Chromium-based Edge: Hands on with Microsoft's new browser

The first public preview of Microsoft's replacement for its Edge browser is now available. Should you try it out?

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If you can't beat 'em, clone 'em. After trying and failing to convince Windows 10 users to adopt its Edge browser, Microsoft is returning to its roots with an all-new Edge that is, for all intents and purposes, a clone of archrival Google's Chrome browser.

The new Edge, based on the open-source Chromium engine, makes its public debut today, four months after Microsoft's announcement that it was giving up on the EdgeHTML engine that had defined the new browser for the past four years. I've been using an earlier build of the new Chromium-based Edge, supplied by Microsoft, for the past few days. Based on that experience, here's what you can expect.

Also: Microsoft security chief: IE is not a browser, so stop using it as your default 

This initial release is a stripped-down build, available only for 64-bit versions of Windows 10, that focuses on the core of the browsing experience. (Later releases will be available for Windows 7, for 32-bit Windows 10, and for MacOS.)

Although I found this preview stable and usable, it has almost none of the consumer or enterprise features that will be part of the final shipping product. Instead, the goal of this release is to make a basic, highly compatible browser available for early adopters and web developers to provide feedback on. That feedback, of course, includes the telemetry that is at the core of Windows 10.

In terms of the "highly compatible" goal, this build succeeds admirably. The widely used HTML 5 test page, for example, gave the new Edge a score of 535 out of a possible 555, the same as the current version of Google Chrome. By comparison, the shipping EdgeHTML-based browser in Windows 10 version 1903 scores 492 points. [Update: An earlier version of this post reported lower test scores for both the Chromium-based Edge and Google Chrome. As a reader notes in the comments, the lower score results when the test is run using HTTP rather than HTTPS.]

The new Edge Dev release runs alongside the current Edge and can be installed or uninstalled anytime. Edge Dev is distinguished by a green banner across the blue Edge icon, as shown above.

It uses the same menu structure as the current Edge release, with options available when you click the three dots arranged horizontally at the right side of the address bar. That menu includes the traditional options for Favorites, History, Downloads, and Extensions, along with a new category, Apps. Those lists appear in cascading menus rather than in the dockable pane that's part of the current Edge version, an example of a consumer feature that will arrive later.

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Speaking of extensions, the Chromium-based Edge Dev includes roughly 120 Microsoft Edge Insider Add-ons, including stalwarts like LastPass and AdBlock Plus. But that assortment pales compared to the massive selection of extensions available in Google's Chrome Web Store.

The solution? A switch on the Edge Dev Extensions page that allows you to install extensions from other stores. When you flip that switch and visit the Chrome Web Store, a banner appears at the top of the page alerting you that the "Add to Chrome" menu works in Edge, too. The resulting interface should be familiar to any Chrome user.

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The new Edge can install extensions from the Chrome Web Store

I had no problem installing extensions from both sources. The Extensions menu in Edge Dev opens the edge://extensions page shown below, which groups all installed extensions by source.

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The Edge Extensions page groups installed items by source

For advanced users, that's a perfectly acceptable workaround, which takes advantage of the compatibility of the underlying Chromium browser engine. In the long run, though, Microsoft will have to deal with some usability issues that are certain to confuse unsophisticated users: How to navigate between the two stores, how to deal with the fact that one store uses a Microsoft account and the other requires a Google account, and how to explain that "Add to Chrome" really means "Add to Edge."

One of the most compelling features of the new Edge browser is the fact that it doesn't require a connection to Google's data-collection networks. Signing in with a Microsoft account uses Microsoft's servers to sync favorites and saved passwords. In a later release, the browser will sync open tabs between devices running Edge, including mobile devices, PCs, and Macs.

Also: Why you should never allow your web browser to save your passwords TechRepublic 

In theory, using a Microsoft account should be a more attractive option to users who are concerned about Google's data-collection practices, which drive the world's largest advertising network. It remains to be seen, however, whether Microsoft can convince the public at large that it's a better steward of data than its corporate rival.

In this release, you can adjust browser settings, including user profiles and privacy options, by going to edge://settings.

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User profiles and settings, including privacy options, are available here

Advanced users and developers will find the expected edge://flags for working with advanced settings and experimental features.

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Web developers will find this page familiar

Should you install an Edge Insider build? Although this early release is far from feature-complete, it's surprisingly solid, in my experience. If you're comfortable with the idea of using multiple browsers, I can't think of any good reason not to add this preview release to an existing Windows 10 installation.

To install the preview build, go to the Microsoft Edge Insider page. You can choose from Canary builds, which are updated daily, or Developer builds, which are updated weekly. Although the update process is fast, most users will probably prefer the weekly Developer channel to minimize disruption.