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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New security and privacy features

IE8 offers a series of new security and privacy features, but the one that has grabbed most people's attention, not surprisingly, is InPrivate Browsing, known to many people informally as "porn mode." Launch an InPrivate browsing session, and all traces of your browsing session vanish when you close that instance of the browser. That means that cookies, temporary Internet files, browsing history, form information, and user names and passwords all vanish.

Porn mode may get the headlines, but there are more useful security and privacy features built into IE8. Possibly most important is new malware protection.

Microsoft has juiced up the anti-phishing filter introduced in IE7, and now calls it the SmartScreen filter. In addition to better anti-phishing capabilities, SmartScreen now warns people when they are about to visit a Web site known to harbor malware. SmartScreen regularly updates its database of sites known to harbor malware.

Also new is a privacy feature called InPrivate Filtering, which is designed to prevent Web sites from sharing information about your browsing habits without your knowledge. InPrivate Filtering lets you block the site you're visiting from sending information to third-party sites. You'll notice it's active by the small icon of an arrow on top of a lock in the bottom right of the browser. If the icon is gray it's turned off; if it's colored, it's on. To turn it on, you would choose Safety-->InPrivate Filtering, or press Ctrl-Shift-F.

You can also customize how InPrivate Filtering works by clicking the arrow to the right of the icon and then selecting either "Automatically block" or "Choose content to block." In addition, you use the Settings option to further customize how it works.

There may be a drawback to InPrivate Filtering: Using it may block third-party content, such as a stock ticker, from being displayed. But you can get around that by using the customization features.

InPrivate Filtering helps protect your privacy by stopping sites from sharing information about you.

Microsoft has added other safety features to IE8. It blocks the most common type of cross-site scripting attacks, and offers better protection against malicious ActiveX controls. Microsoft also claims that IE8 protects against "clickjacking," in which a hacker can place an invisible button underneath or on top of a legitimate button and fool you into activating malicious code or making private information public.

One of my favorite new privacy-related features is somewhat hidden -- the way in which you can better control how you delete cookies. Internet Explorer 7 took an all-or-nothing approach to deleting cookies -- there wasn't a simple way to kill some cookies and keep others. With a new feature in the Delete Browsing History screen, you can delete all cookies and temporary Internet files except those that you have on your Favorites list. Select Safety-->Delete Browsing History or press Ctrl-Shift-Del. Check the box next to Preserve Favorites Web site data, and you won't delete those sites' cookies and temporary files when you delete other cookies.

Some URLs are so long and complex that it can be tough to decipher which domain you're visiting, which makes life easier for site spoofers. But with IE8 you can see at a glance the real domain that you're currently visiting -- it shows up dark in the Address Bar, while the rest of the URL is gray.

Improved Search Bar

Another welcome but subtle improvement has been made to the Search Bar, which has been turned into a previewer of sorts. Search providers can now deliver thumbnail pictures to you depending on your search term, and even suggest specific matches as you type.

As a result, when you type in search text and highlight the provider, you'll see the initial results of your search, plus any graphics that the search provider has decided to put there. In addition, a search provider can pipe in headlines, rather than just the results of a search, or show users related terms on which they may want to search.

In IE8, the search box can display pictures and headlines as well as search results.

In addition, all of your search providers appear as icons beneath the bar as you type. Click any of the icons, and you'll see a preview of the results, which you can then click on without having to actually visit the search sites.

Microsoft has also integrated the search box with the "Find on This Page" feature. When you type a search term in the search box and press Enter, then click in the search box again and click Find, the page that appears will have your search term highlighted in yellow wherever the term appears. The Find on This Page toolbar appears as well, with the search term from the search box put in it. This small but useful feature solves one of my pet peeves about searching -- I often have to input text into two separate search boxes, one in the search engine itself and one on a search box that looks for text on a page.

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