Sunday, August 31, 2008

12 Reasons to test drive IE8 Beta 2

While rival browser makers Mozilla and Opera have launched the latest iterations of their products, Firefox 3.0 and respectively Opera 9.5, as early as June 2008, Microsoft is still in the development phase of Internet Explorer 8, the successor of IE7. August 27 marked the delivery of IE8 Beta 2, a deadline absurdly safeguarded by Microsoft, with the company only managing to confirm a release by the end of this month, and taking its due time when it came down to making available the bits for the browser second development milestone. Internet Explorer 8 is still far from the finish line, reportedly planned for November 2008, but Beta 2 feels more like a browser version ready for wrap-up than Beta 1.

The reason for this is the fact that, in comparison with the March 2008 release of IE8, the second Beta is packed with features and functionality aimed at the home and business users, on top of what has already been available to IT professionals and web content developers and designers. In this regard, IE8 Beta 1 was more of a skeleton on which Microsoft built Beta 2. Now, although Microsoft is not touting IE8 Beta 2 as a feature-complete version, it is clear that the Redmond company will move further only with the process of fine-tuning the browser got with Release to Web (RTW).

However, in no way is IE8 Beta 2 more than a Beta. The browser continues to have issues related to memory leaks, especially on websites containing Adobe Flash content. At the same time, tabs can become inaccessible following a crash recovery, but also unresponsive, failing to allow end users to close them. Beta 2 is not yet ready for production environments, but by all means, test driving the browser is an entirely different matter altogether. And there are plenty of reasons to do so, even for the most hardcore Firefox and Opera fans.

12 Reasons to Test Drive IE8 Beta 2

1. New UI – Microsoft is a loyal adept of continuity. In this regard, the redesign of IE8 Beta 2's graphical user interface is rather subtle and keeping within the same line as IE7's UX. However, the biggest plus in terms of user interface is the customization options offered by Beta 2.

“IE8 brings some changes that allow much more customization that I think users will be happy with. You can unlock the toolbars and drag the IE menu bar to a variety of places in IE8. You can also right click in IE8's menu and choose Customize where you can have the refresh and stop buttons moved to the front of the Address Bar. Those who also prefer not to have the Favorites Bar showing will be pleased to know you can turn it off (although I don't know why you would want to!),” revealed Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc.

2. Smart Address Bar – well, Opera 9.5 has it, and Firefox 3.0 has it, and Internet Explorer 8 does not fall behind in this category. The Smart Address bar is nothing short of a breath of fresh air when it comes down to navigation enhancements. This means that all that end users have to remember about an Internet location that they visited once is a keyword, or part of the name. No more digging through the browser's history for websites. The Smart Address bar does all the heavy lifting for the users, searching across Favorites, History, and even RSS feeds.

“Based on our observations of IE7 and IE8 Beta 1 usage, we learned that roughly 80% of the time people’s destination on the web is a previously visited site. In the past, people would use their Favorites or History, or they’d just go through all the steps to navigate to the website again. The Smart Address Bar enables you to find Favorites and sites in your history by just typing a few letters. That’s much fewer steps than using the Favorites and History center. We also added the capability to search the title, web address and even folders for those who have organized their favorites,” explained IE Lead Program Manager Paul Cutsinger.

3. Tabbed Browsing Evolution – speaking of navigation, in IE8 Beta 2, tabbed browsing has evolved to a new level. In this context, not only does the browser group all tabs opened from the same location into groups, assigning a particular color to them, but New Tabs now offers a range of comprehensive options instead of a useless pseudo-blank page. Users are now able to navigate back to closed tabs, to relaunch the last browser session, to start InPrivate browsing, or to execute an Accelerator.

4. New Search/Find Experience – IE8 Beta 2 sports an entirely revamped search/find experience, and one that was long overdue for that matter. With this development release, Find On Page behaves as a toolbar that performs result counting and highlighting. “We’d heard from many, many users that the Find dialog in IE6 and IE7 was always getting in the way, making it hard to actually find content on the page. So, we’ve added a Find bar at the top of the page (finally!) that lets you more easily find content on the page,” Cutsinger added.

5. Web Slices – not new to Beta 2, since they were initially made available with IE8 Beta 1 as early as March of this year, Web Slices resides in the Favorites Bar and allows users to subscribe only to a certain portion of a website. With this feature, IE8 is capable of providing visual notifications to users in accordance with the updates introduced to the webpage area where they subscribed.

6. Accelerators (formerly Activities) - “Copy-navigate-paste is old. Accelerators are services that you access directly from the webpage in the context of what you’re doing, letting you bookmark, define, email, map and more with a simple selection. Even your search providers are available as Accelerators. Some Accelerators provide previews so that you can view the result without having to leave the current webpage. Clicking on an Accelerator opens a new tab with the full result,” explained Jane Kim – IE Program Manager.

7. Suggestions – there are two types of suggestions that IE8 Beta 2 offers. The Search Box Suggestions is designed as an enhancement to the search field, which is integrated by default into the UI of Internet Explorer 8. Users can now receive real time suggestion for their queries from their favorite search provider. In addition, IE8 Beta 2 can also go as far as to serve Suggested Sites.

“In IE8 we make it easier to find sites you might like. Once you turn on Suggested Sites, IE looks at what sites you visit and then offers recommendations of other similar or related sites, right from the Favorites Bar. If you don’t have Suggested Sites on already, try it out by going to the Favorites Center and clicking on the ‘Turn on Suggested Sites’ button at the bottom of the menu,” Kim said.

8. Reliability – with Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft is validating the proverbial “better late than never” approach, and is finally making it possible for users to recover tabs and browser sessions. The lack of recovery capabilities was one of the critical shortcomings in Internet Explorer versions so far but, with IE8, it is now a thing of the past. Also, a big plus for IE8 is automatic recovery for crashed tabs, browser instances and sessions, providing a great continuity and workflow experience for users.

“The reliability improvements in IE8 Beta 2 are big. Crash recovery is nice, but not crashing is even better. Because in IE8 Loosely-Coupled IE (LCIE) separates the frame (the address bar, back button, etc.) from the tabs, and the tabs (mostly) from each other, crashes are more contained and affect fewer tabs than before. We think users will also appreciate having close boxes on all their toolbars so that disabling ones they don’t want – while leaving the ones they do – is easier,” stated IE General Manager Dean Hachamovitch.

9. Performance – while IE8 is not applauded as the apex of performance compared with rival browsers, Microsoft did indeed go deep under the hood of the product in order to deliver optimizations designed to make it fly. IE Program Manager Christian Stockwell explained that performance enhancements span from the underlining rendering engine, to JavaScript, JSON, networking, CSS, memory management, and scripting.

10. Security – when it comes down to security, IE8 kicks it up a notch compared with IE7. In the next iteration of Internet Explorer, Microsoft included features and capabilities such as: the SmartScreen filter, the Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) filter, Data execution prevention (DEP) (only on Vista SP1), Cross-document messaging, Cross-domain requests, Domain highlighting, Per-site ActiveX and Per-user ActiveX – all designed to bulletproof the browser as much as possible.

11. Privacy – Microsoft is without a doubt well ahead of the game in regard to user privacy, while Google is at the opposite pole. With Internet Explorer 8, the Redmond company introduced a range of enhancements set up to put users firmly in control of their information. The features available or expanded with this release include InPrivate Browsing, Delete Browsing History, InPrivate Blocking, and InPrivate Subscriptions.

12. Compatibility - “IE8 is more interoperable with other web browsers and web standards. The contribution of CSS 2.1 test cases to the W3C is an important in order to really establish a standard way to assess standards support. We think that CSS 2.1 remains the most important place to deliver excellent interoperability between browsers. We think developers will enjoy the improvements to the built-in tools, as well as the other opportunities to integrate their sites in the user’s daily life with Accelerators and Web Slices,” stated Microsoft ISV Architect Evangelist Bruce Kyle.

At the same time, IE8 Beta 2 sports the new Compatibility View feature. While IE8's rendering engine has been configured by default to support modern web standards, the Redmond company is fighting to avoid breaking compatibility with legacy web content tailored exclusively for IE7 or IE6. This is where Compatibility View comes into play.

Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 is available for download via this link.

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