Internet Explorer 8 is the latest version of Microsoft’s market-leading Web browser. It has been designed to help you get everything you want from the Web faster, easier, more privately and more securely than before. Frankly, with Microsoft’s track record on security, this should be a walk in the park.

Though not quite finished in terms of coding, Internet Explorer 8 Release Candidate 1 (RC1) refers to a version of the browser with potential to be a final product, ready to release unless fatal bugs emerge. In this stage of product stabilisation, all product features have been designed, coded and tested through one or more development cycles with no known showstopper-class bugs. So if you’re feeling brave and are running Windows Vista (32- or 64-bit Editions) or Windows Server 2008, the browser can be downloaded for free.

IE8 is indistinguishable in terms of look and feel to IE7, but among IE8’s selling points are various safety and security improvements. These include architectural changes that put Web pages in separate processes, privacy enhancements, and online safety measures. Furthermore, you can now get to the information you care about most in fewer steps (one click access to your Web mail, favourite news sites or other online services), and there are fewer steps needed to accomplish many common tasks and automate your access to real-time information updates.

IE8 does a better job at protecting your privacy and confidential information when you’re online – at least compared to IE7 – and it helps to protect and stop malicious software from reaching your PC by detecting imposter (phishing) Web sites. IE8 also supports Data Execution Prevention, a technology that aims to reduce the exploitability of buffer overflows, which are commonly exploited for injecting malicious code. If programmers write their code with DEP in mind, many potential vulnerabilities could be eliminated.

You can now quickly display Web sites that were designed for older browsers, such as IE7. Simply press the new Compatibility View button (located next to the Refresh button on the Address Bar) if you see display problems on a Web site like misaligned text, images, or text boxes. The new SmartScreen Filter lets you browse and e-mail more safely by helping to protect against deceptive and malicious Web sites which can compromise your data, privacy, and identity, and protect your privacy with new InPrivate Browsing and InPrivate Filtering features.

InPrivate is a private browsing mode that allows you to launch a new browser session that won’t record any information, including searches or Web page visits. During InPrivate browsing sessions, which must initiated by yourself, cookies, searches, Web history, and other information aren’t stored where they usually are on your computer. Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome both offer similar technology, as does the current Mozilla Firefox 3.1 Beta 2. Of course, this technology doesn’t prevent your ISP or visited Web sites from recording your IP address or other transactional information.

IE8 delivers significant security improvements over its predecessors and is more robust and faster than IE8 beta 2. But given the extent to which cybercrime relies on social engineering, users of IE8, like other modern browsers, would be well advised to remain cautious in the sites that they visit and the information that they disclose online. It’s only a matter of time before someone figures out a way around IE8’s new defences. The new version brings enhancements in private browsing, accessibility, overall reliability and speed. RC1 reaches a significant development milestone towards a browser that can compete on closer footing with Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera in terms of features. However, Web standards support (especially CSS 3) and performance is still far behind the competition. Maybe it’s time for Microsoft to give up and let Internet Explorer make way for the next generation of browsers.