The beta of Internet Explorer 8 was announced at Microsoft’s MIX08 web developer event in Las Vegas. The browser is currently meant for development purposes but boasts some new features that are worth a gander.

Should you download IE8 beta 1? Well, probably not unless you’ve got a PC you don’t mind testing stuff on. Remember this is very early software, so some sites won’t load, while others will render badly. We certainly wouldn’t recommend its use on a main or work PC.

The first thing that you notice when IE8 (finally) opens up is that there’s an Emulate IE7 button. It might not inspire confidence, but this is beta software and so it’s helpful to know that if a site doesn’t work, you can always revert. Mind you, we thought that IE8 was supposed to be utterly standards compliant?

Well, yes, but that seems to inevitably mean that not everything will work with it – as Microsoft expects with its inclusion of the emulation button. CSS 2.1 is supported, while there’s also improved support for AJAX. Microsoft has always been keen to stress that IE8 has an awful lot of developments under the hood.

Rendering problems

On several sites we noticed minor elements that simply don’t work correctly. However, out of those we tried with the browser, only Google Calendar spectacularly failed to load at all properly. The chat feature in Google Mail also wasn't present and BBC News didn’t render correctly either.

You’ll need to have your machine up-to-date with Windows Updates, otherwise your machine will spend an age retrieving all kinds of updates so that IE8 can play ball.

The opening wizard enables you to choose settings such as who you want to use as your default search engine. Part of this process enables you to select ‘activity providers’. This ties into one of IE8’s new innovations – Activities.

Well, actually, it’s not such an innovation as a new take on an old feature. It’s basically a customisable context menu, letting you can right-click something and post it to your blog (though only Windows Live is currently available), look it up on eBay, paste it to Facebook and so on.

Obviously third parties will be able to produce their own plug-in bits for this, so you’ll be able to blog with Blogger and email with Google Mail should you wish to.

Of course the benefit of this is that you can get a map in a popup if there’s an address, or blog a link directly without miserably copying and pasting it. We can see this being useful, but it’s hardly groundbreaking.

Get slicing!

Web Slices is the other big news of IE8, at least from a user’s point of view. It enables you – on certain websites – to select a favourite part of a website and add it to your toolbar. This could be a newsfeed or, as in one of the readily-available examples, an eBay listing. Then, you simply click on the toolbar button to preview the ‘slice’. You can then choose to visit the full page should you wish.

You can also already preview your Facebook on the service (thanks to the Microsoft-Facebook partnership), although we couldn’t actually get that to work. Still in progress, we guess.

One of the other big changes will be familiar to Firefox users – the ability to restore a browsing session or tab after a crash. It’s great IE has finally caught up here.

Other front-end changes are mostly cosmetic. It’s easier to select a specific address when auto-completing web addresses, while the look of the toolbars has been tidied up; the Links bar has also been renamed the Favourites bar. The Favorites options have been moved up one bar as well, while there’s now a button for the multi-page Quick Tabs view. In any address shown in the address bar, the domain is now highlighted, presumably to reduce phishing risk.

So, at the moment IE8 remains a work in progress. The Activities stuff is interesting, but it comes under the ‘nice to have’ category rather than ‘essential’. So IE8 isn’t a huge advance in usability then, but it will provide a fillip for the browser with Firefox 3 on the horizon.