While many of you will already have sampled Microsoft’s next browser from a developer (or leaked) version the newly released Beta 2 is the first time the general public will be invited to test what Microsoft certainly hopes will curb the enthusiasm with which people have been flocking to Mozilla-based browsers, most notably the venerable Firefox.

As we have come to expect from Microsoft downloads, the installer verifies the validity of your Windows license before continuing with the install. It also asks if you wish to install a couple of additional security add-ons but generally goes about its business quickly and with a minimum of fuss. It is important to note that the installation will replace your current Internet Explorer with version 7 beta 2. While there might be a way to get around that it wasn’t obvious and it could mean that web-developers lose their ability to test their work in what is still the world’s most popular browser, IE6.

The first thing that strikes you is just how simple the interface is (screenshots on Flickr). The Fisher-Price aesthetics are hit and miss but any effort to streamline the browser interface should be applauded. I have to admit not being entirely comfortable with the new layout, occasionally fumbling to find the simplest of actions. The lack of standard “File, Edit, View” menu at the top is an interesting choice, especially since the newly laid out menu doesn’t fit next to the tabs in most resolutions.

Currently, IE7 feels uncomfortably stuck between XP’s shiny look and Vista’s all-vector extravaganza and it shows. The GUI feels rough in parts, icons aren’t scaled cleanly and some of the colour choices are just odd. It looks like the result of a botched attempt at combining MSN Explorer with a pimped-up Firefox. It looks a bit too toy-like for me but that could be exactly what attracts some people.

The new (extensively hyped) features set are well implemented. RSS features are obvious and quite clear. This could mean that RSS gets adopted by a wider majority so we should all be happy but I can’t help but feel that browser-integrated RSS or even bookmark features are proving rather pointless. There are obvious reasons for switching to hosted services to handle your information management. The future of the browser should lie in integrating with these services (like say, Flock).

Speaking of integration, Microsoft shows that it can play ball with a neat search widget that allows you to very easily add “third party” engines such as Google. This is more or less lifted straight from Firefox and as this still remains the most flexible system I’ve ever accounted it’s fine by me. The similarities with Firefox don’t end there, in actuality the browser does hardly anything you couldn’t do with Firefox and a handful of extensions.

As expected the engine renders pages far better than the current version. Strangely our test machine showed all content as ClearType even while it was disabled within the OS. I noticed some extensive text corruption in certain instances which can most probably be attributed to its beta status.

While it isn’t currently quite ready to make Firefox-switchers switch back it can only be a good thing that Microsoft finally unleashes its first real update to Internet Explorer in what seems an eternity. The new features are all in all welcome but what I welcome most is the far improved support for standards. It might not make Microsoft regain the users it lost during what can only be called Internet Explorer’s hiatus. For some this will be too little too late and I would likely agree but I feel that the new rendering engine, tabbed browsing and the various security improvements make this, at the very least, a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how the new browser gets received by the general public and whether or not it stalls the Firefox’ meteoric rise to fame. Watch this space.