Review: Internet Explorer 8 is new and improved -- is it back on top?

Microsoft's IE8 browser offers cool features, better security, and improved performance.

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The address bar is also getting a big makeover. It's no longer just a location for typing in a Web address. As with Firefox and Chrome, the address bar now operates as an all-in-one search tool that searches the Web as well as previously visited Web sites, Favorites and RSS feeds.

Type in a term, and Internet Explorer does a search, using your default search engine. Start to type a URL, and you'll get a list of results from your History and Favorites, organized by category. So, for example, type "gra" and you'll see a list of all of the sites in your History and Favorites that contain those letters -- not just at the beginning of the URL, but also in page titles, or anywhere in the URL. To visit the site, highlight it in the list and press Enter.

You can also have the address bar display matching sites from RSS feeds as well. Choose Tools-->Internet Options-->Content, then click the Settings button next to AutoComplete. Check the box next to Feeds, and click OK and then OK again. Now when you use the Address Bar, information from RSS feeds will be displayed as well.

Accelerators and Web Slices

Perhaps the most noticeable new features in IE8 are Accelerators and Web Slices, both designed to let you get information from Web pages and services without having to visit them.

Think of an Accelerator as a mini-mashup that delivers information from another Web site directly to your current browser page. Let's say, for example, that you're on a Web page with an address on it. Highlight the address, and then choose a maps accelerator, and you'll see a map of the address displayed in a flyaway -- a kind of pop-up on the page -- or else on another tab, depending on how that particular accelerator was written. You can interact with the flyaway map just as if you were on the map site itself.

The address bar is no longer just a location for typing a URL -- it also searches through your Favorites, History and RSS feeds.

As you might expect, many of the currently available Accelerators are written by Microsoft to take advantage of its services, such as Live Maps, Live Search and Windows Live Spaces. There are others as well, including ones from Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Yahoo.

I did have some problems with Accelerators. On some PCs, including the one I used to test IE8, Accelerators and Web Slices won't display if you have Google Gears installed. Microsoft says it is working on the problem. In addition, the Live Maps Accelerator had a problem finding addresses when they were on separate lines on a Web page -- for example, when the street address was on one line and the city was beneath it.

Another problem is that there simply aren't many Accelerators available at this point. Accelerators can be written using basic XML, though, so they may well catch on if enough sites and people decide to write them.

Web Slices offer another way of easily getting information. They deliver changing information from a Web page you're not actively visiting directly to IE8. So, for example, if you want to watch stock prices you can get information from the Web Slice without having to visit the Web page that houses that information.

When you visit a Web page that can deliver information via a Web Slice, the Web Slice icon on the Favorites bar turns green. Click its down arrow and you'll see a list of all Web Slices on the page. Select one, and a listing for the Web Slice then appears on your Favorites bar. When its content changes, the title turns bold. Click the Web Slice, and it drops down and displays the content. You can click through to go to the Web page that hosts the slice, or view it in the drop-down.

When you're on a page that has Web Slices, click the icon and you'll see a list of every slice on the page.

Web Slices sound simple to create and can be useful, but in practice there are problems, depending upon how the actual Web Slice is written. For example, the eBay Web Slices I tried didn't show any actual bidding or auction information, like on an auction site; they only displayed a graphic of the item being sold, which isn't particularly helpful. Similarly, the Live Search traffic map displayed only a tiny map of an area, with no visible traffic information.

The other problem with Web Slices is that there is only a limited amount of real estate on your Favorites Bar, so you can't have many of them there.

One final issue: There simply aren't very many Web Slices available right now. As with Accelerators, Microsoft will have to figure out a way to get developers and Web sites to write Slices. And I hope that the Slices that do get written will be actually usable -- having only photos of items for an eBay auction Web Slice helps no one.

Web Slices could end up being more useful to large enterprises than they are to consumers. For example, corporate developers could write Web Slices that allow employees to grab detailed information from intranets or corporate portals.

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