Does IE 8 offer some legitimate enhancements — or is it just more of the same? Deb Shinder runs through several of the new IE 8 features, many of which she says are big improvements.

Microsoft recently released Beta 2 of Internet Explorer 8 to the public. Although it’s still a beta, this version is said to be feature-complete. Many folks have downloaded it, and reviews, as usual, are mixed. If you want to try it out for yourself, you can download it from Microsoft. You can run it on XP and on both the 32- and 64-bit editions of Vista, Server 2003, and Server 2008. There are different downloads for each OS, so be sure you get the appropriate one.

In my opinion, Microsoft did a good — but not perfect — job with this one. Here are some of the characteristics of the new browser that I love, and a few others I don’t like so much.

Note: This information is also available as an image gallery and a PDF download.

#1: Faster is better

In the computer world, we never seem to get past the need for speed. We want faster connections, faster hardware, faster software. IE 8 is noticeably faster than IE 7 on most Web sites. Pages “pop” in a way that I never saw in its predecessor (but did see in Firefox). Pages with JavaScript or AJAX load much faster, thanks to the improved script engine. This increased performance is likely to be one of the features that’s most noticeable — and most useful — to users.

#2: Like a rock

Stability is at least as important as speed. IE 7 never was stable. On occasion, usually at least a couple of times per day, it would just stop responding for no apparent reason. Try to click a link, try the back button, even try to close the browser normally, and you got nothing. When that happened, I would have to open Task Manager and kill it there. This happened on both XP and Vista machines, and many others told me that it happened to them, too. I knew plenty of users who went back to IE 6 for that reason, but I wasn’t willing to give up my tabs.

I’ve been using IE 8 many hours a day now for over a week and not once has it crashed. If a site or add-on does cause a crash in IE 8, it’s designed so that only that one tab goes down instead of taking the entire browser down with it. And that brings us to the next thing I love.

#3: Crash recovery

Yes, I know Firefox already had it. That’s one of the reasons my loyalty has been divided between IE 7 and Firefox ever since I installed the former. Now IE has it, too: the ability to recover your last browsing session in case the browser does crash, or even if you just accidentally close it yourself.

I don’t know how many times I’ve cursed IE 7 when I was in the middle of some complex research and had half a dozen tabs open that I had come to through all sorts of routes, and the browser decided to go down — taking all my tabs. Sometimes it was my own fault; I was doing 10 things at once, had three or four separate browser windows open, and closed the wrong one. What a pain it was to try to find those pages again. Now you just open a new tab and click the Reopen Last Browsing Session Link, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

crash recovery
You can easily recover closed tabs or the entire previous browsing session.

The new page also has links for every tab you’ve closed during the session, so you can get them back if you close only one tab accidentally. This feature will save many users much grief (or keep them from having to switch to Firefox, as I did, when doing anything important or complicated on the Web).

#4: Browsing in private

Much fuss has been made over the new InPrivate feature in IE 8, with some pundits calling it “porn mode” because it allows you to cover your tracks by preventing browsing history and cache files from being retained. Of course, some people will use this to conceal the fact that they’ve been visiting naughty Web sites, but there are other, legitimate reasons to use the InPrivate feature. It also prevents the computer from retaining your user names and passwords and from retaining information you type into Web forms, as well as preventing cookies from being stored on your system.

It’s not a feature I expect to use much, but it would certainly be useful when using public computers or those shared with coworkers or family members under certain circumstances (for instance, when buying a surprise birthday gift for your spouse). It’s off by default; to turn it on, you just open a new tab and click the “Start InPrivate Browsing” link, which you can also see in Figure A.

#5: Tab grouping

Microsoft may be accused of copying some of IE 8’s new features, such as crash recovery, from Firefox. And Google’s Chrome browser, released in beta just a few days after the IE 8 beta 2 release, has a similar private browsing feature that’s called Incognito browsing. But IE 8 has one new feature that, as far as I can tell, is all its own — although I won’t be surprised if others copy it in the future. That’s color-coded tab grouping, which lets you see at a glance which tabs have been opened from links within other tabs because all the related tabs are the same color. This is actually more useful than it sounds, and you can see what it looks like in Figure B.

Figure B

Tab grouping color codes related tabs so you can tell at a glance which pages were opened from within which other pages.

When you right-click a tab, you have the options to close that tab, close the entire group, or remove the tab from the group.

#6: Accelerators and Web Slices

Accelerators (which were called Activities in the earlier betas) are little add-ins that make it quick and easy to apply a task to highlighted text. For example, you can select a paragraph within a Web page and translate it to another language without having to copy it and go to a translation site and paste it in. Or you can highlight a word and define it using a variety of sources, such as Encarta,, or Wikipedia. Or you can highlight an address or geographic location (city, state, country) on a Web page and get a map directly on that page, without having to go to a mapping Web site.

The accelerators that you’ve installed appear in the right context menu when you highlight text on a page and right click it, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

Right-clicking highlighted text lets you choose from among installed accelerators to process the text.

Figure D shows what happens when you highlight the word “Afghanistan” and select the Map With Live Maps accelerator.

Figure D

The accelerators display the requested information within the site, without requiring you to copy and paste into another page.

A large number of accelerators are available. You can download them from the IE Gallery.

Web slices are like RSS feeds, in that they let you subscribe to content so that you’re updated when it changes. With the slices, though, you don’t have to subscribe to an entire page; there can be different slices within a page. Your selected slices are added to the Favorites bar, and when new information becomes available, the Web slice will be highlighted. You simply click the slice in the Favorites bar to get a preview of the updated content; clicking on that will take you to the site itself.

#7: Getting suggestive with search

IE 8 attempts to make it easier to find what you’re looking for by offering helpful suggestions along the way. When you type a search term, you can see suggestions that are based on your own browsing history and your chosen search provider. For instance, typing just a few letters brings up suggestions that may be relevant to your search, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

IE 8 offers suggestions based on the search term (or partial term) you type, your selected search provider, and your browsing history.

It’s also easier to find specific information on a Web page with IE 8. When you select Find On This Page from the Edit menu or press Ctrl + F, a toolbar appears below the row of tabs. This is a welcome change from the Find dialog box that would pop up in IE 7 and obscure part of your Web page.

The Find function searches as you type, and highlights the matches in yellow, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F

The new Find On This Page function is faster and easier to use.

The address bar is smarter now, too. You can type a search term there instead of in the Search box, and you’ll see suggestions of sites that pertain to the text you typed, based on your browsing history, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

The address bar in IE 8 is smarter now.

#8: Security, security, security

Security is on all our minds these days, and IE 8 adds a number of security enhancements. The good news is that it has done so without making security “in your face” — a common complaint about Windows Vista’s enhanced security.

New security features include:

  • DEP/NX memory protection to help prevent nonexecutable code from running in memory.
  • Changes to ActiveX that will isolate the controls installed by a particular user (per-user ActiveX), so that if one user should install a malicious control, other user accounts won’t be affected.
  • XSS filter that makes it more difficult for attackers to exploit cross-site scripting vulnerabilities.
  • SmartScreen filter (formerly the phishing filter) that’s faster and more user-friendly and has been given Group Policy support and new heuristics.

For more information about IE 8 security enhancements, see the series of posts to the IE Blog on the MSDN site.

#9: Where did those toolbars go?

Some new IE 8 users have complained that their Links bar disappeared after installation. Actually, it gets a new name: Now it’s part of the Suggested Sites bar. It retains the links you had on your Links bar in IE 7. If you open a second instance of IE 8, you may not see the links by default. You can grab the edge of the Suggested Sites bar and move it up or down to a new line, and it will expand so you can see your links again. This is slightly annoying, although it’s far outweighed by the improvements in IE 8.

Another thing that I’ve heard several users complain about is the fact that when they installed IE 8, it disabled their Google toolbar. In fact, a few told me that they rolled back to IE 7 solely because of that. I haven’t used the Google toolbar much with IE 7 because it added the built-in search bar, where you can select Google as your search provider if you want. However, some folks miss other features of the Google toolbar, such as the ability to save toolbar settings online and access them from any computer.

In the earlier beta of IE 8, the Google toolbar caused frequent crashes. This is likely the reason Microsoft disabled it by default in Beta 2. It does not remove it, however, and you can re-enable it by clicking View | Toolbars and checking Google Toolbar. When I’ve done so as an experiment, it has functioned with no problem, but be aware that it may cause instability.

#10: Standards break some sites

For many years, Microsoft has been criticized for not adhering to Web standards established by the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium, which creates specifications and standards for the Web) in previous versions of IE. Opera even filed a lawsuit with the EU asking the European Commission to force Microsoft to follow the standards.

By default, IE 8 complies with all established standards. Ironically, this causes some Web sites (those that were designed for IE 6 and IE 7) to display improperly in IE 8. For instance, some content may not show up or things may be misaligned.

However, Microsoft anticipated this and included a Compatibility button. Its icon, appropriately enough, is a representation of a broken page, and it appears at the right end of the address bar along with the Refresh and Stop icons, as shown in Figure H. If a page doesn’t render correctly, you can click this button, and IE 8 will go into compatibility mode and behave like IE 6/7, so the page will appear correctly.

Figure H

IE 8’s compliance with Web standards may break some sites, but they can be fixed with the click of a button.