2 and L3, SVG, and ECMAScript5 – and the company is participating in standardization groups with the W3C.

The IE8 interface is history and given recent developments, it is about time. If you will, you can call the new UI “chromified”. It seems as if Google has set the standard for every other browser maker and everyone now seems to believe that a reduced interface translates into more performance – perceived performance, that is. There is some truth to that and we are now left with browsers that try to put their unique touch to a navigation bar with very few options. In IE9, the menu bar was deleted. There is now a back button, a forward button, the URL bar, the search bar, a home button, a bookmark button and a mystery button, which I believe to be a stop/reload button. The content of the navigation bar now reflects the features of Chrome 7 - Microsoft is just interpreting it a bit differently. There are some smaller, more subtle changes as well: For example, Microsoft has removed the 2-pixel frame inside the content window that has infuriated so many web designers who worked with absolute positioning of content across the different browser platforms.

The big deal in IE9 is hardware acceleration and the Chakra JavaScript engine. I have no idea whether Microsoft can fine tune the engine until the beta release and improve its current performance of about 450 ms in the platform preview 4, but it is reasonable to expect another 10% gain. Mozilla, by the way has its JaegerMonkey engine at about 475 ms at this time, down from about 900 ms just two months ago. Mozilla wants to hit 400 ms, so it is likely that IE9 and Firefox will be hitting that performance mark at about the same time. Both browsers also include hardware acceleration. We hear it will be turned on in the next Firefox 4 Beta, and this next beta is likely to also include the JaegerMonkey engine. It will be interesting to see who is faster. As far as hardware acceleration goes, Mozilla is about as fast as Microsoft in Microsoft’s IE9 platform preview speed tests. 

While Microsoft has slammed Google in the past few months for not supporting hardware acceleration, it is important to note that the current Chrome 7 Canary build supports hardware acceleration as long as you turn it on (launch the browser with optional switches from the command line. Example: C:\Users\Wolfgang\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome SxS\Application\chrome.exe -enable-accelerated-compositing -enable-gpu-rendering -enable-video-layering -enable-webgl -enable-accelerated-2d-canvas -enable-fastback). At this time I am still unsure what makes Chrome’s hardware acceleration tick and what: On some computers it works flawlessly, on others it refuses to show its potential or simply crashes. I have yet to hear back from Google, but the most likely explanation is that the acceleration feature prefers Nvidia graphics chips and does not like ATI. You can test the acceleration yourself with Microsoft’s IE9 platform speed tests.

App Tabs are a slight evolution of the tab idea. Microsoft will reanimate the website-as-app concept, allow users to pick a “pin” from the URL bar of any given site, and drag it to the task bar. If you remember, Google tried the same with Chrome when it came out first, but this feature never caught on. Microsoft seems to be using this idea to put its own spin on App Tabs (Mozilla and Google let you convert regular tabs into App Tabs via the context menu) and up it by offering it a live preview of the tabbed browser window in the task bar. You have to admit that this is an appealing concept, but then we have to also see that you can do that with Chrome already by using a dedicated switch (-enable-aero-peek-tabs) when you are launching the browser (yes, it’s a bit inconvenient, but at least you can do it. You can find all switches, by the way, here.)

Aero Snap is a unique feature that could become an identifier for IE9 or simply one of those feature you will never remember. It’s also a spin on tab functionality, which enables the user to drag two tabs to opposite sides of the browser windows show two pages next to each other in the same window. This is a nifty feature, especially if you have a big screen and a lot of screen real estate is wasted with fixed-width web sites.

Microsoft‘s marketing phrase for its September 15 IE9 Beta event is “unlock the native web.” Compared to previous browser launches, IE9 does not include, as far as we know, proprietary features that aim to change web content that is already there, as we have seen with IE8 and silly ideas like web slices. It appears to be a much more nimble browser that will be faster than its predecessor and apparently much easier to use. It will require IE8 users to change their way how they are used to using the browser and it may prompt many traditional IE users to stay with what they have. Yet, the switch is necessary for Microsoft and I am glad to see that an old dogs in fact can learn new tricks. Now we have to see whether IE9 is, in fact, as fast as Microsoft says, and if its startup time can match its JavaScript performance.

From today’s view and user needs, and what we see coming up from Mozilla and Google, IE9 is unlikely to be ahead of the competition, but it will be a substantial and worthwhile upgrade from IE8 and its selling point may come from somewhere else: Its seamless integration in Windows 7 could be its biggest advantage.  

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24 comments
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  • Mr Pizza
    still, ew
    -8
  • NapoleonDK
    I was about to blast the article for unacceptable grammatical errors, until I remembered that this was, in fact, translated from Russian...

    TOM's, you are given the benefit of, well... Lazyness I guess, I had to rewrite the text in my head before I could understand it.

    I've been enjoying the hardware-acceleration in Firefox for a while now, and I just now got around to flipping the switches in my Chrome browser. I think the page rendering is really only a perceived speed-up, but the video acceleration is noticeable on older hardware. :P
    -1
  • NapoleonDK
    Mr Pizzastill, ew
    Don't let your preconceived notions about a browser stop you from trying it out! A wise man once said, "Know your enemy..." ;)
    -1