We got a closer look at a new build of Microsoft Edge, formerly Project Spartan, at Build 2015. Don't worry if catch yourself calling the Internet Explore replacement Project Spartan: Microsoft is getting used to the newly revealed name, too. During a demo session at the conference, "Project Spar…I mean Microsoft Edge" was said more than once by all parties present.
The browser (Build 61) didn't have several of the new features demonstrated during Microsoft's Day 1 keynote, like additions to New Tab and a Chrome extension. We were told the features demonstrated onstage were a mash-up of various upgrades that will roll out in the coming months.
What we were able to see was a new feature called "inking," essentially a way to mark up or type on a browser page and share it with your contacts.
You can select the width of the lines you want to make as well as the color, and scribble messages or draw around items you want to highlight with your finger or mouse. Or, just scribble over the whole thing.
It wasn't easy to write in a controlled fashion using the mouse. The words were legible, but it felt like more trouble than it was worth. Don't even ask to look at the circles we attempted to draw using a mouse.
Drawing with a finger was much easier, though if you have bad handwriting, you'll also likely run into unreadable chicken scratch. There is, thankfully, an option to type a message onto a page or cut out a particular part of the page. If you don't have a touch-supported device, you're stuck with these options anyway.
Sharing is easy to access: After you draw, type or select the part of the Microsoft Edge page you want to save, you click an icon in the top right corner to access OneNote or save it to Reading List for later. Clearly, inking doesn't have many robust sharing options at the moment. When we asked social network sharing, a Microsoft rep said it is "not currently integrated" with services like Facebook. It also doesn't seem to be hooked up directly to email at the moment, either.
If and when Microsoft does make sharing available on social networks, inking should be a fun way to communicate with friends, family and colleagues. Plus, there's something satisfying about scribbling on a computer screen.
The feature isn't without its frustrations, however. When you click on the pen icon that opens the inking options, it reloads the page, so you lose your spot if you wanted to highlight a part further down. You have to scroll down to get back where you were, just don't touch the actual page because you'll leave colored marks behind you. There also doesn't to be a way to edit an image after you go to share it. A Microsoft rep said you can go into OneNote and find pages you created in the past, but at that point you may as well generate a new image on the page.
Hitting "Exit," which essentially wipes the page clean of your artwork, also causes the page to reload, creating an annoying lag.
Inking worked well 95% of the time during our demo, but it seemed to cause some lagging and downright confusion on various machines. This is still an early build and Microsoft will likely work out the kinks, but they are present at the moment.
Cortana on Microsoft Edge
Deeper Cortana integration is the other highlight of this Microsoft Edge build. While the personal assistant is always available via the task bar, it will pop up along the top of the browser on pages it thinks it can help you with, like websites for businesses or restaurants. In other words, it won't show its little circle self on every website you visit. Microsoft discovered during user testing people don't really want a virtual personal assistant peering into all their web browsing. Go figure.
When it does pop up, Cortana offers info about the web page you're looking at, like a phone number, directions and hours of operation, and will let you make a reservation.
Cortana will also provide details on words users highlight. Don't know what pancetta is? Be prepared for a crash course in the cured meat. Highlight a word or phrase you don't understand, right click, and Cortana provides you with information on that word or phrase.
Cortana on the browser, at least in the Edge build we saw, only works with clicking and typing. If you switch to Cortana on the task bar, then you can speak to it and it will verbally respond.
All this Cortana integration is helpful, but doesn't feel like a revolutionary feature. Google has offered similar intel via Google Now for some time now, so it feels like Edge is playing catch-up versus introducing something new with what Cortana brings to the table.
Life on the Edge
As for how Microsoft Edge works overall, it started out quick but seemed to lag or hit hiccups the longer we used it. They weren't horrendous, but definitely noticeable.
The browser is clean and modern looking. With the various icons on the page as well as pinned to the desktop, it looked a little busy, but wasn't off putting. Microsoft has done a nice job updating the browser, but it still feels like a work in progress. It's almost there, but not quite.
Will Microsoft Edge become our new default browser? It's still too early to say, but so far, the answer looks like no. The new features shown during the Build keynote make it slightly more tempting, but they don't offer anything earth-shattering enough to make someone accustomed to Chrome, for example, suddenly switch.
For current Windows users, the new browser should feel fresh and offer the right amount of touch and mouse and keyboard functionality. The new Cortana integration is a natural evolution for the personal assistant, and if it's able to offer personal recommendations right when you need them, more power to it. The other new features discussed during the Build keynote should make a bigger splash when they roll out, but for now, Edge is still sharpening up.