The second beta of Internet Explorer 8 looks a lot better than the first one — but frankly, a lot of that is due to features copied from Firefox 3.
When Beta 1 of IE8 was released, the emphasis was very much on explaining to developers why they should redevelop their sites to comply with IE8's new emphasis on Web standards. Beta 2 has many more obvious changes to the interface, making it a more appealing option for the average consumer. For all that, however, it's yet to catch up with Firefox 3 in overall design and ease-of-use (a simple example: Firefox 3 doesn't require a reboot at installation.) If you're keen on trying new technology, IE8 is worth a spin, and it's a necessity for web developers, but it doesn't seem quite ready for everyday Internet users yet.
There's some immediately visible interface changes, mostly for the better. The arrow for Accelerators (the better choice of name for what used to be called Activities), which appeared very unreliably in Beta 1 and came across as more confusing than useful, is much more visible in Beta 2, and the menu structure has been cleaned up, making it easier to find additional Accelerators. With that said, the number of menu options on a standard right-click is still overwhelmingly large.
One of the most visible alterations is in the Smart Address Bar, which seems to have lifted a notion or two from Firefox 3's 'Awesomebar'. The feature produces a drop-down list of sites, feeds and favorites which match what you've typed and which are sorted into categories. While there's provision to delete irrelevant entries (such as typos), this is a mouse-only option; it would be good to see the delete key usable here (and for Control-L to access the address bar, not a plain old dialog box). The find feature has also been improved — it now remembers what you typed and remains visible on screen, unlike the previous release.
Tab handling has received significant attention in this release. When you open a new tab, you have options to reopen tabs you've used before, as well as access to various accelerators. IE8 sorts tabs into groups (such as results opened from a given search), and you can close entire groups of tabs by right-clicking. While all this is a neat idea, it needs to be implemented much more efficiently — opening fresh tabs resulted in a noticeable pause each time I tried it.
For privacy freaks and people who spend a lot of office time on NSFW sites, InPrivate Browsing mode eliminates the history of sites you've visited, and also doesn't allow sites you visit to share information with each other (so no tracking where you go when you leave when site for another). InPrivate sessions launch in a separate window and have their address tagged to remind you that no history is being recorded. Conversely, another new feature called Suggested Sites offers recommendations based on your browsing history for other sites you might like.
On the standards front, Microsoft appears to be sticking to its guns in making rendering to standards mode the default approach. Sites which got mangled in my earlier tests such as Google Maps now work much better, reflecting both code improvements in IE and adjustments by site developers to be more standards-compliant.
One useful improvement is the addition of a 'Compatibility View' button to switch between IE7 and IE8, which no longer requires a reboot. The button is located next to the address bar, but I suspect more people might go looking for it on the toolbar.
Remember this isn't finished software. Despite Microsoft's boast that "anyone who browses or works on the web will enjoy IE8 Beta", it's still very much in beta mode in terms of speed and functionality. Indeed, installing it on my Vista machine rendered wireless networking inoperable, so proceed with caution. Microsoft's own install guidenotes other possible problems, including a couple of MS-related corkers: Windows Live Mail doesn't work at all and Hotmail can't sign out properly. Nice to see intra-company communication is as good as ever.