Project Spartan is a promising start and delivers on key metrics, although it's clear much work remains

The highlight of Windows 10 Build 10049 is Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) new consumer-facing browser, codenamed Project Spartan.  Now that I've given a basic tour of the UI changes in Build 10041 and Build 10049, here's what Project Spartan is currently looking like.

I. Launching Project Spartan

The browser appears as a blue square icon with a white wireframe globe on it.  Launching it, there's a bit of a lag, but after the first launch it loads faster.

Project Spartan

There's a nice landing page for the new browser (, which highlights the key features of the new browser.

Project Spartan -- Reading List

Clearly this is an early build of Project Spartan.

Windows 10 -- Project SPartan Build

Let's next take the browser out for a spin.

II. Stacking Up Project Spartan Versus Internet Explorer 11

Windows 10's Insider Previews also pack Internet Explorer 11, and Build 10049 is no exception.  Build 9926 had the 11.0.9800.0 build of IE 11.  Build 10041 and 10049 both use the 11.0.10011.0 build of IE 11 -- so there's no new surprises here.

Internet Explorer version by build
Looking at the window frame, the difference between Project Spartan and IE 11 is accentuated.  Spartan tracks close to more modern browser UI layouts like Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Chrome and Opera Software ASA's (STO:OPERAO) titular browser.  By moving the tabs up, there's more rumor for a large number of tabs and the layout looks cleanr.  The UI is also flattened somewhat, with the URL bar meshed into a single blocky pane attached to the active tab.

There's commonality, you'll notice between the navigation buttons (back/forward/refresh) and UI elements in various Modern UI icons in Windows 10 Build 10049.

Windows 10 -- Project Spartan window frame

Other than the UI element shifting and flattened coloration, the UI otherwise is somewhat similar with wireframe buttons in the upper right hand corner activating various menus.  Again, this follows other third party browsers like Chrome.

While IE was admittedly a bit dated versus third party browser UIs, one of its highlights was the self-colorizing tab, which kept track of which tab other tabs arose from.  Sadly that is absent from Project Spartan -- Here's hoping that it returns.  (Some third party browsers have inherited this cool look via extensions).

Windows 10 Spartan

The biggest difference ou noticed immediately, though when loading pages side by side is the speed difference.  Microsoft wasn't kidding when it said Project Spartan was fast.  While I'm still meaning to run through a definitive set of benchmarks, Spartan gives Chrome and Opera a run for their money -- or it feels that way at least.  By contrast IE 11 is stuck in the slow lane, sometimes taking twice as long to load sites.

If you spend a lot of time surfing the web those milliseconds add up!

III. Settings, Disabled Buttons Show What is to Come

Shh, don't tell the European Union's antitrust regulators, but Project Spartan's suggested homepages are MSN, Bing, or custom.  It doesn't suggest rival pages like  Oh the humanity.

To get here you click the "..." icon in the top right, then select "Settings."

In addition to your homepage selection element, there's also some basic reading options that control the font.  There's an option dubbed "Caret Browsing" that "lets you select text using your keyboard."

Project Spartan -- settings

It took me a bit to get the hang of it, but it does work as described.  Just press the F7 key and rather than scroll through a page like it's an image, you get a cursor that dives into the text and scrolls through it line by line, based on the format.  Not sure when this would come in handy, but it's an interesting idea.

Cortana and search suggestions are currently disabled.  The SmartScreen Filter -- a blacklisting and dynamic attack prevention tool -- is inherited from Internet Explorer.  There's also a new next page option to cache pages predictively, which may speed up your pageload times (with the results depending on how predictable or erratic your are, I suppose).

Project Spartan Settings

Adobe Systems Inc.'s (ADBE) fading Flash rich media player is still supported for legacy content, although this is the age of HTML5.

History and Downloads -- accessible by clicking the folder with a star in the top right -- aren't currently working in the released build of Project Spartan.

Project Spartan -- disabled features

Again note the commonality in UI design between, the star, for instance, and the star in the "Favorites" folder of %HOMEPATH%.

IV. Key Features That are Working Now

Reading lists is one integrated nicety that's working as intended, more or less.  To add an item, click the star icon (second left-most in the upper right-hand row).  To access the saved items, click the folder with the star, and then click the stack item in the right-hand pane.

Project Spartan -- Reading

Nothing Earth-shattering here -- basically your standard clipping/content saving built-in (e.g. Pocket).  Still, it's nice to have onboard.

Clicking the left-most book icon in the main row of control buttons activates "Reading Mode".  In its current form that takes you into a sort of newspaperish screen.

I'll be honest.  I have mixed feelings about the current look.  The text and background are okay, but the image placement is a bit wonky.  And the reader drops any sort of embedded content like Tweets or YouTube videos.  Hopefully the finished product will figure out a way to blend standard embedding code (iframes, typically) into its style.

Project Spartan Reading Mode

Lastly, there's the "Inking" interface.  You can highlight pages.  You can type notes.  You can copy images.  You can save your annotated page.  You can even share the page with annotations.

Project Spartan -- Inking

To access Inking, you click the paper/pen icon in the top right.  Inking is a neat idea in principal, but in practice it quickly starts to feel gimmicky.  Kids may enjoy it, but I would say for most adults, you'll use it sparingly.  Probably it's most handy features is highlighting.  I should give the disclaimer I've never been one of those to coat a book in highlighter, but I've had some classmates and colleagues over the years who are fond of doing so.  For them, this could very well be a dream come true -- for me it's more of a novelty.

Even so, it's another nice flourish showing Microsoft is going the extra yard to make users feel -- for once -- like Windows' default consumer-facing browser is cutting edge.

Project Spartan

You can also access a nice developer console via the "..." --> "F12 Developer Tools" option.  The colorized text is especially nice and if you're like me and like to grab images others try to hide (Fair Use!), then this is an exciting development.  Versus most browsers that pop up an inline windows, the default popout is a desirable solution in many scenarios.

Some items in the Developer Tools pane like the profiler (activated and concluded by Ctrl+E presses) are exceedingly cool.  Check out how it times everything down to the hundredths of a millisecond from animations to page requests.

Project Spartan -- profiler

That said, the Developer Tools are also still a little green.  The first time I tried to run the "Performance" profiler, it froze and the entire Developer Tools froze with it.  I had to restart the pane to get it to respond.  It wasn't until round 2 that I determined that it was indeed working.

Likewise when you're windowing into and out of the Project Spartan Browser sometimes it vanishes, forcing you to reopen it.  This is very raw beta software after all, though, so expect these minor hangups to be patched up in no time.

V. Thoughts

Project Spartan promised big.  And in my opinion it delivered.  Microsoft has a very fast browser on its hands.  I'm intrigued to find out just how fast -- so stay tuned for followup benchmarking.

Overall in terms of the look, Project Spartan blends much better with the Windows 10-era Modern UI than the aging Internet Explorer.  Its feature set add interest and appeal, even if they're relatively run-of-the-mill for those of us using browsers with extensions.

I'm hoping Microsoft adds back the tab coloring into Project Spartan, as I always had a soft spot for the IE feature.

Windows 10 Build 10041

I think Project Spartan is off to a promising start.  If Microsoft stands behind Project Spartan's promise of speed and features, while maintaining most of the stability and compatibility of traditional IE, than Microsoft may have the first compelling consumer browser in years.

It's been closing the gap with rival third party browsermakers in terms of looks, features, speed, and compatibility for some time now.  In that regard Project Spartan is an effort years in the making.  It's the first Microsoft browser in more than a decade that I can truly say feels as modern as current rival third party software.  And with Microsoft's browser market share at a decade-long low, Project Spartan's timing is critical.

There's two crucial keys to keeping this good thing going -- polish and (ex-CEO Steve Ballmer's favorite) developers.  In terms of the latter, Microsoft needs to implement the missing functionality and improve the stability of the browser.  And it will surely do that.

Google Chrome All that's missing from Project Spartan is third party extensions. [Image Source: Fuse Joplin]

Microsoft's plans for the latter objective -- involving third party devs -- are less clear.  Project Spartan is rumored to include extensions support similar to Opera, Chrome, and Firefox.  But I saw no sign of that and Microsoft didn't mention third party extensions in its blog.  Let's hope that they are in the works.  Because if they are, Microsoft could have a true winner on its hands.  And if they aren't, it still has its best browser in some time now.

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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