Internet Explorer 8 – first impressions

 Internet Explorer gets its full launch at 4pm UK time today, but we managed to get a sneak peek of the finished product – here’s our thoughts on

Internet Explorer gets its full launch at 4pm UK time today, but we managed to get a sneak peek of the finished product – here’s our thoughts on the main featuresSmart Address Bar and SearchJust like IE7, its successor feels simple and uncluttered. Infuriatingly for some, the stop and refresh button are still on the right-hand side of the address bar. Microsoft stated that this is because after making the (inexplicable) change in IE7, there’s no going back.Like the Firefox Awesome Bar (or Smart Location Bar) IE8’s Smart Address Bar will offer results from the minute you start typing – and just like Firefox it’ll search from the whole url string, not just the homepage, and will also check page titles, favourites and RSS feeds and delivers them by category.If this all starts to get a bit cluttered for you, you can delete anything you see as irrelevant from the drop-down results and it won’t appear again. Although unlike Firefox, you can’t add to your favourites or subscribe via RSS from here.Suggested sites makes like the Genius Bar of browsing, and will suggest similar sites if its switched on. Just like the Genius Bar, I’m not convinced that this will get used that much.Much neater is Visual Suggestions from Live Search, which will offer up lovely, graphic-rich suggestions should you want them. Ebay, Amazon, Photobucket and Wikipedia are just a few to have signed up for this already.Tabbed browsingThe whole browser has tabbed browsing at its core and there are a few nice touches to make this easier.For instance, if you’ve opened a tab from another page, IE8 will colour-code these tabs together. You can right-click on a tab to control the whole group and also reopen any closed tabs.When you open a new tab, there’s no longer a blank screen, but options such as InPrivate Browsing and Accelerator (which we’ll come to later on).IE8 has gone one better than Firefox’s ability to restore session after a crash by isolating the crash to an individual tab. We’ve yet to find anything to make it crash to test this out, but will get back to you on how well this works.There’s also a nice “Find on Page” feature that will highlight any text you’re searching for on a web page.Accelerator and Web SlicesMicrosoft is keen to stress that it wants to make browsing a faster experience for users – not just in terms of load times, but also by reducing the number of clicks it takes to get to where we want.

Accelerator is perhaps my favourite IE8 tool. Just right-click on any highlighted text and a pop-up window will give you a suite of common web tasks that you might want to do with it – from defining a word to looking up a map location, from Tweeting and Facebooking to email. So for instance, you can look up a restaurant’s location, send it in an email and then tell everyone that you’re going to be there in your FaceBook status – all from one page.As you’d expect, the default accelerators are Microsoft-based, but there are loads to choose from, including Google, Amazon, Wikipedia and Yahoo! and Microsoft say any site can add the functionality with a little XML.

Web slices aims to again cut down on those clicks by allowing you to add live feeds to your Favourites Bar. Sort of like super-RSS, you can choose (from sites that offer Web Slices) and graphic-rich, live content will appear in drop-down form whenever you check it – great for weather or stock reports or eBay auctions.As the name suggests, it’s like a tiny slice of the web delivered straight to your browser, so your Favourites can become a live dashboard – it’ll even glow green any time content has been updated.There aren’t too many Web Slice services available right now (although eBay and Gmail have signed up) so we’ll see how much this feature catches on when and if sites add it to their functionality.Security and privacyMicrosoft is also keen to stress that IE8 is the most secure browser that protects private details the most.First up, it’ll auto-highlight the domain name of any site you’re on so that you can tell at a glance if it’s kosher, while Smartscreen Filter will offer up a mixture of malware protection and an anti-phishing tool to deliver a giant red screen if it thinks something’s not right.This may get slightly annoying for those not keen on Microsoft’s nanny approach, but it sure beats getting all your bank details stolen.IE8 also offer the only cross-site scripting protection in a browser – it automatically blocks the script that allows hackers to mirror information on a sensitive site, without the user even noticing.

Also, like Firefox, there is a Privacy option, or as we call it the Porn Button. IE8’s InPrivate browsing, it’s charmingly suggested, can be used for when you are shopping for gifts on a family PC. It works in the same way as the Firefox option, by suspending caching on any given tab or page.InPrivate filtering lets users set the amount of information available to sites and third-party sites, to track and aggregate, although again, I’m not sure anyone apart from the incredibly paranoid will bother with this option. Still, nice to have.A worthy contender?Its indisputable solid, stable and dependable reputation aside, Internet Explorer had a lot of catching up to do with the whiz-bang customisation of Firefox, but there are some sweet new touches in IE8, noteably Accelerator and Web Slices, that make it the most worthy IE contender in the browser wars for quite some time.Available from 4pm today from Microsoft