What's the first thing you do with a new Windows PC? Chances are you'll download a new browser. Chrome, Firefox, Flock … anything but InternetExplorer. However, Microsoft has just unleashed the beta version of IE9, which could make you change your mind about browsers.
First, however, you have to get past the install process, which is longer and more tiresome than it ought to be. The 64-bit version toddles off and looks for updates, then forces a reboot once it's installed.
However, once up and running, what's immediately obvious is its pared-down look. It's very minimalist: the box is both the address bar and the search box. The default is of course Bing, but you can change that. Next to that are tabs; to the far right of the screen are discreet icons for your home page, your favourites (not everyone is going to like that being moved to the other side of the screen) and your tools. And that's it. What you get instead of toolbars, add-ons, buttons and sidebars is just acres of screen real estate. Perhaps a little too much on a wide, high-res screen as many websites are designed as though they're going to fit on a sheet of A4 paper, though generally the sense is of the browser fading into the background and putting the website centre stage.
Customisation freaks will feel bereft as there's no skinning – instead the back button adopts the underlying style sheet of the website you're visiting, and the bar at the top renders in Aero glass. Oh, and there's the rub: this is only for users of recent Microsoft operating systems: Vista SP2 and Windows 7. No XP, and certainly no other operating systems.
But the point is that it's designed to take advantage of modern hardware. Instead of calling on your CPU for processing, IE9 diverts the grunt work to your graphics processing unit (GPU), which means that graphics can be rich and fast. Do a side by side test with your current choice of browser and IE9 of the FishIE Tank at http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive/and see the difference hardware acceleration makes to rendering the fish.
The whole thing feels fast - the browser is focused on standards and compliance, which makes sites built in HTML5 a pleasure to use. In fact, what this does is in effect turn websites into apps: the IE9-optimised version of Amazon.com, for example, which looks rather like the iPad bookshelf app, means you can pick books off the shelves, flip through them and order them via a whizzy, interactive process.
And if you drag the favicon from the IE9 box down to your taskbar, you can launch the site direct from that – just like an app, though how much use I'll make of that remains to be seen as those buttons could fill up the taskbar rather quickly. Developers can code the jumplist –the list of options that pops out from a button on the taskbar when you right-click it - making websites feel even more like apps.
Under the hood, Microsoft says it's safer than other browsers. Using the same engine as its Security Essentials antimalware package, the browser checks websites and downloads and warns you if an app you're downloading isn't signed or a site is dodgy.
Privacy is also at the fore in this version of IE. You can block elements of web pages – such as those that gather browsing metrics, though you have to do so on a site-by-site basis. However, you can't use that to block ads, and at present there isn't a dedicated ad-blocking add-on, which might be a dealbreaker for some.
As more websites build content that takes advantage of IE9, the benefits of it will become clearer. For now, this is a good beta: it's stable, clean and fast and integrates well with the operating system. It could mean that downloading a new browser is no longer the first thing you do with a new computer.
Pros: Very clean UI; ability to pin websites to the taskbar, safe browsing, standards-focused
Cons: Slow install, forces a reboot, the minimalist layout might not be to everyone's taste.