The first time you run IE 9, you notice that something's changed. Instead of the top-heavy, busy user interface that Microsoft flaunted in IE 7 and IE 8, the new browser is clean, simple, and beautiful.

Internet Explorer 9 Beta
Internet Explorer 9 public beta.

By default, a single toolbar's worth of UI occupies the top part of the IE 9 window, combining Back and Forward buttons, the new One Box (which puts address bar and search box functionality into a single location), tabs, and just three, simple, Windows 7 notification bar-like buttons for Home, Favorites, and Tools. That's it. There's no menu bar, no Favorites Bar, no Command Bar, and no Status Bar. The result is a browser whose UI takes up less space than that of any other browser, including Google Chrome.

 

Internet Explorer 9 Beta
The IE 9 UI almost couldn't be any simpler.

The rationale here is simple: IE 9 only displays those UI elements that are absolutely necessary, and everything else is hidden by default. It's the same design mantra seen in Windows 7, and in the "fierce reduction" in UI seen in Windows Phone 7. "IE 9 is the stage, the backdrop, for web apps, it's not the star of the show," Microsoft general manager Dean Hachamovitch told me in a recent briefing. "With IE 9, the sites you visit are the stars."

Put another way, the browser chrome--the UI that surrounds the actual site you're visiting--has been quieted, pushed to the back, so that the sites can shine. This is very different from the approach taken by competing browsers, which often recreate and rebrand OS functionality. IE 9 doesn't have to do this specifically because it integrates, and in useful ways, with the underlying OS. And for the first time, this really means something. I'll get to that in a bit, but for now, just understand that IE 9's simple UI was in some ways made possible by not trying to recreate functionality that's already offered by Windows itself.

The new One Box, which combines address bar and search functionality into a single UI, is of course very similar to the Chrome omnibox. But it's also superior because it protects your privacy by default, functionality that Google would never implement in one of its products. What this means is that when you search via the One Box, IE 9 doesn't transmit keystrokes as you type. You can optionally turn on search suggestions--which would indeed transmit those keystrokes--but the benefit is that you'd get on-the-fly results. Your choice.

Internet Explorer 9 Beta
IE 9 won't send data to the search providers unless you tell it to.

One Box is superior in other ways too. As with previous IE versions, it provides access to multiple search providers, on the fly. And it provides a "top result" feature for those people who run to the address bar automatically without really remembering what the site is that they're trying to reach: It will provide a drop-down list of the top results, based on what they typed, without first navigating to a search provider's search results list.

Way back in the version of IE 6 that shipped with Windows XP SP2, Microsoft created the now-familiar yellow notification bar. It's particularly familiar because every major browser vendor has ripped it off. In IE 9, however, Microsoft has gone back to the drawing board with an attractive and more subtle new notification bar. This time, it sits at the bottom of the IE window, and for that reason it's a bit easy to miss. But that's by design. In previous IE versions, many notifications, including pop-up dialogs, would interrupt the browsing session. Now, in IE 9, it's possible to keep browsing even when, say, Apple really, really wants you to install the QuickTime plugin for some reason.

Internet Explorer 9 Beta
IE 9 notifications are now at the bottom of the window, are less obtrusive, and won't interrupt your browsing experience.

So the new notification bar doesn't just replace the old notification bar, it also replaces a slew of other ancillary browser-based messages, many of which would pop-up dialogs or other interruptions. In this way, the IE 9 notification bar works like the old Longhorn Sidebar was supposed to work for Windows itself: It provides a single place, and model, for all browser-based notifications. And unless what you're about to do is obviously dangerous, it won't interrupt your browsing session. You can deal with notifications on your own schedule.

The new notification bar is a welcome addition, but like the equally well-intentioned notifications in products like OneCare or Windows Server "Aurora," it can be a bit annoying as well. The add-on performance warning (described later in the review) is nice, but it comes up too often and there's no way to say, yeah, I get it, now leave me alone. This would be an obvious addition.

Next: Windows 7 Integration