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Project Spartan brings Cortana and doodling to the browser (hands-on)

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Web browsers are one of the most important pieces of software installed on our PCs and mobile devices, and they're likely the apps we spend the most time in. But while the best browsers are lean, fast, and serve up the Internet with a minimum of fuss, they also need to stand out. With Project Spartan, Microsoft aims to eclipse the legacy of the venerable (and infamous) Internet Explorer with an all new browser that's built for the modern Web.

The only way to get your hands on Project Spartan is to be running the latest build of the Windows 10 Technical Preview . And that's a good thing, because much like Windows 10, Spartan is not ready for prime time. You'll bumble along on the Web, until suddenly everything grinds to a halt. You'll click a link, and nothing will happen. So you'll click it again, and again, and moments later, when you've just about given up hope, several identical tabs spring to life.

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Cortana can populate the search bar with the info you're looking for. Nate Ralph/CNET

And then there are the little deficiencies that makes modern browsing special, things I'd all but forgotten about. In Google Chrome, a little speaker icon will appear on a tab whenever audio is playing, so you can silence those pesky autoplaying videos; I've settled for muting my speakers, or frantically closing tabs at random. In Firefox and Chrome, you can pin important tabs so they'll take up a minimum of space, but remain visible; I've instead learned to use fewer tabs (which helps with those autoplaying videos, anyway). And while I haven't used Safari much, Apple's browser, like Chrome and Firefox, all offer extensions, so you can download an ad blocker to stifle those autoplaying videos once and for all. No such luck here, yet.

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At a bar's website? Cortana can pull important details into a sidebar. Nate Ralph/CNET

I've no doubt that Microsoft will get to all that. Project Spartan, thus far, is all about showing us what could be next. There's a new rendering engine powering all of Spartan's features, and it feels appreciably zippy. A reading mode akin to the one you'd see in Safari or apps like Pocket strips a Web page down to its bare essentials, and you can easily add Web pages and the like to a Reading list to read later across all of your Windows-powered devices.

Cortana has proven to be the most useful addition: Microsoft's virtual assistant will ride along as you browse, dropping info into the address bar as you search, or pulling extra data into a sidebar, so you can have extra information on hand while you browse.

Annotate Web pages, then send them to OneNote or share with your friends. Nate Ralph/CNET

A Web Note button on the taskbar allows you to draw directly on Web pages and annotate them with text, and share those notes via email or through OneNote. I'm not sure how useful this will be, but it is nifty. The implementation is a little choppy at the moment. Press the Web note button and the entire page reloads, which is annoying if you'd scrolled to a point you wanted to annotate. And longer pages get cut short, which could throw a wrench in the works. It's a curious idea, and while I could get pretty much the same effect by taking a screenshot, I'm still intrigued to see where Microsoft is going with this.

I can't remember the last time I purposefully used a Microsoft browser as my daily driver, and once Cortana's novelty wears off, I'm not entirely sure I'll keep using it. But Microsoft's willingness to start entirely from scratch and build a new idea from the ground up with Project Spartan is an encouraging thought. Let's hope, for the Web's sake, that they can finally put Internet Explorer out to pasture.

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