The MIX08 conference which is being held in Las Vegas these days included a demo about Internet Explorer 8 and its new features in yesterday's schedule. But what nobody expected is that right after this demo, Microsoft announced that the first public beta of their flagship was available for download. Although this first beta is only intended for developers and designers – to give them enough time to get their sites ready for new coding challenges, I guess –our overwhelming curiosity won the day and we couldn't help testing it for a while.
First of all, Internet Explorer 8 doesn't change that much as regards design and interface. It looks a lot like the previous version, being a revamped favorites bar the most – should I say "only" – outstanding change. Installation does take a while, with a wizard-like procedure that forces you to a complete system restart at the end of it.
The first time you launch Intenet Explorer 8, besides the traditional welcome page, the browser also opens a basic configuration tool from where you can import bookmarks, select your default search engine and also add plugins. IE 8 even tries to find equivalent plugins for your installed Firefox extensions – sadly with no success in my case. Another element you can customize in this configuration tool is the so called Activity providers. Activities is one of the main new features in Internet Explorer 8: they're special commands you access from the browser's contextual menu to use special web services such as locating a place in online maps, looking up a word in a dictionary, translating a text snipped or querying any search engine or Internet thematic directory with the selected keywords. Activities can be easily handled with an embedded manager and help you integrate your web browsing with popular online services such as Facebook and StumbleUpon.
The other big new feature included in Internet Explorer 8 is support for web slices. Unfortunately I haven't been able to fully test this new tool because as you can imagine, there are very few websites working with web slices right now. In short, web slices are like RSS feeds, but focusing only on certain areas of a webpage. This means you can keep track of special sections in your favorite online services without having to check them one by one – just like you do with RSS.
One last feature I liked is the Automatic Crash Recovery tool. It works just like the Firefox session saving utility: if your Internet Explorer happens to freeze, it'll try to recover all the opened tabs and other data from last session next time to try to launch it. It worked perfectly fine for me, though I must say the funniest part of testing it was forcing IE to crash.
Regarding core improvements, IE8 is said to work better with AJAX-based pages. I'm sorry to disagree here, but I've visited a few pages with AJAX-powered image galleries and they weren't properly rendered. At least it seems that this version of Internet Explorer is finally going to be truly standard-compliant, as it can be inferred from the Acid2 test results (a basic test for web standards compliance). Despite these good grades, Internet Explorer 8 still fails to show some webpages – such as Softonic – but I guess this is due to the beta stage. In fact, this version lets you emulate Internet Explorer 7, in case web browsing becomes too difficult.
Summing up, Internet Explorer 8 is the proof that Microsoft is getting on the right way: customizable plugins, more ways to interact with other online services, standard compliance… those are the kind of features I like to see in a web browser. It's still a long way to go and there are many issues that need to be solved, but I honestly hope things will get better in future releases. Meanwhile, I'll stick with Firefox.