App Review: Microsoft Edge – the new browser for you?

Microsoft has recently released their new revamped Edge browser.  The original released Edge with Windows 10 in 2015 with a brand new engine, but it failed to gain much traction to replace their aging Internet Explorer or more powerful rivals like Google Chrome.  They ultimately announced that they were rewriting the browser again, but this time in Chromium.  That is, in fact, the same engine as the aforementioned Chrome browser. There would be some major differences though; it would integrate Microsoft services over Google, would be more productivity minded, and be more privacy respecting than its source material. Not only that, but to compete they even brought it to competing platforms, such as Android, iOS, and even the Mac (and some reports say they’re considering Linux too!. So is it worth the wait?  Does it live up to those promises?  Should you make this your new default browser?  I’ve been using it for over a week now on my Mac and iPhone, so let’s talk about it.

First Looks:

From the get-go, Microsoft Edge’s on-boarding process is pretty straight forward.  It will offer to import your bookmarks, history, autofill form data, credentials, and the like from your current browser of choice.  Interestingly on mine it offered to pull it from Chrome by Edge setupdefault, even though my default browser was Firefox.  I was able to change the browser I wanted it to pull from, as well as select what I wanted it to pull out.  I didn’t really care for it to pull passwords, mostly because I have a separate password manager for that.

Edge’s whole design feels like a cross between Chrome and the previous iteration of Edge on Windows 10.  It looks almost exactly the same as Chrome, even down to the icon designs, though the icons are larger and a bit more angular like on the old Edge browser.

The browser also uses Bing out of the gate, no surprise that it would use Microsoft’s own engine over another.  Searching is relatively responsive with Bing and tends to bring good results.  That said, you can switch it to Google, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo.  The only exception to this is in the New Tab page.  If you search with the URL bar, you’ll use your search engine of choice, but if you search from the search bar on the new tab page, it will always search with Bing.  Even Chrome respects your search engine of choice better than this, so I’m hoping this is something Microsoft will change to respects our settings better.

Speaking of settings, Edge’s settings are laid out similar to Chrome, with sections laid out in the left sidebar, and the settings for the selected section on the right hand side of the screen.  Microsoft has more of these sections available in the left sidebar by default though, and all of the options for those sections laid out rather than hidden in an “Advanced” section like Chrome.  And there are a lot of settings.  Many of them are the same as other browsers, but some are welcome additions.  We’ll leave some of the privacy stuff to that section, but I’ll cover some other settings here.

Edge InformationalMicrosoft lets you customize its default new tab page.  It has 4 options: “Focused”, which is very spartan with only a search bar and your favorite pinned sites; “Inspirational”, which gives it a background picture from Bing with more space in between the sites and search bar to see the picture; “Informational”, where it will scrunch up all the aforementioned content and add a scrollable feed of news, weather, stock market information, and more, very similar to the MSN homepage; and a “Custom” option.  This informational view tends to be a lot more focused on current news compared to say Firefox’s “Recommended by Pocket” feature.  You can personalize the information section to also reflect the news content you wish to follow.  While I like the Informational view the most, it does feel a little more crowded then necessary.

In the appearance section, Edge defaults to the system settings for dark or light mode.  So since I use my Mac’s dark mode, it defaulted to a dark theme.  However, you can manually set this to either a dark or light mode separate from your OS settings.  I appreciate this option; even though Edge looks great in dark mode, it’s a welcome change compared to Chrome that only uses whatever your system uses. The downside is there are no other themes like Chrome or Firefox, only light or dark mode.  Speaking of theming, let’s talk about some of the unique stuff Edge does offer.

Performance and Functionality:

Edge’s performance is solid, though I can’t say it’s noticeably better than the competition.  On my Mac, I ran Reddit, CNN, and a 4K YouTube video (where applicable) at the same time.  Chrome used the most resources when adding up all the helpers, with Edge using slightly fewer resources as far as CPU and RAM goes, though it didn’t do as well as Firefox and Safari in those regards.  This is likely a side-effect of using the Chromium engine; while powerful, Chrome’s engine is notoriously a resource hog.  Edge being based off that likely isn’t changing that limitation, even if it has removed some of Chrome’s cruft.

One benefit to use of the Chrome though is their vast library of extensions.  Microsoft has their own extension store that you can use to install extensions.  Many major extensions are there, such as LastPass, 1Password, uBlock Origin, and YouTube Enhancer to name a few.  You don’t even need a Microsoft account to install them.  That said, many others aren’t there such as Instapaper, Pocket, HTTPS Everywhere, Privacy Badger, and so many others.  Microsoft recognizes this and lets you install extensions from other stores.  Namely, if you go to the Chrome web store, you’ll have a banner up at the top of the screen that will give you the option to enable the feature. From then on you can hit the “Add to Chrome” button next to an extension, and it will install and run same as Chrome.  Chrome Themes, however, are not supported.

Edge ext banner
Banner you see after enabling Chrome extension support

Microsoft actually offers some interesting Accessibility support too.  Edge includes a font size adjuster in the appearance section.  This is wonderful for accessibility purposes in the event you just need an adjustment in the browser rather than having to mess with the entire system settings, and I think more browsers should offer this setting more easily.  Not only that, it even offers you to set the default fonts for standard, serif, sans-serif, and fixed width.  This affects not only the browser, but also websites too.

Edge has a screen reading tool, allowing the browser to narrate the page, and with some different voice options and in different languages.  If you select it to read a whole page, it tends to get a little overwhelming as it reads each and every item on the page.  But reading through a news article is pretty good when you select a word and hit the “Read Aloud from here” option.  The English voices, both male and female, sound very natural in cadence and performance, and you can adjust the speed to your preference.  The default speed is a bit slow for me, but it doesn’t sound bad either.  However it does seem to take unusually long pauses between line spaces, such as in different paragraphs, before it picks up reading.  Still, Microsoft deserves praise for putting this feature here and it running and sounding pretty natural.

Microsoft also included built-in Casting support and Picture-in-Picture Mode.  While both of these features are available in Chrome, they are only offered as extensions rather than native functions.  Screen Shot 2020-01-02 at 4.40.09 PMThat said, the casting only works on Google Cast supported devices and apps, and doesn’t take advantage of AirPlay on the Mac, a sore spot for us Mac users, though easily circumventable. The PiP functions works well, which you can check out how to use in our article here.  That said, since posting the article, the PiP functionality has become more hit-or-miss.  I have more success activating it in YouTube ads than the YouTube videos themselves.  Hopefully this will be fixed in future updates.

There’s one notable feature that seems to be missing from the new version of Edge that was present in the old version, and that’s Reader View.  On my Mac, Edge does not have a native Reader View like Firefox or Safari.  This function loads a simplified version of the webpage containing only the core of the article with all the ancillary material like ads and other article stripped out.  This is really useful for reading news articles without having the page trying desperately getting you to click on something else.  For whatever reason, this feature is no longer natively in Edge, and I miss that option.

One of the other places where Edge does want you to know it has options and functionality, is in Privacy, the new buzz word of the industry.  So how does it do in that regard?

Privacy:

Microsoft PrivacyEdge’s privacy tools seems to take a page from Firefox, with a dedicated Privacy section in the Settings sidebar, using a 3-tier setting, and also defaulting to the “Balanced” option. Edge also offers a “Basic” option, allowing more trackers and ad customization and only blocks “harmful” trackers, and a “Strict” option blocking the majority of trackers and minimizing ad customization, at the risk that some parts of sites won’t work.  Setting in the Strict option, I didn’t notice any particular issues, and the majority of ads on platforms like YouTube still ran when not running another blocking tool like uBlock Origin.  Microsoft seems to be intending this to be less of an ad-blocker and more of tracking protection, though they offer some of that in the Site Permissions section, more on that later.  They also offer you the option of seeing what tracking sites they’re blocking for you, as well as the option to whitelist certain sites.

You have other settings in the Privacy settings, such as running your sites through Microsoft’s Defender Smartscreen, sending “Do Not Track” requests, allowing sites to check if you have payment info stored, and more.  It’s also interesting to note that Microsoft has an option to allow it to use some of your data for personalization purposes in its other services like Bing, Microsoft News, etc.  It’s worth remembering that Microsoft isn’t as neutral or hostile towards data tracking as other browser makers are, given that they want to use it for their services.  However, I will give them credit; it’s better to have the option for this available for the user, rather than just simply having it done with no recourse.  And to that end, Microsoft has this setting disabled by default and can only be enabled manually after you’ve signed into a Microsoft account.  If you don’t sign into Edge with your Microsoft account for data syncing, you can’t even enable the option to have them personalize your data on their services.

But Microsoft has some interesting privacy controls that aren’t explicitly mentioned or in the Privacy section.  Many of these can be found in the “Site Permissions” section.  Many browsers have been granting users more controls over what information and tools sites can get and use from their machine.  Edge site permissionMany browsers now notify you if a site wants to use things like your machine’s camera or your location data, and this is no different in Edge.  However, Microsoft has added some unique ones that I haven’t seen explicitly mentioned in other browsers.  For example, you can limit what sites can your motion or light sensor data, what sites you trust to automatically download multiple files, and even check and use your MIDI devices.  That’s not to say I’ve encountered many sites that have requested these kind of permissions, or where I’ve needed it, but it’s nice to see that if these things are requested that you have a lot more control over what sites can access them.

Ultimately, with Microsoft having its hands at least partially in the data harvesting business, it’s hard to say how much we as users can trust them.  Microsoft is not nearly as aggressive in data harvesting or mining as other services like Google or Facebook, just to name a couple.  They seem to take a middle ground stance between the staunch anti-tracking position of Apple and the harvest-happy practices of Google. They’ve even advocated for and backed some data privacy laws.  The best judge of that will be time and seeing what we can pull from them with things like GDPR requests.

Cross-Platform:

The other part of using Edge on my Mac in conjunction with Edge on my iPhone.  Edge for iPhone runs fairly well.  Its new tab page is just a mobile version of the Informational view of Edge for the desktop: search bar on top, icons for quick site access, and then further down the page new stories that it thinks you might be interested in. The search bar not only lets you type in web addresses or search with text through it (with Bing by default of course), but it also has optional voice searching and QR scanning that you can do through the browser.  What is odd about this page is that the quick access icons defaulted to my bookmarks I had synced through Edge’s sync rather than any sites I chose or had visited in the mobile browser.  I also couldn’t find a way to easily change these either.

Edge iPhone SyncSpeaking of Sync, if you choose to enable browser syncing with your Microsoft account, it can be found in the top left corner of this new tab page or in the Settings section.  You also have the option of syncing to the “Legacy” Edge browser, or the “new” Edge as they call this Chromium based Edge.  You technically have 5 options, but in reality it’s 3.  What I mean by that is you can sync your bookmarks, autofill data, and passwords without any issue.  However, at the time of this writing, syncing your tabs or surfing history across browsers is not supported.  Microsoft has the switches available in both browsers, but they’re grayed out.  Microsoft does have notices that these should be available in the coming months.  At the moment, this is a hard sticking point for me because it’s a feature I use all the time, be it in Firefox or Safari, or even with Chrome on the occasions I need to use it.

What I can appreciate is the settings section in Edge.  Much like its desktop counterpart, there are some rather unique features to be found in its Settings.  For example, you have the option of turning the News Feed off, though if you choose to leave it on your only default sources of news are MSN and MSN Kids.  What’s also interesting is the “News Guard” feature, which is off by default.  If enabled, it will mark the right side of the URL bar of the browser with a green check or red x based on the reliability of the news site you’re on according to NewsGuard.  Clicking on this mark will open a new tab with NewsGuard’s complete view of the website, giving it an overall pass or fail rating, and noting whether it considers it completely healthy, has some exceptions to its quality, or is generally unreliable.  It will also list out the qualities like repeatedly posting false content, regularly corrects content errors, whether the site discloses its financing sources, etc. as well as more details about the agendas should they have any.  Generally I find these to be accurate, though I see Microsoft adding this feature as more for good coverage than to much benefit for users.  That said, it can be useful as an extra fact check if you so desire.

Edge iPhone videoEdge is also being rather forward thinking and good with iOS features.  It supports Siri Shortcuts, useful for opening links in Edge and using other cool functions.  Edge’s arguably most hidden and useful feature is its “Enable Floating Video”.  When enabled, it acts as Picture-in-Picture mode in the mobile browser.  It works not only within the web page your scrolling through, but other tabs within Edge and into the settings.  It even works if you close the original tab.  While tapping the video to play and pause is a bit frustrating on the tiny video window (and I was using the iPhone 8+), it otherwise works really well.  It’s a niche feature, but one I think other browsers could stand to emulate.

One last thing more major browser can emulate is the custom menu options.  Edge has a line of three dots at the bottom tool bar of the browser.  Clicking it brings up a variety of common tasks like “New Tab”, “History”, and even things like “Read Aloud”.  Microsoft has option of letting you move these quick access icons around so they’re in the order you want.  There doesn’t seem to be a way to add and remove them, but this could be a later addition.  It still is rather handy.

Conclusion:

Microsoft has really put a lot into Edge to make it a competitive browser, with a lot of forward thinking features be it in accessibility, video, or even unique controls.  If I’m honest, it’s hard as an Apple user to think that I could use a Microsoft product in my day-to-day affairs.  Heck, even for people who actually prefer Windows may still be turned off by the idea of using Microsoft’s browser given the image Microsoft’s browsers have (almost rightfully) garnered.  But it would be wrong of me to ignore that Microsoft has really been doing a fantastic job of making cross-platform apps in the last few years.  Office has gotten significantly better on Mac, and is the best office app on iOS bar none, Outlook on iOS is also a surprisingly good email client.  Now we can add Edge to that list.  I’m still going back to Firefox, they’ve earned my trust, and cross-device tab syncing is an absolute must to me, but I’ll be keeping an eye on this scrappy revamped browser and Microsoft.  They have my attention.

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