The big news—actually, the only real news—in Windows 10 Technical Preview 2 build 10049 is the long-awaited inclusion of “Project Spartan,” Microsoft’s new web browser. Having finally installed the new build in a marathon session that involved both physical and virtual machines, I spent part of last night tooling around in Spartan to see what all the fuss is about. And while there are still some rough edges and missing features, I like what I see so far.
While there are a number of things that go into choosing a browser, I’d long ago settled on using Chrome for most day-to-day work and Internet Explorer for a handful of uses related to features that are unique to IE. (IE lets you add multiple tabs to pinned web pages, which is incredibly useful, for example.) Some of course choose other browsers—Firefox, perhaps, Safari on Apple platforms—and some pragmatically keep multiple browsers ready.
What Spartan is attempting to do is combine all of the benefits of IE—lightweight and resource friendly, deep OS integration, and so on—with the benefits of competing browsers like Chrome and Safari that are more compatible with the modern web and, in the case of Chrome, easily extensible with add-ons. It will be quite a while before we know how successful it is at these goals, and the incomplete picture we see in build 10049 can only hint at whether Microsoft will be successful.
Unfortunately, Spartan doesn’t appear to address some browsing needs that I think are key moving forward. You can’t sync Spartan favorites or settings to non-Windows 10 devices, for example. With Chrome, these things sync between platforms—across Windows, Mac, Chrome OS, Android and even partially to iOS (iPhone/iPad)—and of course Safari offers these capabilities within Apple’s closed garden (Mac/iOS). Spartan is Windows 10 only.
But, it’s early days of course.
Spartan delivers on a Chrome vibe visually, with the same sort of general “get out of the way” style that IE promised but never really delivered. But this minimalistic new Windows universal design language is sure to be the subject of many debates. Maybe it will grow on me, but I find the overly simplistic borderless buttons to be visually ugly—look at the Back, Forward and Refresh buttons in particular—not just Spartan, but in universal apps generally. And many of them are indiscernible: you can’t glance at many of those and know what they do immediately. That’s bad UI.
(I’m sure it’s hard to come up with UI that works well across devices as diverse as phones, tablets and PCs. But that’s a problem of Microsoft’s making. They didn’t have to be the same.)
You can expand Project Spartan to fill the non-taskbar part of the screen—yep, it’s 2015 and I’m explaining such a thing—but what you can’t do, curiously, is put Spartan in a true full-screen mode a la Internet Explorer’s F11 capability. Surely, this is a temporary condition, but even when in tablet mode, Spartan doesn’t lose the tabs. Even Modern IE can do that. (Even if you play a YouTube video full screen, the tabs and taskbar are visible.)
As with all universal apps, Settings appears in the app as a pane, and there are no real surprises here, though an option to disable Flash globally is a bit interesting. You can enable a Favorites toolbar but it doesn’t yet display correctly.
My favorite web site displays correctly, which is nice.
But when I used Reading View on an article, I noticed something odd: it uses the same zoom level as the browser, meaning that articles looked a bit small by default. If you bump up the zoom level (ALT + mouse wheel or the normal keyboard shortcuts) you can make Reading View easier to see. But when you return to the normal view, everything is zoomed there too because it’s all the same setting. Maybe they could use different zoom levels. (You can configure the Reading View font size and color scheme independently, just not the zoom.)
Annotations work, and I was able to use Surface Pro 3’s Surface Pen to write on web pages and then share them as web notes via email and Reading List (which is Windows only).
Common keyboard commands—CTRL-F for Find in Page, ALT + D to select the Address bar, and so on—mostly seem to work as expected though there are of course some exceptions (like F11).
From a performance perspective, Spartan appears to outperform Chrome handily using the Peacekeeper Universal Browser Test. But it falls well short of Chrome with compatibility, an issue I suspect Microsoft will continue working on.
Indeed, when I visited Google+, it was clear the site didn’t recognize Spartan at all.
What could really put Spartan over the top—assuming the compatibility issues are fixed—is performance. And not just raw performance—how fast web pages load, and so on—but rather the browser’s impact on overall performance. For example, Chrome seems to materially impact both battery life and system resources on Windows, and if Spartan can avoid these issues—even when loaded down with the eventual add-ons we can’t really test yet—it could become as obvious to users on Windows as Safari is now to users on Mac and iOS. Ultimately, that has to be the goal.
Today, of course, it’s not really possible to come to any conclusion about Spartan one way or the other. But if Microsoft is really serious about leaving IE behind, this looks like the right way to go, mostly.