First Look: Internet Explorer 8 beta

This beta release of Microsoft's browser sports some cool new features -- but it's still very beta

Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) Beta 1 for developers, released by Microsoft on March 6, offers some fascinating new capabilities. For example, it introduces two new features called Activities and WebSlices that extend the capabilities of the browser by interacting with other Web sites and services.

There are also a variety of other changes, including some much-needed additions, such as a feature that will restore crashed browser sessions and tabs. I'll highlight what features are new and discuss how they may work when IE8 is finally released.

This review focuses only on the actual user experience of using IE8 though the beta has been released for developers. We didn't test aspects of the beta that are targeted to developers or that are concerned with underlying compatibilities and standards. For example, IE8 now includes a Developer Tools feature, which includes tools for HTML, CSS, scripting, and debugging. Microsoft claims that the browser includes better scripting performance, and support for HTML5. And in the final version, although not this one, Microsoft claims that IE8 will have full CSS 2.1 support.

Finally, I tested IE8 for Windows XP, rather than the Windows Vista version (both versions have the same features).

Installation and a first look

The initial Windows XP download of IE8 weighs in at 14.4 MB. When launched, it downloads other components, and installs in less than 15 minutes. All it in, it's quite a painless install.

When you first start IE after installation, you're asked whether you want use "express settings." These are, in essence, a variety of Microsoft services, such as Live Search for search, Maps with Live Maps for mapping, Windows Hotmail for e-mail, and so on.

You can also choose to adjust your settings manually; however, since many of these services tie into one of IE8's new features called Activities, be careful about changing some of the defaults, such as for displaying maps of any location highlighted on a Web page.

After you either choose your own settings or go with the defaults, IE 8 actually launches.

IE8 looks much like IE7 at first, with a few exceptions. The first is that what was formerly known as the Links toolbar has been integrated with the Favorites icons, and combined into a single toolbar called the Favorites toolbar. You can still make the toolbar disappear, though, as you could the Links toolbar, by selecting View -->Toolbars, and unchecking Favorites Bar. (Note: If you're using IE8 for Vista, you'll have to first make the Menu Bar appear by pressing the Alt button.)

A particularly nice new feature, and one that I hope makes it into the final version of IE8, is the small "Emulate IE7" button on near the top of the screen. If there are any compatibility issues between IE8 and a Web site -- with a new browser, you never know -- just click the button, and it will fool the site into thinking you're running IE7. I'm not sure if this feature is for the developer-only version or if it will make it into the final (hopefully, most Web sites will be IE8-compatible by the time it's out of beta), but it would be nice if it stayed in.

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Preston Gralla

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