Get ready to start evaluating Chromium-based Edge

The developer and canary versions of Microsoft's Edge browser are aimed at developers and those planning their enterprise browser strategy. But you'll need to be prepared for a browser with open access to extensions showing up on your network.

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The first public builds of the new Edge will only run on 64-bit versions of Windows 10 — although they will work on any version of Windows 10, so you don't need a recent release or to be on the Insider ring. The full release versions will also run on Windows 7, 8 and macOS. Other languages will be supported, but the initial builds will only be in English.

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The beta, developer and canary channels can run side by side on the same PC, and can run alongside the existing version of Edge as well.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

The first Edge Insider builds aren't yet ready for trialling in enterprise deployments, says Microsoft, and there will be some sort of official 'Edge Insider for Business' programme to help businesses try the browser out, probably in summer 2019.

This first release is aimed at several audiences: web developers who want to test their sites, extensions for compatibility and PWAs; technology enthusiasts who help shape opinions about browsers (which will doubtless include the early adopters inside your organisation); and CTOs and other technology leaders who set browser strategy and need to think about how the new Edge could replace IE for legacy compatibility.

Edge Insider is available in a developer branch that updates weekly and a canary channel that updates almost every night. The next wave of releases in the summer will be for business IT teams to evaluate, with a preview for end users coming after that, including the option of a more stable beta channel that gets updated every six weeks. The beta, developer and canary channels can run side by side on the same PC, and they can run alongside the existing version of Edge as well.

But that doesn't mean you won't see Edge Insider appearing inside your organization if you have curious users who install it just to try it out — and there are some significant differences from the way Edge works today as well as differences from Chrome.

Inside Edge Insider

In Microsoft's own compatibility tests, Edge Insider is generally equivalent to Chrome or Brave. The promised IE compatibility isn't yet included, so if that's your primary interest in the new Edge browser, you'll want to wait for later builds.

The initial development focus has been on performance and reliability, and improving accessibility, but there's still more work to be done on performance, including improvements to smooth scrolling with touch. We also noticed a much smaller number of tabs using the same memory as many more tabs open in the current Edge. Microsoft hasn't yet incorporated its work on battery life optimisation into Edge Insider builds.

However, integrations with Google services have been replaced with Microsoft services: signing in with a Microsoft or Azure AD account instead of a Chrome account for syncing favourites, passwords and payment details; updating through Windows Update; and sending telemetry to Microsoft rather than Google.

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Credentials will roam securely to mobile devices where users have Edge installed; if your users sign into the browser with Azure AD, the credentials will be held in storage within your organisation's tenant. That process isn't in place because the mobile browsers have not yet moved to the new service-syncing infrastructure, and the admin controls for this aren't yet available.

The synced passwords and credentials that have always been accessible through the little-known Web Credentials control panel now appear directly in the browser settings under Passwords, although viewing them still requires signing into the user account for each one, through Windows Hello or whatever other account credential is set. The interface remains far more primitive than a password manager, but it's finally searchable, and it may reduce some helpdesk calls from users who've forgotten a password that the browser has synced for them. Similarly, history is finally searchable (and loads far more quickly than in the current Edge browser).

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The default search engine is Bing - and the new tab page includes the Microsoft News feed

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The default search engine is Bing (you can change that) and the new tab page includes the Microsoft News feed, which you can push to the bottom of the page but not turn off entirely — even if you pick the 'Focused' rather than the 'Inspirational' (Bing image of the day) or 'Informational' (showing Microsoft news stories) layouts. Organisations who don't want employees distracted by news headlines may not appreciate this ever-present invitation to catch up on current events.

There are several areas where Edge Insider lacks current Edge features: there's no ink support for scribbling notes on pages, for example; you can't set tabs aside to come back to later; and the PDF support is much more basic. Those will all improve, and when the features return, they will be redesigned to be more useful. There are no settings to block autoplay videos and tab preview is also missing, as Edge Insider has an interface that's currently very like Chrome.

The current version of Edge allows users to pin sites to the taskbar. Edge Insider only lets them pin sites to the desktop, but they can 'install' the site to make it look like an app. That app can be pinned to the taskbar, but currently only from the Start menu — if you try to pin the app directly to the taskbar, that just pins the Edge Insider browser with a new tab page.

This isn't true PWA (Progressive Web App) support by any means, but it's currently the only way for web developers to test their PWAs in Edge Insider, as you can't yet run an installed PWA using Edge Insider. If your organization uses PWAs you'll want to test them, because — once Edge Insider launches — PWAs in Windows will switch to using the Chromium engine instead of the current Edge engine. Extension developers should also test their work, although Microsoft expects existing Edge extensions and Chrome extensions to both run.

SEE: Chromium-based Edge: Hands on with Microsoft's new browser (ZDNet)

Microsoft promises that submitting extensions to the Store will be easier, because the packaging format will no longer be different from that required by the Chrome Store. There's already a good selection of extensions in the Microsoft Store for Edge Insider and you now browse these inside the browser rather than in the Store app, although disappointingly some Microsoft extensions — like the OneNote web clipper — aren't there yet.

This means that any users who install Edge Insider are likely to turn on the option to use other extension stores. If you're not already paying attention to what Chrome extensions are in use on your network (even some extensions from the official Chrome Store have turned out to be malicious), you'll want to consider what your policy will be on these.

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You may have to enable access to other extension stores to access extensions like the OneNote Web Clipper.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

In our initial tests, Edge Insider didn't install extensions from sources other than the Microsoft and Chrome Stores (including .CRX extensions from unofficial stores or GitHub repos, and the Opera site didn't recognise Edge Insider as a compatible browser), except by using the same developer sideloading as in Chrome. It's likely you'll have the same options as with Chrome to create your own internal extensions store to offer extensions you've checked and approved, and that unofficial third-party stores will be automatically blocked.

But this is still a much wider pool of extensions to plan for than with Edge, and for some organisations this will be a new problem to manage, so it's another thing you'll want to start testing and planning, even with this early preview.

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"Developers will probably want to start running their apps that employ feature detection against the dev release to make sure they work as expected. If they have automated regression scripts in Selenium or similar it shouldn't be a lot of additional effort," said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester.

"Over time though, as we head towards a formal release, I expect that Edge on Chromium will support plug-in management via group policies and through Intune on Windows and plist policies on macOS X. As a result, if enterprises are already using tools like SCCM or Intune to manage browsers, they should be all set," Hammond added.

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