If you've played around with the previous beta versions of Internet Explorer 8, there's not much new in today's IE 8 Release Candidate 1. The feature improvements from IE 7 haven't changed: Web slices, InPrivate browsing, and Microsoft's new add-on system known as Accelerators remain the big-ticket items. Security enhancements include the SmartScreen Filter, which warns you in advance if other users have reported an URL as suspicious.

Users can force-add sites to the Compatibility script in IE 8 RC1. (Credit: CNET Networks)

What has been improved in the RC is stability. Users who experienced persistent and irritating browser crashes should expect to see a much more stable browsing environment. The Compatibility feature has been automated to a large degree, which means that the browser will detect and re-render Web sites designed for IE 7 that wouldn't otherwise load properly in IE 8.

The problem is that high-traffic Web sites that don't cause problems in other browsers still don't play well with IE 8, necessitating this "compatibility" fix. Maybe Internet Explorer can get around to being Web standards compliant in IE 9.

Users can finally force-add a Web site to be re-rendered by the Compatibility script. Under Tools, click on Compatibility View settings to add or remove a site. You can also disable the script by unchecking the box for using updated lists from Microsoft that appears at the bottom of the settings window.

Accelerators are links that cut out the steps needed to blog, tweet, or use Facebook. (Credit: CNET Networks)

I also found that IE 8 felt slower to load, and it's definitely slower to run: IE 8 RC1 clocked a SunSpider JavaScript test at 9,874 ms, compared with Firefox 3.1 beta 2's 3,212 ms. Granted, the release candidate is faster than IE 8 beta 2's 12,395 ms. All of these were tested on a Windows Vista Pentium 4 with 2 GB of RAM.

Despite the time that Microsoft has spent developing IE 8, they've proven to be reluctant to react to market-wide browser changes. Users who notice similarities between how Firefox, Chrome, and Opera look, feel, and operate, will be struck by how dissimilar IE 8 is. The lack of a smart URI bar stood out for me in particular. Although you can search in IE 8 from the location bar, it won't take you directly to a page in IE 8. Search for "CNET Download" in Firefox, and you'll be taken directly to download.com. Search for it in IE 8, and you're given a list of results from your preferred search engine.

The address bar will pull matches from your history and favorites list as you type, but that's still an extra step that I've moved away from.

Opening a new tab was an exercise in boredom served with a layer of frustration, too, as the CTRL+T hot key froze IE 8 and took more than 30 seconds. The e-mail button, which brings your e-mail client to the front or opens it if it's closed, respects your default client choice. However, switching to the privacy browsing feature InPrivate opens a new window based at the top of your screen--regardless of where you've had IE living.

One aspect of InPrivate has changed. You can now turn on InPrivate Blocking on the Menubar under Safety, even when InPrivate hasn't been activated. This allows you to surf with a stricter level of third-party site security. It's not entirely clear what it can or can't block, though. It doesn't seem to block ads, but it can block news tickers.

If you've been using Internet Explorer 8 betas up until now, you'll probably enjoy finally getting a release candidate. Overall, there's nothing stunningly different here, so don't expect a massive shift in browser usage patterns from IE 8.

Microsoft has yet to announce a timeline for the stable release of IE 8, nor is a version currently available for the Windows 7 beta. A full list of changes is available in the IE 8 Release Candidate 1 changelog.