Back in August 2008, Microsoft released what it must have thought would be the final beta version of its next Web browser, Internet Explorer (IE) 8. (See my review of IE 8 Beta 2.) That release, alas, was marred by Web site compatibility problems, causing Microsoft to extend the pre-release cycle for IE 8 and ship another public build of the product, called IE 8 Release Candidate 1 (RC1). As its name suggests, IE 8 RC1 is indeed a near-final version of the product, and Microsoft says that we can expect the final version to be very similar to this version. So the question this time around is, what has Microsoft done to fix the compatibility issues that dogged IE 8 Beta 2?

As it turns out, quite a bit. In the intervening several months, Microsoft has worked to soften the blow of its aggressive decision to adopt Web standards, a decision that many (including me) never expected the company to make. As it turns out, however, adopting Web standards is a much better idea in theory than it is in reality, which we discovered with Beta 2. Unfortunately, so much of the Web is written to the idiosyncrasies of previous IE versions that using a standards-based rendering mode by default in IE 8 broke many sites. And getting those sites to update for IE 8, Microsoft has found, is slow going, even though the process generally involves a quick and easy fix.

So here we are with RC1. This build of the browser takes a more proactive approach to compatibility by actively monitoring a list of sites known to malfunction in some way under IE 8 and rendering those sites in Compatibility Mode (a la IE 7) by default. That's smart, and I think when you add that to the surprising range of end user innovation in IE 8, you'll come to the same conclusion that I'm slowly adopting: This is an important release and one that does far more than the competition to advance the state of the browser. Let's take a look.

IE 8 RC1
Internet Explorer 8 Release Candidate 1.

Since we last spoke...

Since the Beta 2 release of IE 8, Microsoft has released a number of interim builds of the browser, though only a very few of these have gone out to a wider external audience. I've been working with a so-called "partner build" of IE 8 since late last year, and the final RC1 build since last week. But even before these builds shipped, Microsoft has tested various post-Beta 2 versions of IE 8 in Windows 7 and elsewhere. So there's a pretty good understanding of how things have changed since the last big public milestone.

Too, Microsoft has been pretty transparent about the changes it has been making to its next browser. Via its IE Blog has been busy documenting features and plans for the browser. Some of the features that are new in RC1 were first revealed there, including its plans to ship an additional public pre-release version of the browser before going final.

The primary issue, of course, is compatibility. Looking back at Beta 2, the only serious problem I uncovered was that many of the Web sites I need to visit everyday simply didn't work properly in IE 8. And that made it a non-starter for me, as I imagine it would for virtually anyone else. A slightly less important issue was performance: IE 8 Beta 2 seemed somewhat slow-poked to me, and actions like opening a new tab or browser window were often met with annoying pauses.

In RC1, the situation has improved in both cases. It's not perfect--Gmail and Google Calendar still don't render properly in the default rendering mode, though the glitches are small and don't impact usability. Facebook now appears to work properly.

IE 8 RC1
Small rendering glitches still appear on some Google sites.

Performance is improved too, though IE 8 still isn't as quick as Firefox 3 from what I can tell. But new tabs and windows do appear quite a bit quicker than before. They're still not instantaneous, but it's tolerable.

Changes in IE 8 RC1

From a mile-high view, IE 8 RC1 looks and behaves much like Beta 2 on the surface. But there are actually a number of changes, including one big change that could make all the difference in the world. I'll look at that one first.

Compatibility View Updates

Internet Explorer 8 has a new bit of functionality around its Compatibility View functionality, which allows the browser to render certain Web sites using the old (but more compatible) IE 7 renderer. In previous beta versions of the browser, Compatibility View was manual and opt-in: If the user noticed that a certain Web site didn't look right with IE 8, they could click a new Compatibility View button to ensure that the site would always be rendered as if they were using IE 7.

Compatibility View is a good idea, but it puts the onus of checking compatibility on the end user. This would be fine if only a handful of Web sites didn't work properly under IE 8, I suppose. But because of the sheer number of sites that don't render properly in the new browser, Microsoft has extended Compatibility View with a new feature called Compatibility View Updates. This feature allows the browser to optionally check Web sites against a Microsoft-hosted list of sites that are known not to work properly in IE 8's default rendering mode. When such a Web site is encountered, IE 8 will automatically switch to Compatibility View.

That's a great idea, and it appears to work properly with the handful of sites I've pinpointed as being particularly problematic in IE 8. (Primarily Google sites, go figure.) When I browse these sites in IE 8 RC1, they automatically fall over to Compatibility View.

If you're a privacy nut, fear not, Compatibility View Updates is optional and you can opt out of it during the first-run experience in IE 8. That said, I think you should leave it on, as it automates the process of giving you the best possible experience browsing the Web, which is pretty much what I assume most people are looking for.

To accommodate Compatibility View Updates, Microsoft has modified the Set Up Windows Internet Explorer 8 window that appears when you first run the new browser. If you choose "use express settings," IE 8 RC1 will be configured to use Compatibility View Updates. If you instead choose custom settings, you can determine whether or not this feature will be enabled.

IE 8 RC1
You can disable Compatibility View Updates if you choose custom setup on first run.

After that, you can configure Compatibility View Updates via a new check box in the Compatibility View Settings dialog box (View, Compatibility View Settings). If the check box titled "Include updated website lists from Microsoft" is checked, Compatibility View Updates is enabled.

IE 8 RC1
A single checkbox determines whether Compatibility View Updates is enabled.

Separately, Microsoft is working with the owners of Web sites that must be run in Compatibility Mode to ensure that their sites are up to speed with the latest IE 8 version. As these sites are updated, they will be removed from Microsoft's black list and will render in IE 8's new default standards-based rendering mode automatically.

Other changes in RC1

In addition to Compatibility View Updates, Microsoft has made a number of other changes to IE 8 since Beta 2. These include, but are not limited to...

Address Bar. The new Smart Address Bar in IE 8 has been augmented to show more previously visited or popular sites in the drop-down as you type. (It's up to 12 by default, or 25 if History and Favorites are disabled.) Microsoft has also disabled AutoComplete Suggestions, which suggested possible matches for what you were typing in the Address Bar. (This feature dated back to at least IE 5, if I remember correctly.)

Favorites Bar. In IE 8, a new Favorites Bar replaces and expands on the functionality provided by the old Links Bar. Starting with RC1, this new UI construct gets more configurable. You can specify custom title widths for items in the Favorites Bar and choose between Show All Text Labels, Show Selective Text (the default), or Show Icons Only (which displays only the Favicon for each item). You configure these options via the IE toolbar right-click menu, under Customize.

InPrivate Blocking. IE 8 RC1 adds a new InPrivate Blocking button to the browser's status bar, providing another method for enabling this privacy feature. (You can also enable InPrivate Blocking from the IE 8 Safety menu, or with the CTRL + SHIFT + B keyboard shortcut.) Additionally, InPrivate Browsing is now session-specific, so if you close all IE windows and then relaunch IE, it will be in "normal" browsing mode (i.e. not using InPrivate Blocking). And all browser add-ons are now disabled while in InPrivate Blocking mode.

InPrivate Subscriptions. Microsoft had previously announced an IE 8 feature called InPrivate Subscriptions which was to have provided a way to block downloads and add-ons from specific sites. This feature has been removed in IE 8 RC1 and will not be in the final version of the product.

Enterprise deployments. Microsoft has increased the number of IE 8 features that can be controlled via Group Policy (GP) to include such things as the Compatibility View button, InPrivate Blocking, and so on.

CSS compatibility. While Microsoft has always intended for IE 8 to conform to the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2.1 specification, the company discovered a number of issues which have since been fixed.

Developer Tools. The excellent new IE 8 Developer Tools can be configured to use any editor. Previously, you could only use Notepad.

A few other thoughts about IE 8

Looking ahead to the final release of IE 8, I'm starting to think about how this browser now fits within the field of available competition, and with previous IE versions. And of course, there is the possibility of potential EU antitrust action to contend with. (The EU would like Microsoft to stop bundling IE with Windows; at this time, Microsoft intends to include IE 8 with Windows 7.)

One thing is very clear to me, however. Microsoft isn't getting enough credit for really innovating in the browser space and, more so than its major competitors--Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome--IE 8 includes a lot of end user advances that work in and around the application "chrome" in a bid to improve the overall browsing experience in a very holistic way. I'm talking about overt new features like Accelerators, Web Slices, and Visual Search Suggestions, of course, but also more subtle improvements like the pervasive security (InPrivate, SmartScreen Filter, and so on), stability improvements (tab isolation, crash recovery), and performance gains. Taken as a whole, there's a lot going on this release.

I'll save further ruminations for the final review. But as you evaluate IE 8 RC1, I think it's important to do so while weighing your experience with other browsers. Does IE 8 offer any important benefits over competing browsers? I think it does. Does it fall short in some areas? Sometimes, yes. But given its feature-completeness, the RC1 version offers a good chance to come to your own conclusions about this new browser. If you approach it with an open mind, you may find yourself impressed.

Final thoughts

I was surprised by the lackluster Web site compatibility of Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2, but the Release Candidate 1 version appears to fix most of the issues I'd had. Too, it does appear to perform more quickly across the board, which is a welcome improvement, though I'm still a bit concerned that this browser doesn't feel as snappy as Firefox 3 especially. That said, IE 8 RC1 is a solid upgrade over the previous Beta 2 release, and points to a solid final release. If you're already using a previous beta version, you should snag RC1 immediately. And if you're curious about the future of Windows Web browsers, you could do a lot worse than IE 8 RC1: Even in prerelease form, it's a solid, dependable browser. Recommended.