Spartan – Microsoft's IE Replacement

Spartan - This is Sparta!
I… I couldn’t resist. It’s an opportunity I’ve been waiting for. I promise the rest of the article will be more pertinent. Maybe.

 Microsoft Spartan Has Arrived

Spartan was just rolled out in Windows 10 Build 10049, which is a welcome addition to the Windows 10 Tech Preview scene. The latest build weighs in heavily just as the others have and seemed to take longer to install than Build 10041 – but I didn’t do actual number crunching, so you’ll have to take my pseudo-scientific “it seemed longer” at face value.

Enough about slow build installation times, though; what’s new and exciting with Spartan?

Features

Microsoft touts the benefits of Spartan on their blog, so let’s take a quick look at them.

Web Note

The biggest feature that is immediately noticeable is the “Web Note” function for touch and stylus-enabled devices. This will allow you to make notes directly on a website and share the annotated output with other users. The stock image shows a calendar, though the first application that popped into mind for me was web design review. The possibility of importing these annotated websites directly into OneNote is pretty slick. Other compelling uses for this feature are evading me at this moment, though.

Spartan Webnote

Distraction Free Reading

This feature is apparently just a copycat of Safari’s Reading List feature, as far as I can tell at this point. That’s not to say it’s not useful, simply that it’s not exactly a new, earth-shattering paradigm shift due to Spartan specifically. I do like the idea of reading view, particularly for mobile devices. Once upon a time, when I had a fruit-phone I liked using Reading List mode for consuming media while in mass-transit vehicles, especially. I can see this a very useful integration feature for Windows 10 for phones and tablets: find useful information, save it to your reading list and have it synced via OneDrive to your Windows Phone for consumption during commute time or other “down-time”.

Faster Search

Spartan Cortana

Cortana is, if you haven’t had it bashed into your consciousness noticed yet, a core feature of Microsoft’s long game strategy. It’s a smart play, in my opinion. Microsoft hasn’t been able to counter Google’s search dominance in any meaningful way; Cortana is a chance to side-step that factor and embed Microsoft’s search technology into users’ everyday lives. If Cortana can gain enough traction, it’s a win on every device that Microsoft ships Windows 10 on for their long-beleaguered Bing search engine.

A New Engine for the Modern Web

Yes, instead of using an open source rendering engine, Microsoft engineers have decided to write their own from the ground up. On this front they have a long way to go, as we’ll see shortly.

With that in mind, it is important to remember what the development team has said about Spartan, namely it’s not supposed to be ready for prime time.

It’s important to note we’ll have more features and many improvements coming to Project Spartan before we make it broadly available. This preview is NOT a polished, ready-for-everyone release. -Microsoft

Let’s dive into what Spartan does and does not do well at this time.

Acid3 TestSpartan Acid3 Test

The Acid3 test checks browsers on a slew of criteria, with a focus on  Document Object Model (DOM) and JavaScript functions.

The numbers speak for themselves on this one – Spartan does just fine.

For comparison, Firefox 37 scores a 97, Internet Explorer 11 scores 100, and the current version of Chrome also gets a 100.

HTML5Test.com

Spartan HTML5 Test

Spartan didn’t fare so well here, so the engine will need improvements in this area, but it is an improvement over Internet Explorer 11, so at lest there’s that.

IE 11: 348 / 555

Spartan: 375 / 555

Firefox 37: 449 / 555

Chrome 43: 523 / 555

Peacekeeper by FuturemarkSpartan Peacekeeper Score

This test is a pretty robust test of the capabilities of  browsers to modify and display rich web content. Futuremark doesn’t mess about with benchmarking, it’s kind of their “thing” after all.

Here again we see that things don’t pan out terribly well for Spartan, but it’s in such an infantile state that I suppose that’s to be expected. Microsoft’s browsers don’t natively render Theora or WebM video, among other issues, which really hurt the performance on this test.

One interesting, if unrelated, note is that Peacekeeper didn’t know what to make of Spartan’s engine tag, so it just sort of threw all of the tags it could think of at it, apparently. It did identify it as Edge/12.0 at the end there, but tossed in all the other major engines along with it for good measure.

For comparison, on my test system the major browsers rated as follows:

Spartan: 1425

IE 11: 1892

Chrome 43: 3242

Firefox 37: 3913

How is it to use?

Spartan is, well, spartan. It follows the Windows 10 design concepts of “less and muted” to a tee. I remember firing up Chrome for the first time and being astonished at how few widgets, menus, and bobby-bits were on screen, but Spartan makes Chrome look downright “busy” and “colorful” by comparison. As I’ve said before when discussing Windows 10 in general – I’m not sold on the UI changes. The changes aren’t exactly bad, so much as they feel different simply for the sake of being different. Don’t get me wrong, the interface is perfectly useable, I’m just not in love with the flat, grey-scale color palate. Feast your eyes:

spartanspartanui

Browsing the web with Spartan feels relatively responsive. I wouldn’t call it slow, but it didn’t take my breath away, either. Firefox and Chrome are significantly faster, for the time being; obviously tweaking and improving Spartan’s performance will be an evolutionary process.

The Bottom Line

I didn’t go into this testing session expecting anything groundbreaking, which was to my advantage. Spartan is largely a fine browser, but is still well behind the front-runners in the browser race. Time will tell whether it will gain major market share or take up IE’s soon to be discarded mantle as “The Best Browser for Downloading Another Browser”.

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