Despite the rumors, Microsoft didn’t show off a public technical preview of Internet Explorer 9 this week, but it did show off a new test version of the new browser. The test version of IE 9 was shown at Microsoft’s professional developer conference yesterday and Tom’s Guide had a hands-on demonstration of the same features from Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of the Internet Explorer team.
There are no new features in this test version, just improvements to the rendering engine. To show that it’s a test version rather than a full new browser, the icon is a greyed-out version of the familiar IE logo.
IE9 will feature a new version of the same rendering engine in IE 8, which is called Trident, rather than a brand new engine. IE 8, like all the other browsers, uses the standard Windows graphics system, GDI – which makes the CPU do all the work. The latest generation of the Windows graphics system is DirectX, which is used for the Aero graphics interface in Windows, and for games. If your system has a graphics card, or even an integrated graphics chipset that can do DirectX hardware acceleration (which very many PCs now have), IE 9 will use that instead.
In this example, the map scrolls quickly as you move across the screen – at a rate of over 60 frames per second. The CPU load is much lower because the graphics card is doing the work. Web sites don’t need to make any changes in order for IE9 to work in this way.
Using DirectX means that IE can use the Direct2D and DirectWrite system introduced with Windows 7 to position text precisely on sub-pixels on screen. That means that the text you see will be smoother and easier to read. Again, you won’t need to change anything on your Web site to get the smoother, crisper text rendering; it’s all done by the browser. Microsoft isn’t ready to say whether this will work on versions of Windows prior to 7 and Vista SP2 that don't include DirectWrite.
The smoother text is very obvious when you zoom in close, but it also changes the look of standard size text. “There have been many readability studies over the years,” says Microsoft IE team general manager Dean Hachamovitch. “If you have a really long blog post, I won’t mind reading it as much because of the font smoothing.”
DirectX makes text move smoothly rather than jerkily when you resize a browser window. There may be some subtle changes to layouts in IE9 compared to other browsers, Hachamovitch admits. “Right now there is no pixel perfect positioning across browsers,” he says. “I'm finding there's a more natural layout; there are words that, when I look at them in other browsers now, they are all spread out. This tightens up the letters and makes them easier to read.”
IE 9’s score of 32 is better than the 20 that IE 8 scores on the ACID 3 test, but neither score is good enough to pass the test. Hachamovitch believes that the standards that are actually used on Web sites aren’t reflected in this test. Although the IE team will continue to work on improving IE 9’s ACID score, he says “the point is how we deliver on interoperable standards that developers use and want,” and points to results like this CSS 3 test. CSS is a programming language used to build the look and feel of a site. “The different versions of CSS are widely regarded as the most applicable to the widest set of sites,” says Hachamovitch.