Internet Explorer 8: What you need to know

When IE7 was launched in late 2006, everyone was surprised – surprised that it was good, and even more surprised that the IE team still existed. With five long years between the release of IE6 and IE7, most of us thought that the IE team had been lost behind a sofa somewhere. But no! Here they are with another browser less than two years later. The second beta of IE8 is out this month, and the final release is slated for late 2008.

So is it any good? That depends on what you're expecting. IE8 offers evolution, not revolution: you get a few new features, performance tweaks, improved safety and standards support, but there's nothing that's going to make you strip to your pants and dance around in excitement.

Then again, the improvements are generally worthwhile, the new features are pretty handy and there's good news for web builders who are fed up with sites that work in some browsers but not others. Here's what you can expect from the next big browser release.

New features

The most obvious new features are Smart Tags and Active Desktop – er, sorry, Activities and WebSlices. The former gives you context-sensitive options for looking up data (maps, search and so on), or doing stuff with it (emailing it, sharing on Facebook), rather like IE6's abandoned Smart Tags, and the latter are Sidebar Gadget-style clippings that let you view web content without actually visiting the website.

WebSlices sounds like Safari's Web Clip feature, but it's a different approach: where Apple's method is user-driven, WebSlices is site-driven; it's up to the site owner to define what, if anything, you can slice. It is very similar to IE4's Active Desktop, but that's not necessarily bad: Active Desktop failed largely because most of us didn't have always-on connections. Now, we do.

Speed, safety and standards

IE8 should be faster. Microsoft says key systems including the HTML parser, CSS processing, JavaScript parsing and memory management are speedier than before, but it's still tweaking performance – so it's impossible and perhaps unfair to compare IE8 with the newly rejuvenated Firefox until the Release Candidate stage. It does feel quite nippy, though.

The Phishing Filter is back, but this time it's supplemented with Domain Highlighting – a Firefox-style feature that makes it clear whether the site you're visiting is the site you think you're visiting. The second beta will use SmartScreen filtering, a replacement for the Phishing Filter that offers a better interface, quicker performance and better analysis of unknown websites. It will also check servers to see if they're known sources of dodgy downloads, so if you click on a potentially unsafe link in a chat window IE8 will pop up a warning message.

Protection included

In addition to these changes, IE8 will make ActiveX controls site-specific, will include protection against cross-domain and cross-site exploits, and its Data Execution Prevention system will stop certain kinds of code from writing data to the system memory. When IE8 crashes – which we're sure will be a very rare event – you should be able to resume your last session when you restart the browser.

Last but definitely not least, IE8 will be CSS 2.1 compliant and run in standards mode by default. There's also an Emulate IE7 option for when you encounter sites designed specifically for IE7, and a Quirks mode for IE5 emulation. Developers also get a Developer Toolbar for easy HTML, CSS and JavaScript debugging. Sounds like Firefox's Developer Toolbar extension? Why, yes! Yes, it does!

As with all beta software, IE8 could go rogue and kill your cat, so we wouldn't recommend it for everyday use just yet. However, if you're a designer or developer – or just plain curious – it's worth a look.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.