Internet Explorer 7 was originally envisioned as a way to bring Longhorn-era security features to Windows before that OS release (eventually Windows Vista), but it quickly evolved into a product that featured a startling new UI--also influenced by Longhorn--that seemingly threw the previous menu- and toolbar-based UI into a blender and then rearranged onscreen controls accordingly. I thought it was kind of a mess at the time, but as is so often the case, familiarity has smoothed away the rough edges and I find Microsoft's continuation of this UI in IE 8 to be far less annoying or jarring. That said, IE 8's user interface elements still seem to be randomly tossed around the top of the browser window, and with this release there's even a new toolbar row--the Favorites Bar, described below--that takes up a bit more real estate.

Internet Explorer 8
Internet Explorer 8.

In any event, if you're used to IE 7, IE 8 is more of the same from a user interface perspective, and will be quite familiar territory. If you prefer the bare-bones browser chrome found in browsers like Firefox and Chrome, IE 8 may seem a bit busy, especially if you dutifully installed the entire Windows Live Essentials suite (see my review) and its bundled browser toolbar. Before you dismiss IE 8 entirely on the basis of UI clutter, I'd offer up two thoughts. First, give it a chance: You may discover that the padded upper portion of the IE 8 application window can actually be used in quite productive ways. Second, even if you don't find that to be the case, know that the IE 8 interface is pretty malleable. You can remove virtually all of the top-end UI and come away with a very Spartan looking browser. In fact, stripped bare in this fashion, it reminds me of Microsoft Word 2007 when you hide the ribbon. In other words, IE 8 can pretty much be whatever you need it to be.

Internet Explorer 8
Internet Explorer 8 with minimalist UI.

The first time you run IE 8, you're presented with a now-familiar wizard that allows you to configure its various new features. These features evolved over the course of the beta period, and there are quite a number of them, so Microsoft provides two common sense options right up front: You can simply accept the default settings and get on with browsing. Or you can pull a Steve Gibson and turn everything off.

Internet Explorer 8
You should deal with this Set Up wizard before you use IE 8.

While I generally find that happiness lies in the middle of two extremes, in this case, I think most IE users would be wise to go with Microsoft's default settings. There are two to choose from. The first, Turn on Suggested Sites, enables a new IE 8 feature that provides Web site recommendations on the fly. These sites are fed from an online web service that Microsoft maintains and are propagated in the UI via the new Suggested Sites button in the Favorites Bar.

Internet Explorer 8
Choice number one: Enable Suggested Sites?

The second choice involves a multitude of options and is simply labeled "Choose your settings." From this second dialog you can use IE 8's express settings, which enables all of the features to Microsoft's preferences, or you can laboriously step through each setting.

Internet Explorer 8
Choice number two: Actually five choices in one.

These settings include:

Default search provider. You can keep your current search provider (handy for upgraders), and the dialog will each show you which provider that is. Or, you can opt to visit a web site listing all of the available providers, and you can choose from one of those. If you choose express settings, IE 8 will keep your current search provider.

Search provider updates. Because the IE 8 search box is an interactive feature with some impressive programmable possibilities (like visual search), it's very possible that search providers will update their IE 8 add-on over time. If you choose to accept search provider updates, you will automatically download these updates when they become available. This is the setting if you choose express settings.

Accelerators. IE 8 ships with a default set of Accelerators (described below). You can keep the stock set, choose more Accelerators from a web site, or disable all of the Accelerators that are bundled with IE 8. If you choose express settings, the default collection of bundled Accelerators will be installed with IE 8.

SmartScreen Filter. The IE 8 SmartScreen Filter is an updated and more comprehensive version of the anti-malware functionality that first shipped with IE 7. So why make such a feature optional and opt-in? To function correctly, IE 8 must communicate with Microsoft's servers to check the safety of some web sites, and this could be a privacy concern. If you choose express settings, SmartScreen Filter is enabled.

Compatibility Settings. IE 8 breaks with long-standing IE tradition and uses a standards-based rendering engine by default. However, this change means that IE 8, out of the box, isn't as compatible with existing web sites as it could be. To combat this problem, Microsoft created a new IE 8 feature, Compatibility View updates. It compares web addresses to a known list of misworking web sites and automatically puts IE 8 in a legacy rendering mode when needed, giving users the best possible experience. (That is, web sites should render correctly and you won't need to worry about the underlying rendering engine being used.) As with the SmartScreen Filter, this feature must communicate with Microsoft's servers to work effectively, and this could be a privacy concern. If you choose express settings, Compatibility View updates is enabled.

As noted before, I have a hard time believing that most individuals wouldn't be best served by accepting Microsoft's defaults in this case. (That's oftentimes not the case, obviously.) But if you're looking for the best IE 8 experience, this is the way to go.

Once you've dispensed with the Set Up wizard, you're off to the races. Aside from the Favorites Bar, IE 8 looks, on the surface, almost exactly like IE 7. That's probably for the best, given the number of people who will be moving over from that release. But if you dig a bit deeper, it's actually quite astonishing how many new features and changes there are in this release. Truly, IE 8 is a major new effort, and an indication that Microsoft isn't preoccupied so much with catching-up, functionality-wise, as they are with taking the lead, hopefully for good.

Next, we'll take a look at the new features in IE 8.

Next: Internet Explorer 8 Review, Part 3: Feature-by-Feature