If you're anything like me, chances are that the first thing you do with a new PC is download Firefox and/or Google chrome. Compared to Internet Explorer 8, both offer way more speed, far better security and far greater customisation.
Feeling the burn, the elves at Microsoft's Seattle lair have been slaving over a hot code base to bring us the beta version of Internet Explorer 9, code that they hope will give more people less reason to consider other web browsers.
Look and Feel
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable thing about Internet Explorer 9 is how sparse it is. After looking closely at how people surf, Microsoft came up with the idea of putting the web page at the centre by reducing its toolbar and button clutter to a bare minimum.
When you fire up IE 9, there's one toolbar and a minimum of controls. The controls that are there have been made semitransparent, matching the tidy Windows 7 Aero interface.
The net effect on most set ups is that distractions from the web page are minimised. This said, IE9 on larger widescreen monitors tends to look almost too empty.
Another feature that impressed was the efforts that have been made to made to hide intrusive user alerts. Where IE8 delivered a steady stream of annoying pop-ups, IE9 is far more discrete. Downloading a file saw a subtle bar appear at the bottom of the screen asking whether to run or save the file.
Win 7 wins
Windows 7 users are also winners as shortcuts to links or favourites can be pinned to the taskbar and Start menu for quick and easy access. This may not sound like much but you have half a dozen websites you visit on a daily basis, this feature is a real godsend. Nicer still, pinned sites also support jumplists in Windows 7. Right click one and you get the option to enable private browsing and a bunch of other nifty browser stuff. The real losers in the IE9 launch are Windows XP users - it won't work on the near-archaic OS.
Like Google's Chrome, IE 9's address box can also be used for both searching and entering URLs. The marketing wonks at Microsoft calls this "Onebox". Auto-complete still works, and searches default to Microsoft's Bing search engine (which can also be customised). All told, IE9's interface refinements represent huge improvements over IE8.
A long-overdue addition to IE 9 is a half-decent download manager that lets you see all downloads, just as you can with other Windows web browsers. The download manager window tells you the basic vitals on your download's progress, and lets you pause or cancel it. This may be standard on other browsers, but it's a huge, if not welcome, addition to IE9.
Security & Speed
Security has also been given a much needed bump up in IE9. What is most immediately noticeable is the Smart Screen download reputation feature which takes a leaf out of Symantec's book to identify safe downloads, and to alert you to unsafe or dodgy files, greatly reducing the amount of time wasted dealing with "This file may harm your computer" nagscreen pop-ups.
It now also supports hardware acceleration which sees it using your graphics processor to render complex pages, taking a significant load off your PC's CPU.
This said, actual performance may vary depending on your PC's graphics hardware configuration, and the sorts of sites visited, as well as your connection speed etc.
Page-loading performance aside, IE 9 will also check to see if any add-ons you've installed are slowing down your browser's start up time. If any are, it will notify you once it opens. Thanks to this feature, I found I had add-ons installed that I didn't even know were there. This check by IE 9 is a fairly small addition, but it makes a big difference.
All told at the end of the day IE9 felt significantly smoother to use, giving me even less reason to look longingly at Firefox or Chrome.
So the verdict? IE9 mightn't appear to be an evolutionary jump-step over IE8 but thanks to a steady stream of small (but hugely useful) tweaks and improvments, Microsoft has crafted a browser that's easily as good, if not better than Firefox and Chrome.