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Saturday, September 30, 2023

How to Change Your Web Browser in Windows 11 (It’s Not Easy)

If you’re getting started on a fresh install of Windows 11, you might notice a very important change: Setting your default browser is now more complicated than it was in Windows 10. Microsoft is no stranger to browser controversies, and it has now placed confusing hurdles in your path if you want to use anything other than its relatively unpopular Edge browser.

In Windows 10, setting a new default web browser was simple enough. When you installed a new browser, like Google Chrome or Mozilla’s Firefox, the app would prompt you to set it as your default and open the Settings app where you could do so with a couple of clicks. You could also search in your Settings for “Default apps,” click “Web browser,” and choose the browser you want.

Now, things are different. And depending on what kind of Windows device you have, there might be extra barriers. Here are the steps to changing your browser:

First, Disable S Mode (If It's Enabled)

Some Windows devices ship in something Microsoft is calling S Mode. This is a more locked-down version of Windows where you can only install apps through the Microsoft Store, cannot use command line tools, and Microsoft tools like Edge and Bing aren’t just the default, they’re the only option.

Microsoft advertises this mode as more secure and stable than the alternative, and that’s technically true. Malware you download from the internet can’t run in this mode, for example. But it’s very limiting, and if you want to change your browser, you’ll need to turn it off. You can do this by going to the Microsoft Store and searching for “S Mode,” where you’ll see a listing that will walk you through the process.

Distressingly, you can't turn S Mode back on, so make sure this is what you want to do. S Mode is ideal if you want to use your computer or tablet in a locked-down, iPhone-like experience. But if you want to change your default browser or install many types of software, you’ll have to leave S Mode for good.

Next, Change the Browser Default for All File Types

Now it gets weird. In the past, there was one option for changing the default web browser. But under the hood, that actually refers to opening several kinds of files or links. If you’ve ever had a PDF file open in Edge instead of Chrome, for example, you’ve seen how the default browser can be different depending on what type of file you try to open.

Rather than making this behavior more consistent across all link and file types, Windows 11 simply asks the user to pick a default for every single one. This process is extremely tedious. 

To change the default, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Settings app and navigate to Apps > Default Apps. (If your browser prompts you to change your default setting, it may direct you here automatically.)
  2. Search for the name of the browser you want to set as your default in the list of apps and select it.
  3. You’ll see a list of file or link types including http, https, ftp, htm, html, shtml, pdf, and more.
  4. Click each file or link type you want to open with something other than Edge, select your new browser from the list that pops up, and click OK.
  5. If you get a prompt asking you to check out Edge before you switch, click “Switch anyway.”

This process can be annoying and tedious, but once all your defaults are set to your new browser, you shouldn’t have to return to it. 

You'll be tempted to just set everything to a new browser, but that's also not wise. Depending on your needs, you might want to avoid setting many of these file types to a browser at all. For example, one of the file types listed is .svg, which is a vector graphic format that designers and artists might want to open in Adobe's Photoshop or Illustrator apps.

Why Is Windows 11 Like This?

At this point, you might wonder why this process is so complicated. The cynical answer is that Microsoft has a history of trying to promote its own products over competitors. If it takes 30 clicks to change a series of confusing file types that most users might not even understand, more people might give up and stay on Edge.

The sneaky part here is that this approach technically gives you more control—you can technically set a different browser for PDFs than you use for regular links. A better-designed operating system might offer one button to change the entire default browser choice, and optionally let users have more granular control if they choose. But for now we’re stuck with this complicated mess.

Check out our guide to Windows 11's new features and our review of the Microsoft Surface Go 3 tablet to learn more about the new operating system.

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