First look at Microsoft's IE9 beta

Within just a couple of weeks of the third technology preview provided by Microsoft, the company has made the first beta of its new Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) web browser available to the general public today.

The first thing you'll notice about IE9 is the fact that it's very minimalistic. Many will say it looks reminiscent of Google's Chrome browser, but appearance is where the similarity ends - at least for now. Internet Explorer 9 aims to be Microsoft's response to everything the competition has innovated on for the last years, and which that has cost the company a sizeable share of its earlier market.

IE9 has been awarded praise for its slimmed-down interface (although in the case of toolbars, Microsoft switches them all off by default). Upon loading up the browser, you'll be invited to kill as many add-ons as you wish. Ironically, the browser self-diagnosed itself and told us its Live Toolbar was holding back boot up time by 2.72 seconds, out of 3.03 seconds total delay.

After that, it's fast. Fast like Chrome - we won't avoid the comparison, because it is our experience that users do appreciate the speed with which you can work in Chrome.

The Address Bar is now Bing. Much like typing an HTTP address in Windows Explorer, the address bar is now also the Bing search box. Type an address, get a site, type gibberish, get Bing's search results. Coincidentally, Bing has just gone into HTML5 mode. Like Opera 10.5 and Chrome, a new tab will result in a display of your most visited websites.

Taking a page from the FireFox playbook, IE9 comes with a download manager that will stop you from losing downloads mid-way. Chrome has none of this. With IE9, Microsoft has increased browser-OS integration tenfold. Faster Java, full CSS 3 selectors, ICC color profiles, WOFF (web typography) and so forth. In this case, image, video and text rendering will be done by the GPU, removing a substantial amount of cycles from the CPU. It's actually very common for our IE8 to go into cycle-chomping frenzy with a handful of sites open. This might just solve the problem.

IE9 also lets you pin your favourite sites to your Windows taskbar.

HTML5 development will bring about a very interesting transformation in website design, but the IE9 Experience site can provide you with sample HTML5-coded sites to experiment on. However, if you're still stuck in XP-land, you'll have to consider other options, as IE9 will come as strictly Vista and 7 affair.

A bit of spit and polish, and IE9 is ready to go. We're sure users will complain about a few features - in particular, the tab bar being to the top right and immovable. So far, though, the beta is shaping up to be a good deal.

No final release date has yet been set for IE9, but it's almost - almost - ready, by the looks of things.