Persistent chat, images and video, a chat sidebar and the promise of third-party plugins make Bing Chat more useful but not perfect.
Bing users have had more than half a billion chats in the three months since Microsoft added GPT-4-powered chat to its search engine. Now Microsoft has done away with the waitlist for Bing Chat. You still need to use the Edge browser and sign in with a Microsoft account, but there’s no need to be approved for the service and anyone can start using it right away.
Bing’s upgraded chat features include images
So far, the information Bing Chat returns has been text, sometimes formatted into a list or table, or a snapshot of a standard Bing image or video search. Soon the chat results will include images and videos (including images you ask Bing Image Creator to make for you), or charts and graphs for numerical information.
Another feature Microsoft will include in future releases is what Microsoft calls a “multi-modal” chat where you can upload or paste in images and use those to look up information. The image features are similar to the tools currently in Bing’s image search. There is no timeline for the release of new features.
The upgraded Bing Chat will store the history of previous chats in the Edge sidebar. With these you can go back and look at the answers again, or ask more questions in the same context (Figure A).
You can already use the sidebar to start a chat about anything instead of navigating back to the Bing site. The sidebar can also search for information related to a web page you’re looking at, like getting an explanation for a complex topic. For example, if there’s a sentence that confuses you, you can copy it to the chat sidebar and:
- Ask Bing to explain it.
- Type in a question about something mentioned on the page.
- Get a general definition.
- Get context on how the sentence is relevant to this specific document.
Microsoft says about a quarter of chats start in the sidebar already. Microsoft is looking at how to use the context of a previous conversation with Bing Chat to make a new conversation more relevant to you, by knowing what you’ve been interested in before, but that’s a longer term plan. Soon this will be available for the smartphone version of Edge, where it may be more useful for long web pages that you need to get the gist of quickly on a small screen.
Currently, when you ask Bing Chat a question, you can only have about five “turns” before the tool stops responding. These controls make it less likely to “hallucinate” results that don’t exist or start responding to the tone of what you type.
If you start with a chat in Bing, you will be able to move that to the sidebar when you click through to the web pages it uses as sources so you can refer back to it while you’re looking at them: helpful if you want to see the full details – or check if chat has got it right, because the pages Bing Chat claims as sources don’t always say what it suggests they do.
The Insights tab in the sidebar already gives you different kinds of summaries for the page: questions and answers that might explain a complex subject, key points and links to searches about the main topics, plus related links and news stories, plus analytics about the web site itself – so you can see if it’s popular or a niche site that might not be as trustworthy. Microsoft says Bing Chat will get better at summarizing large documents such as PDFs and long web pages.
Share in Compose
If you’re using the Compose option in the sidebar to get a first draft of a document you’re writing, you’ll soon be able to share it with colleagues or export it with more of the formatting from the chat, so you don ‘t have to recreate that in Word or Outlook when you want to use it (Figure C). You can use options in the Edge sidebar to tell Bing you want to change the length and tone of what it’s generated, or to format it as a paragraph, a list of ideas, a blog post or an email.
Actions in Edge turn Bing Chat into more of a Cortana-style assistant: If you want to stream a movie, a search will show you where it’s available. But rather than leaving you to click on the link you want, Bing Chat will be able to open the film on the site you choose (Figure D). If you ask for restaurant recommendations, Actions will be able to bring up OpenTable ready to book a table, and let you confirm the booking in the sidebar rather than on the page.
That will be more useful when it works with more services. Microsoft is opening Bing Chat up to developers through OpenAI so they can build the kind of plugins that are already available for ChatGPT to let it connect to specific information sources or use different services to format the information it shows you. For example, a WolframAlpha action will let you get more complex visualizations of the information in a chat reply than a simple chart; this will let Bing Chat answer more complicated science and maths questions and use data that’s been checked by experts in its answers. OpenTable and WolframAlpha are also on the list of ChatGPT plugins, as are Expedia, Instacart, Kayak, Klarna and Zapier: as OpenAI partners, it makes sense we might see some of them work with Bing, too.
We’ll likely see more details on how developers can work with Bing Chat and Edge Actions at Microsoft’s Build developer conference later this month. Microsoft says the updates to Edge with the new Bing Chat features will be available “in the coming weeks” for Windows 10, Windows 11, macOS, iOS and Android. The next beta channel release of Edge is due next week around May 9, but we don’t know if the new Bing Chat options will appear in a canary release of Edge first.
Keep beta expectations for this preview
Bing Chat remains a preview service that Microsoft is still experimenting with and will keep tweaking. You also need to keep checking the replies that you get from Bing Chat, because while it uses information on web pages to improve accuracy and stay up to date, the underlying GPT-4 large language model works by predicting the kind of answer you want to see to your question: that can include information you’re likely to want to see, even if it’s not actually on the web because it’s not true.