Internet Explorer 9 Is Looking Positively Sexy

See that headline? If you'd asked us last week if we'd ever use the word "sexy" to describe a browser—particularly a Microsoft browser—we'd have beaten you with a stack of TPS reports. This week, well, it's a different story. The actual IE9 browser isn't available for download yet, but Microsoft has made what it calls the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview available for download. Internet Explorer 9 offers a bevy of new features compared to IE8 (or anything else), but the most exciting feature is the browser's built-in GPU hardware acceleration.

As it turns out, there's quite a bit Microsoft can do, even with a modest integrated GPU. AMD's Robin Maffeo has put together a blog post that summarizes several key differences between IE9 and its predecessors.
  • The MSHTML rendering layer has been enhanced to use Direct2D and DirectWrite instead of GDI. Direct2D enables GPU accelerated 2D graphics and text, and allows sub-pixel positioning. In addition, the GPU is used for scaling (bitmaps are mapped to textures), which is ideal for zooming and moving images around the screen. This GPU support translates directly into improved readability of pages, more precise placement of text and images, and smooth scrolling and zooming.

  • JavaScript performance is greatly improved from older versions of Internet Explorer, and should be competitive if not better than competing browsers. In the past, JavaScript in IE was interpreted and not compiled into native processor instructions. The JavaScript engine now includes a JIT compiler which emits x86 instructions and compiles the code before it runs, resulting in a dramatic performance uplift. Instruction generation can also be tailored to the underlying processor to take full advantage of the underlying platform.

  • IE9 is more standards compliant than previous versions, with new support for HTML5 elements such as <video> and <canvas> CSS3 support, and SVG support.  The <canvas> element will be accelerated on the GPU via Direct2D and will enable hardware accelerated rendering contexts for application development, improving visual display, reducing CPU usage, and improving power usage.
The Javascript performance improvement is still a bit murky; let's unpack it with some help from the official IE9 blog. "To improve JavaScript performance even more, Chakra [IE9's Javascript engine] does something quite different from other script engines today. It has a separate background thread for compiling JavaScript. Windows runs that thread in parallel on a separate core when one is available. Compiling in the background enables users to keep interacting with webpages while IE generates even faster code. By running separately in the background, this process can take advantage of today’s multi-core machines – so, users with a Core2Duo or QuadCore or i7 can apply that power to making webpages faster without any additional effort. "

Still shots don't do the rendering engine justice. Picture 256 icons spinning at 60 frames a second, without slowing anything else down.

IE9 isn't expected to drop until 2011 and its GPU-accelerated rendering engine isn't compatible with Windows XP due to fundamental differences between Windows XP's software rendering style and the Desktop Window Manager that ships with both Windows 7 and Windows Vista; it's not clear if Microsoft will release IE9 for XP or simply continue to maintain IE8's security patches. It's hard to capture some of the coolest things the IE9 Platform can do in a static screenshot; head over to Microsoft's website and take a look yourself if you're curious. When you consider how much of our time is spent within a browser, this is the sort of innovation that could genuinely be called a game-changer. We'll undoubtedly see announcements and demonstrations from Chrome, Firefox, and Opera in the days ahead—the sooner this tech hits the desktop (without being buggy) the better.