Edge on Linux: Thoughts from a Linux user

Microsoft just released the Edge browser on Linux. Browser geek Ruarí Ødegaard reviews the new arrival and answers questions Linux users might have about the new browser.

Edge and Vivaldi icons for Edge browser Linux review by Vivaldi.

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Since there has been a lot of fuss about the new Linux entry to the market – the Edge browser on Linux – and being a bit of a browser geek myself, I thought I would give it a spin. It’s always great to have an interesting addition to the Linux browser landscape.

Now, of course, I will be biased – for me, Vivaldi is the best browser for Linux. That bias is hard for me to avoid but nonetheless here are my initial thoughts and feelings after playing with the new Edge browser for half an hour.

Distribution support of Edge on Linux

As a long-term user of Slackware, I was not totally surprised to find that (according to the official announcement) only Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, and openSUSE distributions are currently supported by Edge on Linux, which means only .deb and .rpm packages.

Essentially this would appear to be the same as Vivaldi, although while we only offer these package types “officially”, we have long encouraged maintainers of distros using other packaging formats to repackage for their users. We don’t really care so much about alternative installation options being provided, so long as nothing nefarious is done and the contents of the packages are not modified before distribution (outside of minor mods to allow the build to run or conform to distribution file-system layouts).

We also gladly consider bugs from users of any distro that is still supported by upstream for desktop usage. Thus you will find active Vivaldi users on Arch, Gentoo, Solus, Slackware, and many others.

It’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft treats users of other distros and if they will allow repackaging (Google actually prohibit redistribution for Chrome, which is problematic for those that need to repackage).

I was, however, able to test Edge on my Slackware system without issues by extracting out the contents of the deb and running the main executable directly. I was very pleased to see that they have not alternated the dependencies from standard Chromium, thus assuming that repackaging is not prevented, Edge should work for most Linux desktop users, no matter their distribution.

My other observation is that only 64bit (amd64/x64) packages are provided. This is in line with most other commercial Chromium-based browsers for Linux (Chrome, Brave and Opera, etc.). If you want to run a modern version of Chromium and you are on i686, ARM, or ARM64 only a vanilla Chromium (typically compiled and supplied by your distro) or Vivaldi will work. That said, it is early days, so maybe they will surprise us when they go final but I would not hold out much hope!  😉

Is Edge on Linux open source?

Edge is partially open source in that it is largely based on Chromium. However much like Chrome, Opera, and Vivaldi, parts of the codebase in the officially distributed products are under other licenses, so it is not possible to compile your own complete copy of Edge. They are contributing some of their stuff upstream however in the form of fixes and features, thus benefiting all browsers based on Chromium.

Find out more on what code is and what code isn’t open source in Vivaldi browser.

Privacy

One of Edge’s proposed selling points is a promoted commitment to privacy. For me selling the idea of privacy requires trust in the company promoting it. Traditionally Microsoft has not had a great reputation for being trustworthy, especially amongst the open source and Linux communities. Furthermore, having worked at browser companies for more than a decade (first Opera and now Vivaldi), I have also experienced first hand how Microsoft has historically treated competitors. So I am somewhat suspicious.

That said, in recent years Microsoft has seemingly improved and become more favorable to working with others, including Linux and open source communities that were once famously described as “cancer” by then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, back in 2001.

These changes might only be because they have lost some of their control and power to upstarts like Google and Amazon and a massively re-invigorated Apple. But motivations aside, there does appear to be improvements. Like Apple (who has been building a privacy reputation), they also have the benefit of not being an advertising company (unlike, say, Google).

Since their profits are not so strongly tied to the advertising business, it makes it easier to at least trust that they might consider the browser user to be their customer, rather than the advertiser. So yes, I can give them some level of my trust for privacy features, even if I still suspect they might have a hidden agenda in supporting Linux.

The standout Edge privacy feature appears to be their tracker prevention options. From the outside, this looks somewhat similar to the ad and tracker blocker in Vivaldi browser with multiple levels of strictness, albeit with fewer user controls, such as being able to add and tweak which individual blocker sources are used. I also miss being able to quickly see if the tracker blocker is enabled or disabled on a site by site basis (in Vivaldi our Address bar shield allows you to see this).

Collections

Collections in Edge on Linux browser.
Collections showing a note and selected/highlighted text in Edge on Linux browser.

Collections are another signature feature of Edge. They appear in a panel and provide a way for you to “collect” tabs, highlight sections of text from pages, and write basic notes. These notes can be notes in their own right or notes appended to one of the tabs you collected. You can also sync these to other devices (in theory – sync doesn’t yet work on Linux) where you have Edge installed, share them with Microsoft apps and services, or re-open all the pages listed within a collection, long after the tabs themselves are closed.

I recognize some of the use cases and potential workflows here from features found in Vivaldi, e.g. Notes and Saved sessions, and to an extent even bookmarks. In some ways combining these concepts might potentially make things easier. On the other hand, I felt like the notes functionality was subpar, given you cannot add screenshots (pages change after all) and the formatting options were much more limited. They are also missing a full-page notes editor. Still, I am not going to be too critical. It is certainly something different and feels like there might be some interesting innovations there, if I was to spend more time playing with it and understanding it.

Start page of Edge on Linux

The start page of the Edge on Linux browser.
The new tab/start page in Edge on Linux browser.

One of the first and most obvious differences between browsers is often how they handle the new tab/start page. Initially, Edge is largely reminiscent of the default Chromium start page but there are changes. The search engine is Bing rather than Google (more on that later).

They also have a news feed section at the bottom of the page (or the middle of it if you configure this via the settings). This does nothing for me personally and feels like spam. Particularly because it pops up with a red banner from below occasionally, when there is “breaking news”.

This feature could in fact lead you to question the privacy commitment. Their start page loads lots of external resources on opening, both external Javascript libraries and content of the news sources. These external resources may not be used to track the user but they could potentially be, which may be a concern for some. You can switch the news stuff off but it is fairly buried in custom/advanced start page layout settings.

While Vivaldi bundles default Speed Dials on our new tab/start page, they are not automatically loaded and can be deleted by the user without having to hunt through settings. Your best bet would probably be to use an extension to replace the new tab page entirely if you were to use this browser.

Search engines

Unsurprisingly the default search engine provided by Edge is Bing. Other than changing this default, it didn’t initially seem like they have done much to differentiate or improve how search works. However, after digging a little deeper I realized there was at least a setting to disable search suggestions (it just wasn’t immediately obvious). Unless I have missed it, this is not something I have seen in Chrome. Suggestions make tracking by the search engines much easier, as they are able to see pretty much everything you type in your address field when they are enabled. Vivaldi disables search engine suggestions by default, though they can easily be enabled for those that are willing to compromise privacy for convenience.

They are however missing several of other search features I hoped might be present, particularly in a browser that promotes its privacy credentials. There is no way to set a different/dedicated search engine for private windows. Vivaldi allows this and even starts you off with DuckDuckGo by default when you open a private window.

The thinking being that if you have gone to the trouble of opening a private window, you are already in a mindset where preventing tracking is especially important at that moment, and here a privacy-focused (non-tracking) search engine would be beneficial.

I also could not find a way to set the start page search engine and address bar to different engines, unless I left the start page search as Bing. Again this can be useful if you work with multiple search engines. Sure, Chromium’s search engine nicknames are supported but these are less convenient. When you attempt to use them the option to select your nicknamed search appears at the very bottom of the address field drop-down results.

Finally, like Chrome, you cannot set search requests to use ‘post’ rather than ‘get’ requests. This is a feature not all search engines support but privacy-minded search engines like Startpage do. Using a post request means that your search terms are not stored in your local URL history (one less thing to be seen by prying eyes sharing your computer), and it allows for additional protection against your query being passed to sites you subsequently visit via the “referer” header (yes, many search engines strip or alter the “referer” but you are left trusting this will always be true).

Proprietary Media and Encrypted Media Extensions (Widevine) support

Edge supports all common media types found on the web out of the box. This is not a surprise given the size of the company, their software patent coverage, and thus their ability to negotiate a good deal to handle the costly H.264 and AAC codecs that are used on so many websites.

In addition to supporting a wide range of codecs, many popular media sites such as Netflix also make use of a form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) called Encrypted Media Extensions. Chromium browsers typically handle this with Widevine, though Microsoft has their own EME system, called PlayReady.

Interestingly they are not using PlayReady (or at least not for the test build they have provided thus far) with Edge on Linux. Widevine is used.

Even more curious, a copy of Widevine is bundled with Edge. The reason I find this strange, is that it is not something I have seen any other Chromium-based browser do (besides Chrome) because the license agreement with Google/Widevine does not appear to allow it.

And yet another oddity, the Chromium component that updates Widevine seems to be non-functional or disabled. We can probably put this down to mistakes or teething problems with a dev version but it is something to keep an eye on because it could also mean that Microsoft has some special deal with Google, or perhaps that Widevine is only a stopgap and they will move to PlayReady.

Final thoughts

There are other changes that Microsoft has made but nothing else immediately jumped out at me or seemed significantly different or better, within the short time frame I spent looking.

Certainly it is nothing like as feature rich as Vivaldi. Nonetheless, I think it is an interesting addition to the Linux browser landscape and I actually really welcome it. Competition pushes us all further, something Microsoft forgot in the past when “embrace and extinguish” was their focus.

Also by pushing fixes and improvements upstream, all Chromium-based browsers benefit. They have a large team of developers, so there could be nice improvements to the engine in the future. Additionally, if they are truly serious about privacy, having another company on board certainly helps.

Would I use Edge on Linux myself? Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. It is missing too many of the features I love about Vivaldi, such as our very advanced tab management, and I think we have a much stronger privacy story.

But in an alternate dimension where Vivaldi didn’t exist, I suspect I would at least consider it before Chrome, and that is not something I would have imagined saying back when Google promoted “Don’t be evil!” and Microsoft was the antithesis of the Linux community. So, yeah… well done Microsoft. 😉

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