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Microsoft Plays Catch-Up With Its New Web Browser, Edge

Sure, having Cortana in the browser bar and scribbling on Web pages is cool. But in many ways, Microsoft is playing catch-up with its new Edge browser.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

Desktop Web browsers aren’t the sexiest of tech topics anymore, especially as more Internet users shift to mobile apps and the mobile Web.

But the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft’s newest operating system for PCs and tablets, includes the rollout of a brand new Web browser from the tech giant. It’s called Edge.

In some ways Edge is notable. It’s no longer called Internet Explorer, which for a long time was the most popular Web browser in the U.S. (until Google Chrome, well, edged it out).

More important than a legacy name is legacy code: Edge has been technically rewritten in a way that makes it a much more modern Web browser.

In many ways, though, Edge simply catches up to other browsers. Some of the new front-end features won’t blow your laptop open. And during the past week that I used Edge, I encountered a few significant bugs — some of which, Microsoft assures, should be fixed by today or in the near future.

Are there welcome changes that come with Edge? Yes, no doubt. Will it inspire consumers to upgrade to Windows 10, which is required in order to run Edge? Doubtful. The overall design of Windows 10, which brings back a more familiar-feeling UI to longtime Windows users, is a bigger draw than a new Web browser; Edge is just the icing.

Under the Hood

Some of you may be interested in Web layout engines; if you’re not, you can skip to the next stuff.

For those who do care, Edge runs on EdgeHTML, a forked version of Trident (which is the Web layout engine behind IE). Microsoft has stripped out the old code used in older versions of the browser and rewrote the majority of the original source code, to create a rendering engine that supports interoperability for the “modern” Web.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

In short, Microsoft promises that Edge is technically a more suitable browser for the many new things people are creating and viewing on the Web.

Early benchmark tests of various browsers have shown that Microsoft’s new Edge browser is faster than Internet Explorer; by some standards, it’s even faster than Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari browser. In my own informal tests, websites like Re/code, The Verge, Facebook, Amazon and video streams on Netflix loaded quickly and without issue. (I’ve been using Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with an Intel Core i5 processor.)

Hey, Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual personal assistant, has been available on Windows mobile phones since the launch of Windows Phone 8.1. Now Cortana has made her way into the Windows 10 desktop and the address bar of Edge.

This is the most useful new feature of Edge. You can type in questions like, “How old is Taylor Swift?” or phrases like, “San Francisco Giants next game,” or even punch in equations, and the answer will appear directly below the address bar (25, July 28 at 7:15 pm, and 767, as I type this) rather than force you to go to a search-results page.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

This doesn’t work for all searches, though; more often than not I was forced to go to Bing to find info.

In a future release, Microsoft says, Cortana will also offer to make reservations at restaurants as you search for them. But that’s not ready yet. I searched for a handful of popular restaurants, and a sidebar appeared in Bing with business hours and Yelp reviews, but no immediate reservation options.

Web Note

Web Note is a nifty feature. And for awhile it had me questioning both my sanity and my creativity.

Web Note basically lets you mark up a Web page using your stylus or finger (assuming you’re working on a touchscreen PC) and then save that scribbled-on Web page to your Microsoft OneNote app and share it with other people. It’s like a telestrator for your PC. You can also use Web Note to highlight text or clip sections of the page.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

For the first few days I used Web Note, it repeatedly crashed the browser. Even after troubleshooting to the point where Web Note became more stable, it still crashed from time to time. On another occasion, a message popped up telling me I couldn’t write on a Web page, even though I had created a Web Note from that same page before. Microsoft says that by the time Windows 10 officially launches, the bugs in Web Note should be resolved.

Once it started working better — and once the novelty wore off — I didn’t actually find writing on a Web page to be way more useful than sending a Web link with some notes or comments attached to the message. Maybe a few years from now we’ll all be writing on Web pages with our fingers and stylus pens, and we’ll hail Web Note as innovative, the way tabs changed the whole browser experience. Right now, it could still use some work.

More Lists of Things You Might Read Later

Another feature in Edge is something called the Reading List, accessible through a small icon of three lines in the upper-right corner of the browser window. This is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a list of items you’ve saved to read at a later point.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

It’s certainly easy to “favorite” articles and/or add them to your Reading List in the new browser. But this would be way more exciting if it wasn’t something that was already offered in competing browsers, or if third-party apps like Pocket and Instapaper weren’t already available as handy extensions in other browsers. These pre-existing solutions also work across mobile, whereas Reading List for now is limited to devices running Windows 10.

Edge also has the same “Reading View” introduced with Internet Explorer 11 in Windows 8.1, which strips articles of distracting sidebars and ads and optimizes the page for scrolling photos and text. It makes article pages pretty, although during my testing, Reading View sometimes showed me the wrong art for articles I was reading on Re/code.

Browser Extensions

Speaking of browser extensions: Microsoft has said it is bringing support for extensions to Edge later this year. According to the company, extensions built for other modern browsers using common Web technologies like JavaScript and HTML will work with Microsoft Edge with little or no code changes.

Mobile, Privacy and Good Ol’ IE

Microsoft’s mobile strategy has caused a fair amount of head-scratching lately, and its OS updates are off-cycle: The new desktop OS is rolling out now, and mobile isn’t coming until later this year. So the new Edge browser and all of the features above — with the exception of Cortana, which is already available on Windows Phone — are currently not available on mobile.

There is, however, a version of Edge in the current Windows Insider build for phones, and Microsoft says it will be in the Windows 10 Phone final builds when they come out.

In terms of privacy and security, Edge offers the usual safeguards — the ability to block all cookies, InPrivate browsing, a “Do Not Track” tab buried in Advanced Settings, and protection from malicious sites and downloads with a “SmartScreen” filter.

After reading all of this, some of you might be wondering what happens to Internet Explorer. The short answer is, it’s not going anywhere (yet). Internet Explorer 11 is still available on Windows 10, and can even be set as the default browser, though that option isn’t obvious — you have to go to Settings, System, Default Apps, and there you can choose a default browser. Microsoft says it will continue to provide technical support and security updates for IE 11.

These are just a few new features that come with Edge. Some of the front-end changes are incremental, and there are still bugs to be worked out. But at this point in the game, not making changes to the browser at all would have been a greater folly on the part of Microsoft.

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