IE9 RC shows that Microsoft has come a long way with its browser, but at the same time is just about keeping pace with faster-moving rivals such as Firefox and Chrome. If you've settled on IE as your browser of choice, the coming release version of IE9 should prove a worthwhile upgrade for its improved HTML5 compatibility, plus features such as Tracking Protection. However, enterprise users will need to satisfy themselves on compatibility before moving up to the new version.
Improved HTML5 support, better performance, enhanced privacy tools.
Potential compatibility issues with legacy web apps
Requires PC with minimum 1GHz processor and 512MB memory; Windows 7, Windows Vista SP2, Windows Server 2008 SP2 or Windows Server 2008 R2
Internet Explorer 9 is now available as a release candidate (RC) download, allowing users to test drive a feature-complete version of Microsoft's forthcoming web browser, which is tipped for final release at the firm's MIX web developer conference in April.
Microsoft's browser has faced increased competition for several years, primarily from Mozilla's Firefox, but more recently from a new upstart in the shape of Google Chrome. This has seen IE's share of the market fall from over 90 per cent a few years ago to just over 50 per cent now.
Whether IE9 will be able to halt or even reverse this trend remains to be seen, but based on our tests with IE9 RC, there appears to be little reason to return for anyone who has already defected from IE.
Conversely, for businesses that have standardised on IE in the past, the fact that IE9 will not run on Windows XP presents a barrier to adoption, since many workers are still using this version of Windows.
IE9 RC shows few visual differences from the beta version released last year, which is only to be expected since one of Microsoft's aims for IE9 is to deliver a more discreet, minimalist user interface that makes more of the screen space available to the web content itself.
What is new with IE9 RC is a claimed improvement in performance, a new privacy feature called Tracking Protection, support for more HTML5 features, and a host of usability tweaks Microsoft has implemented following user feedback on the beta.
Tracking Protection is designed to stop third-party content such as images and adverts being used to track user browsing online, and can be found in the Safety options of the tools menu on IE9, along with other protection features such as InPrivate browsing.
The feature works through Tracking Protection Lists, which specify whether sites listed are allowed or blocked. Microsoft envisages that IT departments will create and deploy lists to corporate PCs, while consumers will be able to download prebuilt lists from privacy service providers. IE9 will periodically check these lists for updates, according to Microsoft.
IE9 RC ships with a small built-in list, which by default is not enabled. Interestingly, a glance through this list shows that, as well as a handful of advertising sites, Microsoft has set IE9 to block Google Analytics, which is relied on by many web sites to track visitor numbers.
Four other lists are available on Microsoft's IE9 Test Drive site, and can be added directly from the Tracking Protection demo page. However, Microsoft does not seem to expect mere mortals to maintain their own lists, as there is no way to create or edit them from within IE9 itself.
IE9's extended HTML5 support now includes features such as semantic tags and geo-location, the latter enabling web sites to find your location based on IP address, Wi-Fi data or GPS, and serve localised content.
However, geo-location is already supported in many other browsers, including current versions of Firefox and Chrome.