Windows 10 is fast approaching release, and with it comes Microsoft's first new browser in two decades: Microsoft Edge.
Internet Explorer is going into semi-retirement - it'll be included in Windows 10, though mainly for compatibility with legacy applications - so it's time to see whether Edge can succeed where its slow, insecure predecessor failed.
We sat down with Microsoft for a live demo and found a browser that, while lacking in must-have enterprise features, is already showing quite a bit of potential.
We'll say this for Edge: it looks impressively clean, a far cry from the chunky, toolbar-strangled interfaces of IE over the years. Favourites, Bookmarks and Downloads are tucked away in the drop-down Hub, an all-in-one menu accessible from one of the few icons sitting below the address bar.
As part of Windows 10's Continuum interface, Edge will optimise its layout based on whether it's running on a touch device or one with a keyboard and mouse/touchpad. When Windows 10 is in Touch view, Edge becomes a full-screen app, as we'd expect from something running on a phone or tablet.
Conversely, when a keyboard is detected, Edge will run in a resizable window, just like any other application you've ever run on a Windows 7 or 8.1 desktop.
We've been impressed by how Windows 10 can switch between these two views very near instantaneously, such as when a convertible tablet is docked with an attachable keyboard. This extends to Edge, which will quickly adjust its interface to fit the control method.
During our demo, Windows UK project manager Ian Moulster told V3 that Edge has been geared specifically towards consumers, as opposed to the more business-focused Internet Explorer. As such, Edge's headline features tend towards consuming content.
For instance, Reading View returns from IE 11, stripping away menus and adverts to leave webpage text and images in a straightforward, minimalist format. It goes even further in Edge, cranking up the text size and arranging it into a single column.
It's easy to see the appeal of a quick tool for cleaning up messy pages, on tablets in particular, even if switching in and out of Reading View will probably be too much of a bother for those who tend to bounce between multiple tabs.
Reading List, a Windows 8.1 app that recorded pages to read later, is also more closely integrated with Edge; new pages can be added in two clicks, and the List itself is accessible straight from the Hub. Like Reading View, it's not an original feature but has been reworked to become more user friendly in Edge. As far as we can tell, it has done so successfully.
One genuinely new feature is the integration of Cortana, Microsoft's attempt at a digital assistant, into Edge's search functions. Highlighting a name or phrase will enable Cortana to look it up, offering dictionary definitions and relevant web pages based on who or what is searched for.
In our demo, Cortana successfully identified the LinkedIn page of a fairly obscure geographer whose name was buried in a randomly chosen news article.
Cortana is widely integrated with Windows 10 and its key apps, and we're slightly concerned that it will become more of a nuisance than a help. But the digital assistant's presence in Edge is seldom felt unless it is asked to provide help, which is as it should be.
Regardless of Edge's lack of enterprise focus, it's worth noting that Microsoft's new browser adheres to many more web standards than IE ever did, introducing full support for media source extensions, touch events, CSS feature queries and many more specifications. This should enable more feature-rich websites to work correctly in Edge, which is good news for consumers and enterprise users alike.
That said, Edge still has a long way to go before it can match competing browsers in its web standards support. Edge greatly lags behind Chrome and Firefox in the number of specifications it currently supports, despite offering more robust compatibility than the most recent IE 11.
We haven't had Edge's security features demoed to us, but on paper they already sound like a big improvement on IE's protections.
For starters, Microsoft has ditched ActiveX, its creaking, malware-ridden framework for developing extensions, switching instead to HTML5. Support for the HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) protocol is also built in to Edge to help ensure that certified websites can be accessed only over a secure connection.
HSTS is used for such highly sensitive services as online banking, so it's good to see Microsoft appreciating the need to keep Edge up to date with its supported protocols.
Like all Universal Apps - Microsoft-vetted apps that work exactly the same on the core and mobile editions of Windows 10 - Edge will also operate in its own Container Sandbox. This means that its processes run entirely independently from the rest of the system. So even if the Edge app is tampered with in a cyber attack, it can't be used as a launching point to access data stored on the rest of the machine.
That's the idea, anyway. Apple requires developers to implement a very similar measure in iOS apps, and seems to have found success in preventing infected apps taking over entire systems. Here's hoping that Microsoft can balance the need for secure applications with the need to maintain Windows' open ecosystem.
Speed is crucial to any web browser and, from our brief time with it, it looks like Edge won't disappoint. Pages load instantly, even when plastered with images, and navigating menus is similarly swift. Scrolling is smooth as well, which should be particularly welcome to Reading View users.
However, there was a noticeable delay before results appeared when using Cortana to search highlighted words. Since these results show up in a separate sub-window that pops out from the right, this leaves a few seconds where a fifth of the screen is filled with dead space. It's far from ruinous, but Cortana's relaxed pace is a little incongruous with how zippy Edge can be otherwise.
Despite the consumer focus, Edge's combination of new features and incremental improvements over IE already look to make it a welcome replacement as the default Windows browser.
However, Edge is entering a field that includes such fast, secure, versatile and deeply entrenched products as Chrome, Firefox and Opera. To truly make Edge a contender, Microsoft will need to stick to its ‘Windows-as-a-service' principle and provide continuous updates to the new browser's security measures and web standards support.
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