Today, at the MIX09 conference, attendees were told that the latest version of Internet Explorer has been released and is now available for download. No longer a beta, IE8 is ready for public consumption. There have been a number of changes made to this browser which represent what has been a significant overhaul to one of the oldest web browsers out there - and one that’s still very much a staple in many people’s lives, both at home and at work.
If you haven’t been testing the beta, today you can download the the updated browser and see what you’ve been missing. There are several new features being introduced, including a private browsing mode, a visual search tool, colorful tabs, a smart bar, as well as interactive features like web slices and accelerators.
Upon First Launch…
You’ll notice the differences between IE7 and IE8 right away when you launch the new browser today. As you surf and open additional tabs, you’ll see that tabs are grouped together when they’re launched via links from one particular website. Those tabs are also color-coded so you can tell which tabs are associated with each other. This is handy for anyone who does a lot of research on the web or who just likes to have a lot of tabs open at the same time. It’s also a feature that other browsers don’t do – at least, not right out of the box. Although add-ons and extensions can deliver that functionality to some other browsers, that doesn’t mean as much to a good part of the web surfing population who use their web browsers “as is” with little customization.
There are other UI changes, too, which will help out those “non-tweakers.” For example, the new Favorites Bar (formerly called the “Links” Bar) in IE8 is now switched on by default. With one click on the star with the green arrow, favorite websites can be added to this bar without having to fuss with the whole bookmarks manager setup. Just click and the bookmark appears at the top of the window.
Another button at the top near the favorites bar is called “Quick Tabs.” It’s almost small enough to go unnoticed so it stays out of the way, but at some point even the most non-observant web surfer will give this button an accidental click. That’s all it will take to make using this new feature a part of their daily routine. Here, websites are laid out as live-updating and good-sized thumbnail images of the sites that are open in your tabs. It’s an easy way to navigate through a myriad of open tabs and find the one you need.
Also, IE8 takes advantage of tabbed browsing to deliver relevant content when you click the “new tab” button, conveniently available to the right of all your open tabs. Instead of just presenting you with blank white space, it asks “what do you want to do next?” and suggests various tasks like launching an “InPrivate” window, use an Accelerator, or re-open a closed tab. (That last option is going to be very useful for those of us with too-fast trigger fingers when it comes to closing tabs.)
Speaking of “InPrivate,” that option is also a new IE8 feature which launches you into a private browsing session where none of your activity is tracked. No history, no saved passwords, no temporary internet files, no saved form information, no saved visited URLs,…nothing. Of course, you’ll have to remember to close the browser before this info is wiped, but it’s definitely handy for surfing from publicly shared machines or anywhere you’re concerned about leaving traces of your activity.
Two of the features getting the most attention in IE8, however, are two of the most unique: “Web Slices” and “Accelerators.” Web Slices are sort of like really smart, live bookmarks. You add them to your bookmark bar as you would any other site, but instead of taking you to another web page when you click them, they display a small window with live web content. Because they work in real time, they can be used for keeping tabs on an auction, for example, as you can with the eBay Web Slice, or for keeping track of the current weather, among many other things.
Accelerators, the other big new feature in IE8, are designed to help you better interact with whatever web content you’re browsing. When you highlight text on a web page and right-click, you’ll see a list of actions you can take using that content. For example, you can blog it, map it, search it, email it, etc. There are a slew of accelerators to choose from so you can customize this menu to include your favorite services. I particularly like the ones like “Share on Facebook” and “Google Define,” as they both speed up the process of performing online actions which I do nearly every day.
The web slices and accelerators are found in the IE8 add-ons gallery, where they’re grouped along with search providers by category and popularity in well-organized and clean category pages. Each item has a button called “Add to Internet Explorer” which, upon clicking, pops up a window where all you have to do is click an “Add” button to confirm your choice.
Another change that makes browsing faster is the new “Smart Address Bar” which pulls up the addresses and sites from your browsing history as you begin to type – a feature that is a nod to an IE8 competitor, Firefox 3.0. The search box also does the same.
However, the search box has some nifty tricks of its own – and ones that are also unique to IE8, the best perhaps being its capability to do visual searches. Start typing in the search box and along with suggested searches related to your item, you’ll also see images. This is thanks to IE8’s new “visual search” feature which displays images within the search box itself.
The search box also lets you quickly switch from one search provider to another, a feature that lets you not only try your search on other search engines (cough, live.com, cough), but also lets you search within particular sites as well. For example, you can click on “Amazon” to search for your keyword on that site or “New York Times” to just search just that online news source. And all you have to do is click the search provider button to re-search - you don’t have to retype your keyword or hit enter – IE8 will just re-run the search for you.
The available sites you can add as search providers are also found on the IE8 Add-ons site. For visual searches, look for Add-ons that identify themselves as “visual search” in their title, like this Wikipedia one or this Freebase one.
Finally, because IE8 is focused on being standards-compliant, pages on the web designed for the less-compliant older versions of IE may display oddly if they haven’t been re-coded for IE8. I haven’t encountered too many occurrences of this since most developers have already made the necessary changes – especially on larger sites run by businesses. But if you stumble upon the occasional, older web page a quick click on the “compatibility button” located next to the Address Bar will re-display page correctly.
With all these new tricks, it’s clear that IE is not only a big improvement over its previous incarnations, it’s now even a worthy competitor to the large number of other browsers out there. For all those who use IE regularly, the upgrade will be a pleasant surprise. And for those who had moved away in favor of other browsers, IE8 has introduced several features that may even win back some of those switchers.
IE8 is available now for users of Windows XP and Vista. A special version for beta testers of Windows 7 will arrive later on with the next update to that OS.
Also see David Tesar's post Top 5 Reasons for IT Pros to Deploy.
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