Microsoft Project Spartan Preview

by Reads (1,743)

Project Spartan doesn’t work yet, nor should it. Microsoft’s next-generation web browser is a buggy mess, and it’s only available to the brave souls willing to sacrifice a device to the Windows 10 preview.

Then again, Windows 10 barely works on our Dell Venue 8 Pro test device, so our expectations are firmly in check for Project Spartan’s early builds. That aside, the limited preview does give us a good indication of Spartan’s potential as a rival to the popular Google Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

Lightweight

Project Spartan load screen

Project Spartan load screen

First and foremost, Project Spartan is a lightweight browser. Microsoft claims it’s built with modern web standards in mind and supports extensions while shunning older standards, including ActiveX. It should also be swift to open and close, though that’s impossible to discern on an unresponsive and finicky test device. A glance at the task manager reveals that it doesn’t have as much impact on memory as rival browsers. With one tab open, Project Spartan used only 10.7 MB of memory, compared to the latest builds of Google Chrome at 27.2 MB and Firefox at 140.2 MB.

Take this with a grain of salt as it is an uncompleted build, but it also bested Firefox and Chrome in the Sunspider Javascript benchmark with a time of 594.4ms, compared against 922.8ms for Chrome, and 750.2ms for FireFox (because it’s measured in milliseconds, lower is better).

Integrated

Cortana integration in Project Spartan

Cortana integration in Project Spartan

Microsoft’s Cortana, OneNote, and Reading List app are tightly integrated in the preview. One assumes Cortana will be more active in the final release, offering tidbits and quick navigation options to say, Bing Maps when a user highlights and address. For now, it’s limited to “Ask Cortana” through a right mouse click, offering up a Google-cards like info box with pertinent information, and providing weather information through the address bar.

A reading mode borrowed from the Windows 8.1 Reading List app proves more helpful, especially for tablet users. It strips an article down to text and images, eliminating all ads and navigation. On a small tablet like the Dell Venue 8 Pro, it’s a welcomed feature. Unfortunately, it can’t handle multi-page articles as of this writing. Here’s hoping that’s fixed for the full release.

Marking up a web page is a key Spartan feature

Marking up a web page is a key Spartan feature

Tablet users will also enjoy the new mark-up feature built into Project Spartan. A click on the toolbar brings up free-form highlighters, pens, a text box, and square-selection tool. It’s such a stupidly simple and obviously useful addition, that it makes one wonder why Google or Apple didn’t think of it first. Also included are a save option, which we can’t comment on or determine what it exactly does as it constantly crashes the browser, and a share button, which adds online content to Reading List and OneNote.

How the share button works exactly with OneNote we can’t say as it persistently crashed the browser as well. Does it grab a screenshot, effectively cutting off anything off screen, or perhaps a selection or a specific area? Does it grab the entire web page? Keep in mind that Microsoft will presumably extend the share feature to email (the default email client disappeared in our latest test build, along with the calendar), and Office apps, particularly PowerPoint, and maybe DropBox, given Microsoft’s recent moves to include the popular cloud service in Office 365. We’ll have to wait for an update to find out.

The favorites menu sits right next to the mark-up icon, which houses bookmarks, browsing history, download shortcuts, and a reading list filled with “articles you want to save for later.” It would be great if the reading list saved the articles offline like the Reading List app or Pocket, but we couldn’t test that as the feature was not functional in the test build.

Sparse Spartan

Project Spartan is a sparse browser

Project Spartan is a sparse browser

Aesthetically, Spartan is a sparse browser. It’s very boxy, with no color, just shades of grey. It’s all very clean, with tabs sitting above the back, forward, and reload icons next to the multifunction address bar. The reading mode, favorites, bookmarks, markup, and simple settings sit to the right.

Microsoft will likely give Spartan a makeover before its launch, and perhaps a new name. It will also need to add incognito or InPrivate browsing, the option to change the default search from Bing, the ability to pin tabs, and some sort of chat client integration, to name four glaringly missing features. At least it will have to if Microsoft wants to attract Chrome and Firefox users.

And it could do just that. Even in its barely working state, it shows the potential of a next-generation web browser. If it retains its performance edge, then it could be something special.


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