Hands on with the next Microsoft Edge, Microsoft's revamped Chromium-based browser Credit: MicrosoftIDG
Business Management

Hands on with the next Microsoft Edge, Microsoft's revamped Chromium-based browser

Whatever you call the next Microsoft Edge—Microsoft Edgium? Microsoft Edge, built on Chromium? ChromEdge?—Microsoft’s fusion of the Chromium browser and the traditional Microsoft Edge is worth trying out, though the current beta version is a bit heavier than the traditional Edge.

Last week, Microsoft announced a stable beta channel for what it’s calling the next version of Microsoft Edge. Microsoft’s Edge browser will now be designed around Chromium, the open-source version of Google Chrome. Edgium—a convenient nickname, if one that Microsoft devs seem to hate—should feel familiar to both Edge and Chrome users, with a well-stocked larder of Microsoft-vetted extensions, as well as a gateway to the traditional Chrome store.

Why try the new beta? Probably the most compelling argument was that you can download and install it in literally seconds. Though I’d swear I never tried even an early version of the Edge beta on this machine, the next Edge detected and imported my existing Chrome bookmarks during the setup process, and even configured my bookmarks bar. Technically, it did so without my permission. On the other hand, the time it took between downloading it and actually using it was among the quickest I’ve ever seen for any browser. You’ll probably have been up and running in the time it took to read this paragraph.

This is a marked change from the literal years it took for Microsoft to nail down cloud syncing within the original Microsoft Edge. Though the original Edge had, and has, its strengths, Edge missed its window: Most users simply returned to Chrome, a full-fledged browser that worked, and let Microsoft Edge work through its growing pains by itself.

At this point, the Edgium beta is merely a straightforward, competent browser. We can’t reasonably expect it to have the UI flash of Vivaldi, the VPN capabilities of Opera, the “tip a creator” functionality of Brave, or so on. Upcoming features may be turned on in the nightly “Canary” releases, or as part of experimental “flags” within the browser. Here are the next Edge’s current strengths and weaknesses.

microsoft next edge pcworld Mark Hachman / IDG

The new Edge’s UI is unremarkable in its blandness...which may have been what users have been asking for all along.

Strength: Blazing-fast sign-in

Though I rotate among Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi, and sometimes Firefox, my Windows settings default to the older version of Microsoft Edge, and I’ve been a Windows user for years. But the older version of Edge required some fine-tuning of my bookmarks to get things the way I wanted them. With Edgium, I was up and running in seconds. 

Edgium suggests importing your existing bookmarks from Chrome—but in its setup screen, you can already see that it’s done so. In fact, there are only minimal decisions to be made: Import bookmarks or start clean? You also have a choice of views in a “new tab” page: “Focused,” with a series of quick-link cards and a search bar; “Inspirational,” which adds a background image; and “Informational,” which adds a series of Microsoft News-powered headlines to the Inspirational layout.

Microsoft Edge setup Mark Hachman / IDG

Setting up Microsoft’s next Edge is a snap.

That’s it. By default, Microsoft syncs all of your data, including history, passwords, and the like, to the cloud, so you can pick up where you left off on any device signed into the Edgium beta. (Eventually, once Edgium becomes the default Edge browser, this data will sync to all of your devices.) In the Settings menu, accessible via the ellipsis menu in the upper right-hand corner, you can also control what data Edge syncs.

Strength: Familiarity

Anecdotally, some people I’ve spoken with put an inordinate emphasis on the simple familiarity of the Chrome UI, and were turned off by Edge’s little quirks: the pen interface button, for example, and the sharing shortcut icon to the upper right. If you’re in the same camp, relax: Both are gone.

Edgium looks a lot like Chrome, down to nitty-gritty features like the ability to cast a webpage to a smart speaker or Xbox. (Unfortunately, my attempt to freak out my kids by playing spooky laughter over the nearby smart speaker failed.)

microsoft next edge new tab page Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s new tab page, in its “busiest” look: Informational. If you’d like, you can cut out the headlines and the background image into a “Focused” look.

Any Microsoftian features that have been added so far fly under the radar. The ability to read aloud a webpage, for example, goes far beyond the Microsoft Mark and David voices that ship with Windows, and includes new voices powered by Windows Server. The JessaNeural voice is really good, and correctly parsed words like “EdgeHTML” when reading back this page.

Right now, you can also mute any tab you want, rather than muting the entire site, as Chrome forces you to. But the next Edge currently lacks the ability to manage media autoplay settings that the current Edge has.

Strength: Extensibility

If you’ve used the older, built-in Edge before, you’ve probably noticed that Microsoft has a list of curated Edge extensions that’s slowly grown over time: everything from Night Eye, which forces a “dark mode” on websites, to ad blockers, Amazon Assistant, an alternate player for Twitch.tv, and more.

microsoft edge extensions Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft would prefer you remain within its curated extensions list, but you have access to the Chrome Store if you wish.

Microsoft includes all of these, now listed on a convenient webpage that the company itself curates. Those I tried seemed to work fine. What Microsoft doesn’t do, though, is push users to the Chrome Store, seeming to prefer that you stay within its own walled garden of extensions. The Chrome Store is available, though you’ll need to work at it—you’ll need to go to the Edgium ellipsis menu, select Extensions, then go down to the bottom of the page and toggle on Allow extensions from other stores to access the Chrome Web Store. From there, you can add whatever Chrome extensions you wish.

Strength: Privacy

Say what you want about Microsoft’s telemetry practices, but Edgium is one of the few browsers with a dedicated Privacy subheading within the Settings menu. In addition to the ability to turn off data syncing, you can clear a number of different categories (including your browser history) every time you close Edgium. There are also tools to disable a website’s ability to check whether you have payment data stored, and to send “Do not track” requests. 

microsoft next edge settings page edit Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft’s Settings page is now its own tab, like many other browsers.

Microsoft includes links to the Windows 10 Settings menu to answer questions about the diagnostic data it collects, as well as links to the Microsoft privacy dashboard to manage that data. Microsoft doesn’t provide a direct link to, say, turn off your dedicated advertising ID, though you can do that yourself: Settings > Privacy > General. And for those who are wondering: The anonymous DuckDuckGo is a search engine option, which can be configured in the Privacy tab.

Weakness: Performance 

Because this is a beta, we have to take browser performance in particular with a grain of salt. The new Edgium feels fast, reportedly because Microsoft turned off what it considered to be several unnecessary behind-the-scenes features Google enabled in Chrome. However, in benchmarking we noticed some inefficiency that we hope will be addressed in future builds.

My test machine for this iteration was a Surface Book 2, a powerful laptop. To benchmark, I opened the same six tabs within the old Edge, the new Edgium, and Google Chrome itself: the SFGate.com homepage, the Windows homepage, specific pages within CNN and ESPN, and PCWorld’s homepage. I also opened a “new tab” page, just for fun.

Microsoft Edge cpu utilization Mark Hachman / IDG

Microsoft Edgium versus the legacy Microsoft Edge, versus Google Chrome: six tabs open, after letting them “settle down” for a minute or two.

Microsoft Edge cpu utilization with adblock on Mark Hachman / IDG
Microsoft Edge cpu utlization muted sites Mark Hachman / IDG

The same comparisons, but with ad blocking turned on and then muting the sites, respectively. (You shouldn’t expect significant changes in CPU usage after muting a site or tab; this was mainly just for testing purposes.)

Google Chrome, Edge, and Edgium all produced what seemed like immediately responsive pages, which was definitely not the case when the legacy Edge first launched. But under three scenarios the new Edgium consumed significantly more CPU power:

  • When I loaded the six tabs in each browser, with no extensions turned on.
  • When I then added the AdBlock extension—blocking every ad, with whitelisting turned off.
  • Finally, for fun, I then reloaded each tab with the CNN and ESPN sites muted.

Under each scenario, Edgium consumed more than double the CPU resources of Chrome, as well as more memory. The most efficient browser, by far, was the original Edge. 

I also noted what appears to be an occasional rendering bug that blacked out the browser window, similar to bugs we’ve seen in Opera and Chrome.

Beta quirks aside, Microsoft's new Edge is, not surprisingly, being sculpted in the likeness of Chrome. From a usability perspective, Edgium seems to be on the right track, assuming those performance issues were just a beta bug. We look forward to a final release.

Correction: The news headlines on the Edge "new tab" page are powered by Microsoft News, not Bing.

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