Overall, IE8 is a welcome improvement over previous Microsoft browsers, and I believe it is on a par with rivals such as FireFox and Safari in terms of features, performance and ease of use. This may not be enough to tempt back users who have defected to FireFox over the last few years, but it is definitely worth the upgrade for those still using older versions of IE.
Unlike an earlier review of an IE8 beta release, I had few problems with content not displaying in IE8. In fact, I found it difficult to locate any sites that showed any problems at all. Of those that showed issues, almost all were web-based applications rather than public-facing web sites, suggesting that businesses are the most likely to require IE8's Compatibility View that displays pages as they would appear in IE7. Pages that did have problems with IE8 seemed to work fine when Compatibility View was activated.
IE8 is also not lacking in terms of performance, with no perceptible difference in page load times between it and FireFox. Microsoft itself disclosed figures last week that showed any differences between the three top browsers are measured in fractions of a second.
New in IE8 are Accelerators and Web Slices, both of which are useful but not must-have features.
Accelerators provide links to functions when you highlight text on a page. By default, IE includes Accelerators to show a pop-up map from an address, or a translation (see screenshot), or to create an email or blog entry. Others are available online from the "Get More Add-ons" button on the toolbar.
Web Slices provide a direct link to web content from the Favourites bar, akin to the way RSS feeds work. Examples include an eBay web slice that shows auctions you are interested in and alerts you to changes in bids. However, many of the currently available slices are very US-centric, such as those providing weather or traffic alerts, but only for US cities.
Like Safari and Firefox, IE8 now provides a "private" browsing mode, InPrivate Browsing. Selecting this from the Safety button launches a new browser window with InPrivate mode enabled, to avoid confusion with any pages you might already have open. IE does not retain any browsing history for sites visited in this mode, which ends when the user closes the new window.
This will be useful for hiding login information if you need to access your email via a publicly access computer, for example, but users should be aware that it does not ensure complete privacy. In a corporate environment, the internet gateway will likely have a record of all web sites visited, for example.
IE8 also helps privacy through InPrivate Filtering (called InPrivate Blocking in the beta releases), which gives users some control over third-party content such as adverts that might be used to track them. IE examines such content as the user browses sites, and if ten or more sites load the same resource, it appears on a list from which users can block it, should they choose.
Perhaps the most useful security features are the SmartScreen Filter and Cross-Site Scripting Filter. The first is an enhanced anti-phishing filter that analyses pages for suspected malicious content, as well as checking the web address against a blacklist.
The Cross-Site Scripting Filter is designed to detect code that has been inserted into a genuine web site in order to steal information such as credentials, and disable it. Microsoft has a demo that shows how this works, but whether it will work as well in a real situation remains to be seen.
The size of the install file you need to download for IE8 depends upon the platform, with the Windows XP version weighing in at 16MB. The installer checks for any new patches or updates, and a reboot is required after installation is complete.
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