Internet Explorer 8 (Beta 1) review

The seventh version of Microsoft’s browser was a massive improvement over its predecessor, but it still failed to match main rival Firefox for flexibility, usability and data-privacy features.

Now, the early release IE8 is with us, and with Microsoft gunning for the open-source champion with a new focus on standards, we’ve taken a look to see how things are progressing.

First things first, though. IE8 is still very much an early Beta and it’s not something we’d recommend installing unless you’re feeling very brave.

Although we experienced few major issues with stability, it’s not yet compatible with Skype, Google and Yahoo Toolbars, and RealPlayer 11, and there have been reports of it rendering Microsoft Update useless. However it is simple enough to remove, if you find you don’t get along with it.

After a short time with it, our first feelings are that you may well want to do this – IE8 clearly has a long way to go before it becomes the finished article.

The new focus on supporting the latest standards, including CSS 2.1 and HTML 5, is welcome but page rendering is shaky at this stage.

Core sites such as Google Product Search and the BBC News home page look messy, which is possibly due to underlying code that has been tweaked to look perfect in the previously non-standard IE environment now being broken by the new, more Firefox-like page renderer.

As a workaround there’s an emulate IE7 button on the toolbar for switching back to the old browser, but the fact this needs a restart between mode switches means it’s hardly practical.

Even taking this into account, however, it’s clear, from the direction that Microsoft has set out in, that IE8 is unlikely to be the update that many will have been waiting for. For instead of smoothing off IE7’s rough edges, it has instead focussed on developing a plethora of additional and ‘innovative’ features.

Activities is the first in the list of major new additions. Highlight some text on-screen and you see a small green arrow appear above it. Click the icon and you’re offered a selection of shortcuts – at this stage to mainly Microsoft services such as mapping via Live Maps, translation via Windows Live, and blogging via Windows Live Spaces.

It’s not simply a list of context-sensitive web macros, however: as you hover your mouse over the activities, some launch a callout box with a web page snippet built in. With the mapping activity, for example, you can highlight an address and a Live Maps view appears of what you searched for.

It’s extensible, and the limited list of activities currently available is likely to grow as the beta programme progresses, but as it’s reliant on third parties, the quality and usefulness of this is likely to vary.

Next up is WebSlices, a similar tool, but this time it allows you to keep small sections of web pages mounted, ready for snap consultation, on the revamped shortcut bar. In this early version the only partner site we could get working with this feature was the US eBay website, but it demonstrates its potential applications well.

After adding a slice – in this case an item you want to keep tabs on – you simply click the relevant button in your toolbar and up pops up a live snapshot, graphics and all, of that particular eBay item. The trouble is that it’s a proprietary system and relies on coding behind the scenes rather than anything a user can do – its success will depend on third party take-up.

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