Friday, September 05, 2008

Review: Google Chrome

Released yesterday, Google Chrome has already been reviewed, dissected, and commented on ad infinitum.

Well, here's one more view anyway.

I'm a long term Firefox user - pretty much since its first Beta hit the nets. I've flirted with Opera, Safari, and IE7 and IE8 Beta since then, but have never found anything too revolutionary to tempt me away.

I have to admit that Chrome is the first browser in a while that managed to grab my attention from the first time I used it. Here's why.

First, the installation. All the way from download to install the process went very smoothly and it imported all my FireFox bookmarks and saved form data without a glitch. What I specially noticed was that the installation process did not ask me which directory to install to, or whether I wanted the 'Typical' or the 'Custom' install. These are pretty common installation steps in most software packages (including FireFox). And while as a techie I don't mind them ( in fact I always go for a custom install just to see what the options are), I suspect that most people would prefer this simpler install process.

The second thing I noticed is that it did not install in the usual c:\Program Files folder. Instead it installed under the Local Settings\Application Data path. This is unusual, and at least on my system it made a small but significant difference. In my default login on my work notebook, I'm not able to install into the Program Files folder as I don't have rights there. Which means I almost always need to re-login from the Admin password to install stuff. Chrome, on the other hand, installed smoothly from my work login. There might be some other technical reason for this, but I suspect that using the 'Local Settings' folder for installation is also a way for Google to sneak Chrome past corporate policies and get more people to try it at work.

Now the interface. It is clean and minimalist as you would expect from Google. There is no status bar at the bottom. And while you can turn off the status bar in other browsers, doing do also means you don't get updates on which elements of a page are getting loaded and you feel a bit lost. Chrome solves this by showing these updates in a temporary bar in the bottom left corner while the page is loading and then the bar goes away once the loading is complete. It works quite well.

At the top of the screen, FireFox typically shows 5 'rows': The title bar, The Menu Bar, The Toolbar, The Bookmark toolbar, and the Tab bar. Chrome on the other hand doesn't have a menu bar, and it shares the title bar and the tab bar in in one 'row' so it has 3 rows on the top. This might not sound like much but on a smaller screen - such as a notebook - this makes a significant difference, making the page look much less cluttered.

The address bar is the other interesting touch. FireFox has recently made its address bar tremendously powerful, but Chrome goes further, giving you a lot more address, search, and history-based suggestions as soon as you start typing. In most cases, I found that one of the suggestions matched what I wanted to do after typing a few letters.

Another interesting feature is the opening display on a new tab - which shows you thumbnails of your most visited pages, and you can just click one of them to go there. It feels quite natural to launch a new page this way. And while I've seen similar functionality before in Opera and in FireFox plugins, they usual require the user to populate the pages that should be displayed. Chrome does this automatically from your most visited history which works  quite well for me.

There are also things under the hood like having each tab in a separate process, which helps prevent crashes if an application in one tab misbehaves. And a memory usage display (try about:memory) which tells you how much memory each tab is consuming - manna for the techie and developers !

Of course, this is still a beta and there is lots and lots of stuff missing. No RSS functionality, no bookmarks organizer, and most of all: no plugins. In Firefox I have a number of addins that give me everything from Gmail alerts, to world clocks, to bookmarks synchronization across instances and so on. Firefox also has spell-check-as-you-type which I find absolutely invaluable while blogging.

Chrome has none of this and until it does there is no way I'm using it as my full-time browser.

But for an early beta, it already has character and I'll look forward to future releases. 

It will also make the existing browsers better as they will surely pick ideas form it just as it has picked ideas from several of them - and that can only be a good thing. 

Here's to competition and innovation.

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