Internet Explorer 8 has shipped in its final version and is ready to take on its rivals. This latest version of Microsoft's browser leapfrogs its closest competition, Firefox 3, for basic browsing and productivity features -- it has better tab handling, a niftier search bar, a more useful address bar, and new tools that deliver information directly from other Web pages and services. IE8 has also been tweaked for security and includes a so-called "porn mode," new anti-malware protection, and better ways to protect your privacy.

This final version differs little from last January's RC1 release, aside from some speed improvements and bug fixes. What follows is a comprehensive review of all the ways that IE8 differs from IE7. If you've abandoned Microsoft's browser for a rival, you may -- or may not -- want to return.

Improved tabs and address bar

For basic browsing, the biggest improvement in IE is its tab handling, which is exemplary. It's the kind of feature you may not notice much at first, but it's one that goes a long way toward making your browsing life far easier.

If you commonly use multiple tabs, you'll particularly welcome the way IE handles them. When you open a new tab from an existing page, the new one opens directly to the right of the originating one, and both tabs are given the same colour. That way, all related tabs are automatically grouped and colour-coded. If you open a new tab from a page that is already part of a group, it will open at the far right of the group, rather than just to the right of the originating tab. It will also be colour-coded.

This subtle change in tab behaviour may have a major effect on your productivity. For example, if you write a blog and need to preview it before posting, the preview page typically opens in a new tab. Previously, and with other browsers, the tab opened all the way on the right -- often several tabs away from the originating tab -- and switching between the two was often confusing. With colour-coding and grouping, it's far easier to switch between related tabs.

It's easy to move a tab between groups -- just drag it, and it becomes part of the new group, taking on its color. Right-click on any tab to control its entire group -- that includes closing the group, closing all tabs except for those in the group, and ungrouping the chosen tab from the group. You can also perform actions on any individual tab from the right-click menu. It would have been nice to be able to reopen an entire tab group, but that feature isn't here.

Also welcome is the new (for IE) ability to reopen tabs. To reopen the last tab you've closed, you press Ctrl-Shift-T. To see a list of recently opened tabs and choose which to open, you right-click any tab, select Recently Closed Tabs, and pick the one you want to open

New tabs open showing multiple links (allowing you to open pages you've recently closed), an InPrivate Browsing session (more commonly called "porn mode") and an "Accelerator" that lets you grab content from a Web page (more on this later). You can also perform certain tasks, such as sending e-mail with a Web-based service, or do a search.

Each tab is isolated from the others, so if one tab crashes, the entire browser doesn't go down. You can then restore the crashed tab, and when you do, it reloads with the information that had been in it when it crashed, such as a partially written e-mail. And if you were watching a video, the video will start playing at the point the tab crashed, not at the beginning of the video.

The address bar is also getting a big makeover. It's no longer just a location for typing in a Web address. As with Firefox and Chrome, the address bar now operates as an all-in-one search tool that searches the Web as well as previously visited Web sites, Favorites and RSS feeds.

Type in a term, and Internet Explorer does a search, using your default search engine. Start to type a URL, and you'll get a list of results from your History and Favorites, organized by category. So, for example, type "gra" and you'll see a list of all of the sites in your History and Favorites that contain those letters -- not just at the beginning of the URL, but also in page titles, or anywhere in the URL. To visit the site, highlight it in the list and press Enter.

You can also have the address bar display matching sites from RSS feeds as well. Choose Tools-->Internet Options-->Content, then click the Settings button next to AutoComplete. Check the box next to Feeds, and click OK and then OK again. Now when you use the Address Bar, information from RSS feeds will be displayed as well.