Katherine Boehret

Putting Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 Through Its Paces

In the continuing tug of war between apps and the Web, Microsoft offered a little bit of both last month in its beta release of Internet Explorer 9, the latest iteration of the world’s most popular Web browser. IE 9, as it’s nicknamed, is designed to make websites look richer, respond faster and behave more like the apps installed on your PC so you forget that you’re browsing the Web.

Alas, you are still browsing the Web and the occasional sluggish behavior doesn’t always magically abate after downloading a shiny new browser.

I tested IE 9 against its rivals, including speed tests with stopwatch in hand, as well as overall use tests to see how this new browser handled websites with complex graphics.

Fast, Sometimes Faster

I found my experience with IE 9 to be fast, and in some tests, faster on average than Google (GOOG) Chrome, Apple’s (AAPL) Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browser. It also handled graphically rich websites with no trouble. (IE 9 is free for Windows PCs at beautyoftheweb.com.)

I used two Windows 7 PCs for testing, and though one performed without any problems, the other crashed two times while I used IE 9.

After a thorough analysis of the PC, a Microsoft (MSFT) spokesman attributed this to a graphics-driver problem and suggested a work-around of switching settings in IE 9 so it would use software rather than hardware graphics acceleration, which this new browser uses to improve speed and performance. This switch would cause the browser to perform slower than if it had used the richer hardware-accelerated graphics.

Using the four major browsers, I measured the average time for how long it took each to completely open five typical websites: Facebook, Google Gmail, Twitter, WSJ.com and my sister’s WordPress blog. IE 9 opened Facebook fastest and tied with Chrome in opening WSJ.com fastest. Firefox clocked the best time for opening Gmail and Twitter, and Safari opened my sister’s WordPress blog the fastest.

Handling Intense Graphics

But most of these time differences were within tenths or even hundredths of a second. What interested me more were how these browsers handled intense graphics on certain websites written in a rich format called HTML5.

I opened and interacted with websites including Livestrong.com, BMW’s joydefinesthefuture.com and IMDB.com. All the browsers could handle these sites except for Firefox, which couldn’t open the BMW site—a Web page that shows interactive diagrams of car designs. Videos played smoothly in all browsers, but seemed to start a smidge faster, on average, in IE 9.

If users aren’t impressed with IE 9′s enhanced speed and ability to handle graphics-filled websites, they’ll have a harder time ignoring the way this browser melds with Windows 7 to do some pretty cool things. For example, to automatically create a shortcut to a website, click on its representative icon, whether from the browser’s address bar or from a New Tab page, and drag it down and pin it to the task bar.

This pinned site is represented with its own unique icon and can work as a notification feature for a site’s content. Facebook, when pinned to the task bar, displayed a red asterisk when I had new notifications, messages, or friend requests waiting for me.

A Microsoft spokesman says there should be more sites that take advantage of these notification capabilities in coming weeks.

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Once pinned to the Windows taskbar, the Livestrong.com site gets its own jump list, or set of commands that can be selected from the task bar.
Getting Pinned

Like anything pinned to the task bar in Windows 7, each of these pinned sites gets its own jump list, a set of commands that can be previewed and selected right from the task bar. Other functions also work from here, like playback commands for websites with videos. And any opened site can be previewed in thumbnail view by mousing over it in the task bar.

IE 9 is visually enjoyable thanks to some small but helpful tweaks.

The browser’s back button, an arrow in a circle, is much larger than other browsers, making it easy to find and use when you want to navigate back to the last page you were on. This back button and the forward arrow button beside it change colors according to the dominant color used in the opened website.

For Gmail, the arrow buttons are red, on AllThingsD.com, the buttons are green and on my sister’s WordPress travel blog, they’re light blue. This artistic touch makes the overall page easier on the eyes.

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IE 9 lets people drag website icons down into the task bar for one-click access.

Many sites look the same on IE 9 as they do on other browsers, but some sites look better, filling the screen with slightly bigger illustrations and larger fonts that are easier to digest. I noticed this when viewing Twitter.com and several news websites.

The Birthday Slip

But I missed some of the visual pluses of other browsers. For example, you can’t close one of several opened browser tabs just by clicking on its red “x” icon unless you select—and, thus, view—that tabbed webpage.

Chrome, Firefox and Safari all allow closing of tabs by just mousing over a tab to see an “x” to click to close the website.

Handy shortcuts like this are especially helpful if you’re browsing online for a birthday gift, the intended recipient suddenly appears beside your PC and you need to slyly close a tab.

I’m also not crazy about the New Tab page in IE 9. This uses tiles with names of websites and small icons on each to represent your 10 most visited websites so you can quickly select one of them rather than typing out the page’s URL.

But I prefer the way Google Chrome displays the eight most visited sites as mini web page representations, which are easier to quickly recognize and select.

Likewise, the click of a button in Apple’s Safari browser shows mini representations of your 12 top websites in a concave view that makes you feel like you’re sitting in a round room. And though IE 9 has a handsome translucent border, when I had it opened in front of Google Chrome, I could see Chrome’s tabs behind that translucency, showing just how much more computer screen real estate Chrome offers.

Aside from my unusual PC crashes, IE 9 worked quickly and is smartly designed to handle websites with intense graphics. The Web will continue to fill with more and more of these visually rich, interactive sites, so people will benefit from using a browser like IE 9 that can take the heat.

Email Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com.


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