Friday, March 19, 2010

IE 9 Platform Preview has speed, not much else


March 18, 2010, 2:54 PM EDT
By Preston Gralla

The Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview exhibits to good effect two of what Microsoft says will be the new browser's selling points: speed and HTML 5 support. If the final version is as fast as or faster than the preview, IE will no longer be a laggard in the browser race and will most likely beat out Firefox. HTML 5 support is a nice extra, but it's still too early to tell how important that will be.

At this point, the IE9 Platform Preview is little more than a browser display engine, and it isn't intended for users. Instead, it's Microsoft's attempt to give developers a heads-up about where the browser is headed. There's no address bar, no navigation features or Favorites, no Back or Forward buttons, no multiple tabs, no malware protection or other basic or advanced browser features. To visit a Web site, you have to press Ctrl-O, type in the URL and then press Enter. When you click a hyperlink that would normally open a new window, that page will open in your default browser.

Not surprisingly, the IE9 Platform Preview doesn't replace your existing version of IE. Instead, it runs alongside it. It cannot be set as your default browser. It runs only with Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Vista Service Pack 2 or Windows 7. To run it on Vista SP2 and Windows Server R2, you'll need the Platform Update. It won't run on Windows XP -- now, or when it finally ships, according to Microsoft.

The need for speed

IE8 and previous versions of IE have been criticized for being far slower than competing browsers such as Firefox and Chrome, and tests have proved that out. The IE9 Platform Preview fixes that problem. In my testing on two PCs -- one with Windows Vista and other with Windows 7 -- I found it far speedier than earlier versions of IE, and faster than Firefox.

I ran the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark on a Dell Dimension 9200 with an Intel Core 2 Quad CPU and 2GB of RAM. I tested the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview, Internet Explorer 8, and the current versions of Firefox (3.6) and Chrome (4.1). IE9 exhibited a dramatic speed improvement; with an average score of 804ms, it performed more than six times faster than IE8 (5078ms) and nosed out Firefox (914ms) but was beaten by Chrome (489ms).

Microsoft says that one way it sped up the browser was by using a separate processor core to compile JavaScript in the background. JavaScript is only one benchmark for speed, of course. The vendor says it has taken steps to speed up the browser in other ways as well, notably by using a PC's graphics processor to accelerate the rendering of text and graphics.

There's no way to adequately test this, so I can't report on it accurately. But on the IE9 Test Drive site, you can find several impressive demonstrations of interactive HTML 5 graphics powered by your graphics processor. I also tested Chrome and Firefox; both were significantly slower than IE9 and did not display the test graphics properly. However, there's no way to know whether the graphics on the page have been specifically tuned for IE9, so it's hard to know how significant the results are.

Adherence to standards

Microsoft is also touting IE9's adherence to HTML 5 standards, including a variety of features such as the ability to embed video and to interactively change and animate the borders of Web pages. To show them off, the company has created a set of Web pages on its IE9 Test Drive site.

The results are fast and impressive, but again, it's hard to know how well the browser will work in the real world, since the pages may have been tuned for it. And because HTML 5 is not in general use, this may not be a big selling point in the short term, although it could be important in the long term.

Currently, IE9 doesn't play HTML 5 videos using the HTML 5

IE9 showed mixed results on the Acid3 test, which tests how well a browser adheres to several sets of Web standards, notably those related to JavaScript and the Document Object Model (DOM). When I ran it, the IE9 preview scored a 55 on the Acid3 test and rendered the page properly except for color. Chrome 4.1 scored a 98 and did not render the page properly; Firefox 3.6 scored a 92 and did render the page properly, although during the course of the test it displayed several error messages.

IE9's Acid3 test score is not impressive, but it's a great leap forward compared to IE8, which on my PC scored only a 20 and, as with IE9, rendered the page properly except for color.

In normal Web browsing, every page I visited displayed properly on IE9, with one very major exception: Gmail. The buttons that normally range across the top of the page instead were stacked on top of one another, leaving a very large empty blue space.

That's all, folks

At this point, the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview does little more than display Web pages, so there's no way to tell what the final version of IE9 will look like. However, based on this initial release, it's clear that the browser will be far faster than previous versions of IE and that it will beat or rival Firefox, if not Chrome, in terms of performance.

Only developers or those who simply must get their hands on new software the moment it comes out would need to download the IE9 Platform Preview -- it can be found at Microsoft's Test Drive site. Everyone else will do well to wait until a later version is released. Microsoft says a new version of the Platform Preview will be released approximately every eight weeks, but it has given no date for beta or final releases.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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