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Google Chrome 12

  • Category: Software
  • Review Date: 06/13/11
  • Bottom line:

    Chrome Instant means your Web page is ready to read before you finish typing the address. This, its speed, minimalist design, and advanced support for HTML5 have been attracting more and more users to the browser. The latest version adds more security options and limited hardware acceleration.

  • Pros:

    Super-fast JavaScript performance. Excellent security through sandboxing and now download malware warnings. Flash cookie handling. Instant site prediction. Easy installation. Excellent tab implementation. Themes. Extensions for customization. Bookmark and preference syncing. Tab process isolation. Strong support for HTML 5. Built-in Flash player and PDF reader.

  • Cons:

    Paranoids won't want to give Google another way to collect data about them. Some occasional minor site incompatibilities.

Editor Rating:

4.50

By Michael Muchmore

Google Chrome's speed at displaying Web pages is seemingly only matched by the speed with which its development team adds new features. With Chrome 12, Google has added a couple important security enhancements, and new 3D graphics capabilities. Other browsers like Firefox (Free, 4.5 stars), Internet Explorer (Free, 4 stars), Safari (Free, 4 stars), and Opera 11 have flattered Google's entry by imitating its sparse user interface and lightning speed. Firefox's makers have even emulated Google's fast update schedule. But Chrome continues to lead the pack with its groundbreaking speed, support for new Web standards, and its minimalist application window that lets the Web page shine unimpeded. If you want a fast and fluid Web experience, Google Chrome 12 can't be beat.

Previous releases have brought new major features, such as bookmark syncing, a bookmark manager, a built-in PDF reader, and extensions, though others have just added speed, stability, and new standards support. Version 9 took a page from Google search, with the remarkable Chrome Instant, as well as from IE9, by including graphics hardware acceleration. Its fine design, compatibility, and especially the speed have impressed the Web community enough to make Chrome 12 the fastest growing browser in terms of market share, recently passing ten percent. Let's take a look at what makes this browser so special.

Swift Setup
Even the setup process shows Chrome's commitment to speed: Just click the Install button on the Chrome Web page, and you'll have the new browser up and running in less than a minute, with no wizard to go through and no system restart. The browser's now available for Mac OS X and Linux, as well as Windows. In each platform the browser's up and running before you realize it, and it updates itself automatically in the background.

Built-in Flash and PDF Support
Chrome 12 is the only browser to come with Adobe Flash built in, rather than requiring a separate (and annoying) installation. And not having to perform the frequent required updates of the Flash plugin separately is another boon—it updates automatically with the browser. With version 10, many of the security issues with Flash (famously bemoaned by Apple's Steve Jobs) went away, thanks to running the plugin in an isolated sandbox so that it doesn't have access to critical system areas. But note that this sandboxing only applies to the Windows 7 and Vista versions of Chrome 12 at this point.

Chrome 12 boasts a PDF reader as well, so you don't have to worry about installing any Adobe plugins for viewing specialized Web content. When you load a PDF, an intuitive toolbar shows when your mouse cursor is in the southeast vicinity of the browser window. From this, you can have the document fill the width of the window, show a full page, or zoom in and out. By default, you can select text for cutting and pasting, but I couldn't copy and paste images. You can print the PDF as you would any Web page.

Interface
Minimalism has been a hallmark of Chrome since its first beta release. Tabs are above everything, and the only row below them holds the combined search/address bar, or "Omnibar." Optionally you can display bookmark links in a row below this. And the control buttons on the top-right of the browser window have been reduced to the absolute minimum—just one. Google has removed the Page icon and placed some of its functions under the Wrench choice. Some Page options have been combined into buttons on one line in the new menu, such as Cut, Copy, and Paste. I like what Google's done with the Zoom choice on the menu, adding plus and minus buttons that save you from having to fly out another submenu.

Another theme in the Chrome interface is that everything looks like a Web page, displaying in the main browser window, rather than in separate dialog boxes. This includes the interfaces for History, Extensions, and Bookmarks. With version 10 the Settings page got this same treatment.

Chrome Instant
This is one of the niftiest things to be added to Chrome in a while. Start typing a Web address in the Omnibar, and before you're even done, a page from your history or a search result page is displayed below in the main browser window. I just type "PC," and PCMag.com is already loaded. The idea was first implemented in Google search's Instant feature, but I think it's even more useful in the browser than in search, where I usually ignore it and finish typing my query anyway: Most sites we visit, we've visited before, so having them ready to go before you even finish typing is a big speeder-upper.

Tabtastic
Chrome 12 also still sports excellent tab implementation. Tabs are prominent at the top of the browser window, and you can drag them out to the desktop to create independent windows (and drag them back in later) or split them side by side à la Windows 7 Aero Snap.

Google has put considerable thought into Chromes's new tab page, which shows links to your most-visited pages, Web apps, and recently closed tabs. All but the last can be expanded to large thumbnails, which you can move around and pin in place, or remove if you don't want them to appear.

In Chrome 9, Google added the Apps section to the new tab page, showing any Web apps you've installed, along with a link to the Chrome Web Store, but as with any section of the page, you can click an X to its right to turn it off. If you've synced Chrome on different computers (see below), the Apps section with be the same on all. For more on the store, check out the Chrome App Store section of my Hands On with Chrome OS. Any apps you've added on a Chrome OS machine will also appear in the browser on any other computer you log into Chrome on, and vice versa. But you're not likely to have a Chrome OS machine at this point.

Extensions in Chrome
Extensions are accessible from the Tools submenu of the Chrome 12 customization menu, which appears as a wrench at the top right side of its program window. In typical Chrome fashion, rather than opening a window for that purpose (as in Firefox), what opens looks like a Web page listing installed extensions. To fill it up, you can head to the Extension gallery, which is linked from this Extensions page.

A checkbox for each extension allows it to run while you're in incognito (private-browsing) mode. Enough users must have complained that extensions disappear when you enter that mode; it makes sense that you might still want to run your Ad Blocker while in the private mode. In comparison, Firefox's extensions always work in its private browsing mode, as do IE8's Accelerators and WebSlices.

On the Chrome Extensions gallery page, you'll see a highlighted extension at the top—when I checked, it was "Amazon Wish Lists"—with Popular and Featured selections listed as well. You can sort by "Most popular," "Most recent," "Top rated," or just the featured entries. When I checked, the most popular was a Gmail checker (which places an icon in your menu bar if you have unread email), followed by an Internet Explorer tab and a couple of ad blockers. An RSS reader extension fills a serious need in Chrome.

After I installed an extension, a tooltip popped up showing its new icon either in the address bar or as an added menu button next to the default page and wrench menus. Some extensions, such as the RSS reader, and a PDF reader, don't install icons, while others add choices to the browser's options dialog. A "Chromed Bird" Twitter app required a separate authorization on the service, as I'm sure will be the case with most social network extensions.

All the extensions I tried worked well, and as advertised. The RSS extension appeared whenever I landed on a site with feeds, the IE Tab displayed pages that didn't look quite right in Chrome, and Chromed Bird let me see my Twitter feed and make my own tweets—in fact, it's one of the most convenient yet non-distracting twitter clients I've used. In all, though Chrome can claim nowhere near the wealth of extensions Firefox can, it's a darn good start.

Syncing Bookmarks and More
Bookmark syncing has been available in the beta version of Chrome since early last November, and it duplicates a feature that was introduced by the Opera browser back in 2008. You can now sync more than just bookmarks. You can now sync Preferences, too, including themes, homepage, languages, and zoom. But Firefox 4 takes the cake in syncing, letting you sync history as well as bookmarks and settings, and working with its Android browser version. It's pretty neat browsing certain sites at work and then finding the same ones waiting on your home PC.

To set up Chrome 12's bookmark sync, go to the wrench menu and pick the new menu choice, "Set up sync…" This opens a dialog where you enter your Google Account name and password, usually a Gmail login. After this, you'll (hopefully) see a Success dialog with a green check mark. To set up access to the same bookmarks and settings on another machine, you just repeat the process on that one.

On the subsequent PCs, you'll see a dialog asking if you want to merge and sync the bookmarks; this is preferable to overwriting them on one of the machines, which I'd feared might be the case. And luckily, you don't get two bookmarks if you had the same one on both machines, as sometimes happens when installing a new browser that imports bookmarks from your old one.

Performance and Compatibility
Chrome has always impressed with the way it handles JavaScript, though with other browser makers cramming to catch up in speed, each vendor's latest edition has gotten within spitting distance of Chrome. Perhaps that's more due to SunSpider than to Chrome, which has probably been optimized for the tasks tested by that benchmark as much as possible already. As new benchmarks add tests for different tasks, browsers can still show improvements on those. Below are my results on the Sunspider (version 0.9.1) running on a Core 2 Duo 2.6GHz Windows 7 (32-bit) laptop with 3GB of DDR2 memory. I shut down any unessential processes for three averaged test runs.

Browser SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)
Internet Explorer 9 245
Google Chrome 12 267
Firefox 4 277
Opera 11 299
Safari 5 357
Internet Explorer 8 4020

On Google's own JavaScript benchmark, V8 version, 6, big G's browser did expectedly well compared with the rest of the browser landscape:

Browser Google V8 (v.6) Score
(higher is better)
Google Chrome 12 8205
Firefox 4 3751
Opera 11 3527
Safari 5 2567
Internet Explorer 9 2360
Internet Explorer 8 128

And on Mozilla's Kraken JavaScript benchmark, Chrome has actually overtaken the test maker's own browser, Firefox. IE8 threw up too many script errors to run this test.

Browser Mozilla Kraken 1.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)
Google Chrome 12 4841
Firefox 4 5700
Opera 11 12195
Internet Explorer 9 15050
Safari 5 17603

With version 9 Chrome added hardware acceleration with WebGL support. Internet Explorer 9 utilizes hardware acceleration for more than just 3D graphics, and its of a kind that talks directly to the metal, using DirectX. A Web version of OpenGL, WebGL is an intermediary language between the browser and the actual graphics hardware API. Unlike IE9's, it works on any operating system; IE9 is limited to Windows 7 or Vista. Google hosts some pretty nifty proofs of concept in its Chrome Experiments gallery.

I also ran a couple of Microsoft's speed demos designed to show hardware acceleration, and on these Chrome still trails both Firefox 4 and IE9. On the FishIE demo, which displays swimming tropical fish using Canvas and Javascript, Chrome delivered 40 frames per second with 20 fish and 5 FPS with 500 fish. Since both Firefox 4 and IE9 use hardware acceleration for more than just future 3D content, they score the maximum 60 FPS with 20 fish, but IE still beats Firefox with 500 fish. Chrome was, however, better than Opera, which only mustered 20FPS and 3FPS. Safari had trouble running the test at all.

BrowserFishIE with 20 fish (FPS - higher is better) 500 Fish
Internet Explorer 9 6039
Firefox 4 6035
Google Chrome 12 404
Opera 11.10 203

Another IE9 demo, Psychedelic Browsing, spins a color wheel and plays spacy sounds, reporting RPM as a result. Surprisinlgy, Firefox beats Microsoft at its own game here by a tad, though it doesn't play the required sound. Chrome, however, plays the test's required sound, but fares far worse in the revolutions per minute result:

Browser Psychedelic Browsing
RPM (higher is better)
Firefox 4 1885 (no sound)
Internet Explorer 9 1799 (correct sound)
Google Chrome 12 131 (correct sound)
Opera 11 82 (no sound)
Safari 5 83 (no sound)

One final test of hardware acceleration comes from Mozilla, its Hardware Acceleration Stress test, which spins a spiral of photos in the browser window and reports a score in frames per second (which tops out at the LCD's maximum of 60FPS):

Browser Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test
FPS (higher is better)
Firefox 4 60
Internet Explorer 9 60
Google Chrome 12 17
Opera 11 17
Safari 5 3

On this test, again, Chrome 12 showed no improvement over its predecessor. Again, IE8 wouldn't run the test since it lacks the requisite HTML5 support.

Compatibility
"Support for HTML5" is far from being a binary yes or no state of affairs. Trying different HTML sites put out by the different browser builders makes this clear pretty quickly. It's not news that Chrome still passes the Web Standards Project's Acid3 test, with 100 out of a possible 100. More granular, however, is the HTML5Test, which shows how many HTML5 elements and features a browser supports out of 300. It also notes "bonus" points for features that aren't required parts of HTML5, but are good to have, such as extra video codecs. Here's how the browsers line up on this measure:

Browser HTML5Test.com Score (higher is better)Bonus Points
Google Chrome 12 291 13
Opera 11 258 7
Firefox 4 255 9
Safari 5 187 0
Internet Explorer 9 130 5
Internet Explorer 8 27 0

Here Chrome again asserts its leadership position, though Firefox and Opera aren't too far behind. This test isn't the last word, however: the body actually responsible for Web standards, the W3C, is developing an HTML5 Test Suite, that will be, and it will be interesting to see how the browsers pan out with that upcoming test.

Chrome also supports HTML 5 video, geolocation, and "Web workers," which allow the browser to speed up operation on multicore PCs by divvying processing work among sub-threads. You can see examples of Web content that takes advantage of the new standard support at chromeexperiments.com.

Chrome 12 adds hardware acceleration to CSS 3D Transforms. Hardware acceleration has been a major talking point of Internet Explorer A Chrome Experiment in which you rotate and move a playing video around with sliders. But there are lots of kinds of hardware acceleration, and this is just one. The new feature didn't improve Chrome's performance on Mozilla's Hardware Acceleration Stress Test nor on Microsoft's FishIE and Psychedelic hardware acceleration demos.

In my anecdotal testing of the browser, I didn't come across any mis-rendered or nonfunctional pages, even for pesky financial and corporate Web app sites like Citibank, Fidelity, and Omniture. Facebook and Yahoo! Mail, which have presented difficulties in the past, worked flawlessly. I only occasionally ran into a minor rendering problem, such as overlapping text. Extensions like the Chromed Bird Twitter client worked fine, and if you're concerned with privacy as some are, there's even a Google Alarm extension to let you know when Google's collecting your information.

Security
PCMag's security blogger, Larry Seltzer, considers Chrome path-breaking in a safety sense. The entire program architecture is internally sandboxed so that almost all vulnerabilities are unexploitable in any practical way. By integrating Flash, Google automatically updates it, which is certainly an important security advance, and as mentioned, that built-in plugin is now sandboxed in the Windows 7 and Vista versions of Chrome.

Verson 12 adds still more Flash security, or rather, privacy: You can now manage data Flash Player's Local Shared Objects, aka "Flash cookies" right from within the browser, rather than by visiting an Adobe Web page.

Safe Browsing supplies the same kind of anti-malware and -phishing protections you'll find in Firefox and IE9; you'll even see a red warning page similar to Firefox's if you try to surf onto a bad site. Chrome's developers claim that Safe Browsing is now faster, more reliable, and uses the disk less often.

Following Internet Explorer's lead, Chrome 12 has further bolstered Safe Browsing with warnings when you start to download nefarious content. And Google claims to have built the feature in such a way that the search giant doesn't have to know what sites you were visiting that generated warnings.

The browser supports SSL and can show Extended Validation SSL information, but it doesn't support SSL client authentication, which lets developers authenticate users accessing the server by exchanging a client certificate. Chrome has also recently implemented some cross-site-scripting (XSS) protection in the Webkit rendering engine.

To help protect from crashes due to both malicious and poorly coded sites, Chrome runs each tab in a separate process. If a site on one tab freaks out, it won't take down the whole browser. Chrome shares this approach with Internet Explorer, but Google's browser takes the implementation a couple of welcome steps further, isolating plug-ins (such as Flash) as well as tabs and offering a Task Manager for your open tabs and add-ins. Firefox 4 also isolates plug-in processes.

In addition to isolating simultaneous tab processes, Chrome does so sequentially: As you move to a different domain within a single tab, the browser throws out the earlier tab process and starts a new one, just in case the previous site caused memory leaks. I worried about the effect this would have on the Back button and whether the application would remember the session information from the earlier site, but I didn't run into any problems during testing. I was able to check my webmail using the Back button even after moving to another site, for example.

All in all, at this point Chrome can comfortably stand up against any other browser on the basis of security.

Privacy
These days privacy is as big a concern as security. Chrome's Incognito mode (much like IE8's InPrivate feature) lets you move around the Web without leaving traces of your activity. As I've mentioned, you can use your extensions while in the mode. Chrome's feature has an advantage over IE8's in that you can have one tab in Incognito mode while viewing others in public mode. But the browser has no parental controls, so you're on your own in policing your child's Web use. And IE8 has its own big advantage: InPrivate actually prevents sites from seeing each other's activity—something no other browser's private mod offers.

After the FTC issued an advisory on Web activity tracking of consumers last year, most browser makers scurried to build features to protect them from these nosy advertisers. IE9 currently has the strongest anti-tracking feature among the big three browsers. Microsoft's Tracking Protection is the only such tool that doesn't require total buy-in from the potential trackers, as Firefox's HTTP header solution and Google's Keep My Opt-Outs extension do. Hopefully, the browser makers will make these tools more prominent and easier to enable.

Should Chrome Be Your Browser?
Chrome started the trend in simplifying the user interface and making it wickedly fast. While other browsers have nearly achieved parity in JavaScript performance, in HTML 5 support Google's browser has also taken the lead. Google Chrome's blazing speed, extension capability, excellent tab functionality, Instant feature, built-in Flash and PDF reading, and syncing capabilities make Chrome 12 a delight to use. Chrome 12 remains our Editors' Choice for Web browsers.

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This review is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.
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