A closer look at Project Spartan, Microsoft's Internet Explorer killer

The future is here

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The Spartan army was the centrepiece of an ancient Greek city-state that grew into a powerful military land-power in roughly 650 BC. Today, Microsoft is putting Spartan, its new browser, at the center of Windows 10 to slay off the old, weak, and beleaguered Internet Explorer.

Microsoft might not be fully killing off Internet Explorer the app, but a new brand name will herald a new era for the company’s browser prospects and a signal to web developers that Internet Explorer will soon be part of ancient history.

Project Spartan is just a codename for now, but I’ve had a chance to experience Microsoft’s new browser in Windows 10, the successor to Internet Explorer.

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A new look and feel

The first thing you’ll notice about Project Spartan is just how basic and minimalist it looks. Part of that might be because it’s lacking all the final features, but it’s mainly because Microsoft is clearly thinking about stripping this back for the modern era. While Internet Explorer 11 is basic itself, Spartan builds upon that by hiding away features like Reading List and the settings panel behind modern icons. There’s buttons to access favorites, reading view, a new Web Notes feature, and a section for reading list, favorites management, history, and the download manager. It’s all based on a sliding sidebar, and it feels like the right way to access features and settings.

Spartan’s interface is rather basic for now, and there’s no sign of any extra clever tab management just yet, but that’s part of its appeal. The address bar and tabs are where you’d expect to find them, and everything feels like it’s staying out of the way to let you surf the web. That feeling is very similar to how I felt using the modern IE in Windows 8.1, but Spartan doesn’t go far enough just yet. Disappointingly, there’s no immersive fullscreen experience that’s optimized for touch, and it feels a little clunky navigating with your fingers. I’m hopeful that Microsoft is simply working to bring this in future updates, because it would be a mistake to lose that great finger-friendly browsing experience from Windows 8.1 for tablets.

Spartan looks a little spartan

As this is only a very early preview, performance isn’t great. Scrolling and opening new tabs can be laggy and random, and I noticed you can’t double click the title bar to maximize Spartan. These issues will obviously be worked out ready for the final release, but it’s worth noting in case you’re thinking about using Windows 10 and Spartan day to day. It’s not ready for daily use just yet.

Project Spartan inking

Inking and annotation

The most impressive new feature for me personally is the inking and annotation support. Microsoft originally demonstrated this by drawing all over a Verge article back in January, and it was the first thing I decided to test. If you’re using something like the Surface Pro 3 with a stylus, you can simply hit the Web Note button and start inking all over a webpage. There are options to change the ink color, highlighting tools, a way to add comment notes, and even a snippet tool. It’s a fun experience, but I couldn’t help but feel it would be even more fun and useful if you could ink in real-time with others.

Once you’re done drawing all over a webpage, you can share it via email, upload it to OneDrive, or store it in OneNote. Not all of these sharing options are enabled just yet, but Microsoft is planning to support them in the final version of Project Spartan. This seems to be the big selling point of Spartan, and the inking will also work without a stylus on a touchscreen machine or by using a mouse. Everyone will be able to draw on the web with Windows 10.

Cortana integration

Cortana integration is the second key feature in Project Spartan. While Windows 10 has Cortana built in for search, the digital assistant gets a little more clever in the browser. You can right-click on words on a website and Cortana will find search results for them, and the digital assistant will even automatically find driving directions to a store or restaurant if you’re browsing a particular site. If you visit Cuoco’s website, an Italian restaurant in Seattle, Cortana pops up near the address bar with suggestions for opening hours and driving directions. It’s a neat trick.

Cortana in the browser has a few neat tricks

Cortana also works in the address bar when you’re searching. If you start typing "weather," it will automatically surface local weather straight in the address bar, alongside information on stocks. Microsoft is also adding in the ability to see flight information in there in future, and you can imagine there are many more scenarios where you might want to see quick information without hitting enter for full search results. The Cortana integration is welcome, and I’d like to see more of this in future updates.

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Reading List and Reading View

While Reading View was part of the Modern IE in Windows 8.1, Microsoft is bringing it to the desktop fully with Spartan and Windows 10. It’s very similar to before, and provides a stripped-back reading experience that’s ideal on a tablet or laptop. I found that it doesn’t always work on every page, particularly large ones or ones with a lot of imagery, but it’s ideally suited for article pages, and it declutters everything to focus on the text.

Reading List is a new addition that syncs URLs between devices and provides a way to read PDFs or webpages offline. It’s not fully enabled in the preview just yet, but it will work similar to the Reading List app for Windows 8.1. I’ve found that Reading List works well if you’re browsing a site on your phone and want to transfer it quickly over to your PC, and it’s a feature that Apple already has in Safari.

A new rendering engine

Perhaps the biggest change to Spartan that you won’t really notice is a new rendering engine. Microsoft is moving away from the complexity and legacy of Internet Explorer, and it’s starting fresh with Project Spartan. The new Edge rendering engine is designed to be modern, so there’s no support for ActiveX controls and rendered pages should be a lot more compatible thanks to more standards compliancy. I’ve found that some pages don’t render well at the moment, and it has a few quirks here and there, but it’s preview so these kinks will likely be ironed out by the time Spartan ships in the summer.

One impressive thing I've noticed is the small amount of RAM usage for tabs. It's usually less than the same site in Internet Explorer, so once the performance issues are fixed this could be a very fast and bloat-free browser.

Extensions and the future

Extensions are still missing right now, and that’s a big miss for Spartan. Microsoft is making a number of good steps, but to truly compete with Chrome it needs good extensions support. Microsoft was slow to implement tabs back in the Internet Explorer days, and it feels like the company is once again dragging its feet. While you could argue extensions are a niche function, they matter to a lot of people who spend their life in the browser. However, Microsoft has committed to bringing extensions to Project Spartan, and we’re hoping to hear more about them at the company’s Build conference next month. It’s unlikely that they’ll be ready for the summer ship time though.

The future of Project Spartan looks bright. Microsoft is taking a step away from the Internet Explorer legacy, and the initial preview seems promising. The key to Spartan’s future will be how quickly Microsoft can adapt its rendering engine and provide updates to consumers running Windows 10. Google has set the standard here with regular Chrome updates, and Microsoft really needs to follow that pace if it wants to catch up and push Spartan into the future.

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