Internet Explorer 9 is heading for beta. Microsoft claims vast speed improvements thanks to optimising the browser's use of your PC's hardware, so we've put the latest preview build through its paces.
Microsoft is trying out preview builds for developers at conferences, with a new demo every 6-8 weeks. We took a closer look at preview platform 4, the last preview before the beta release. Although the IE team hasn't fixed a date, MS boss Kevin Turner has said he expects the beta in September -- we could even see a final release before the end of the year.
The first thing you notice is that preview 4 has a few bits missing: specifically, the user interface. IE9 won't be reinventing the wheel in the interface; MS has simply chosen to leave the front end off the preview builds to emphasise the changes in the back end.
There are two main areas of focus under the bonnet: standardised mark-up and hardware acceleration.
Standardised mark-up sees IE9 move towards HTML5 and away from plug-ins such as Silverlight and Flash for Web functions that are beyond older iterations of HTML. We're moving towards all the browsers supporting the same standards of mark-up language for things we now think of as basic Web features, such as video. HTML5 is most vocally championed by Apple, keeping Flash off the iPhone and iPad in an ongoing spat with Adobe.
Most interesting though is IE9's use of the hardware in your PC, inspired by the way gaming graphics use your kit. IE9 integrates with a feature of Windows 7 and Vista called Direct2D, which works out what processors and graphics cards it has at its disposal so the browser can render images, video and fonts at the maximum speed and quality.
IE9 also does something similar with sound. This Windows integration means IE9 won't be coming to Apple Macs.
If you want to try out the latest preview build of IE9, and you have Windows 7 or Vista -- hardware acceleration isn't in XP -- head for ie.microsoft.com/testdrive. The demos, tests and sample games there will work in other browsers if you want to compare your browser's performance to IE9.