Hands on: Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview shows speed, not much else

For now, the main selling points are increased performance and support for HTML 5

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.

SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark
IE9 is dramatically faster than IE8, noses out Firefox, and is slower than Chrome in the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark.

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.

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