- Review Date: 02/14/11
- 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 deservedly been attracting more and more users to the browser.
Paranoids won't want to give Google another way to collect data about them.
Some of these many 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. This latest version takes a page from Google search, with the remarkable Chrome Instant, as well as a page from IE9 beta, by including graphics hardware acceleration. Its fine design, compatibility, and especially the speed have impressed the Web community enough to make Chrome 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.
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 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.
Chrome 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.
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 have been reduced window 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.
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.
Chrome 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 its browser's new tab page, which shows thumbnails of your most-visited pages. I like that you can move the large thumbnails around and pin them in place, or remove those you don't want. You also now have a choice of list or thumbnail view, and you can display only recently closed tabs, only most visited pages, or neither.
For version 9, Google has added an 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 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 in 2008. You can now sync more than just bookmarks. You can now sync Preferences, too, including themes, homepage, languages, and zoom.
To set up Chrome'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
|Browser||SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms |
(lower is better)
|Internet Explorer 9 RC||231|
|Google Chrome 9||273|
|Google Chrome 8||276|
|Firefox 4 Beta||311|
|Internet Explorer 8||4020|
Surprisingly, version 9 didn't test as fast as version 8 on this benchmark, and I verified this on a second test machine. I've contacted Google about this odd result, and will update the review when I hear back.
|Browser||Google V8 (v.6) Score |
(higher is better)
|Google Chrome 9||5164|
|Google Chrome 8||5032|
|Firefox 4 Beta 10||3527|
|Internet Explorer 9 RC||2360|
|Internet Explorer 8||128|
|Browser||Mozilla Kraken Score in ms |
(lower is better)
|Firefox 4 Beta 10||7115|
|Internet Explorer 9 RC||15050|
|Google Chrome 9||15657|
|Google Chrome 8||16911|
With version 9 Chrome adds hardware acceleration with WebGL support, but keep in mind that this is far from being a widely used technology, as it's still in beta. Internet Explorer 9, currently at the release candidate stage, 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.
|Browser||FishIE with 20 fish (FPS - higher is better)||500 Fish|
|Internet Explorer 9 RC||60||39|
|Firefox 4 beta 10||60||3|
|Google Chrome 9||37||4|
|Browser||Psychedelic Browsing |
RPM (higher is better)
|Internet Explorer 9 Beta||1789 (correct sound)|
|Firefox 4 Beta 10||176 (no sound)|
|Google Chrome 9||98 (correct sound)|
|Opera 11||82 (no sound)|
|Safari 5||83 (no sound)|
|Firefox 3.6||19 (no sound)|
|Browser||Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test |
FPS (higher is better)
|Firefox 4 Beta 10||86|
|Internet Explorer 9 RC||60|
|Google Chrome 9||16|
"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 9||242||13|
|Firefox 4 Beta 10||207||9|
|Internet Explorer 9 RC||116||5|
|Internet Explorer 8||27||0|
This test isn't the last word though: 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.
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.
Our security expert, Larry Seltzer, considers Chrome pathbreaking in a security sense. The entire program architecture is internally sandboxed so that almost all vulnerabilities are unexploitable in a practical sense. And by integrating Flash they automatically update it, which is certainly an important security advance.
SafeBrowsing supplies the same anti-malware and -phishing protections you'll find in Firefox 3; you'll even see a similar red warning page if you try to surf onto a bad site. Chrome's developers claim that SafeBrowsing is now faster, more reliable, and uses the disk less often.
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. The Firefox 4 beta 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.
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.
Should Chrome Be Your Browser?
Google's browser has started a trend in simplifying the user interface and making it wickedly fast. Other browsers are following this trend, but they've got some catching up to do. Sure Chrome isn't as extendable as Firefox, but only a small percentage of users take advantage of them. In HTML 5 support Chrome has also take the lead. True, IE9 is ahead in graphics hardware acceleration, and that may play an important role in the future. But for now, Chrome's blazing speed, extension capability, excellent tab functionality, Instant feature, built-in Flash and PDF reading, and syncing capabilities make it a delight to use. Because of all this, Chrome 9 remains our Editors' Choice for Web browsers.