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27 February 2009

Google Chrome: Tough Stuff Beneath a Shiny Wrapper

You've likely heard about Google Chrome, the new browser from the world's leader in search engine technology. What you might NOT have heard is what makes Google Chrome different - and in some ways, better - than the web browser you're using right now. With the announcement this past December 11 that Google Chrome is not in beta anymore, we have done considerable testing and it is now time to write a review.

Even though Chrome does not have that many features, the browser still lives up to its advance hype by rethinking many of the general features a standard web browser has. By doing that, you get a different web-browsing experience compared to what you'd get with Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) or Mozilla's Firefox. Currently Chrome is only for Windows but soon we should see some ports for Apple's Mac OS and Linux, though when these ports will be released is unknown.

Let's get down to business. Chrome auto-detects whatever browser you use and prompts you through installation (telling you how to access downloaded files within Firefox, for example). When you first run it, Chrome imports your bookmarks, passwords, and settings from either IE or Firefox. After that, you can start using Chrome. The layout is extremely simple; you will see a row of tabs along the top, an address bar (Google calls this "Omnibar") and a bookmarks bar under the Omnibar. A separate recent-bookmarks bar appears at the right.

Like much of Google's other apps (GMail, for example), Chrome has a very minimalist user interface (UI). There is no menu bar and no title bar, and therefore few distractions. All the settings are to the right of the Omnibar: the page icon manages tabs and utilizes Google Gears to create app-like shortcuts from your desktop to the web, and the wrench accesses basically all the other settings. You can either use a home page or a most visited sites page as the starting point. This page provides thumbnails of the frequently visited sites, shows recent bookmarks and a search box allows for history searching. You can even change the default search engine: you can find the option in the wrench under "options".

Another innovative thing about Chrome is the fact that it bridges the gap between offline and online (so-called Cloud Computing) applications. Chrome can allow you to make a desktop, quick-launch or start menu shortcut to any web page or web app. I, for example, made a desktop shortcut for When run, Chrome removes all the toolbars and tabs from the window, making Wikipedia look like a desktop app rather than a web page. There are, however, no dedicated back or forward buttons but you can right-click to navigate backward or forward.

Other features Chrome has that some of the other browsers also have include a private-browse mode (Incognito), tools for developers for use in troubleshooting and viewing source code, and the immensely-helpful ability of restoring all tabs from the last session. Chrome has a cool feature known as tab isolation: if a site crashes, it will freeze the tab but not the entire program. IE8 offers a similar feature but Chrome takes it a step further by offering a task manager that shows how much CPU and RAM a page is using. This allows you to crush anything that is causing a problem. You have to configure this tool manually, though.

Also, unlike the beta version, Chrome now includes an actual bookmarks manager (the beta had
only a drop-down menu at the right of the bookbar). The "Bookman" (as I call it) lives in a separate window and utilizes a dual-pane layout: the left pane displays folders and bookmarks and the right pane displays the contents of a selected folder in the left pane. A search box appears in the upper right corner of the Bookman window and displays results as you type. If you have ever used Apple's Safari browser, the Bookman will look very familiar.

By default, Chrome will not auto-restore your session. In other words, if Chrome crashes, you're screwed unless you configure the browser to do otherwise. You can find the settings in the wrench under Options/Basics. Firefox and IE8 both restore the session when they crash. Also, sites that use Javascript and Ajax code work fine, but Microsoft Silverlight isn't supported yet despite the fact that it works with Safari which uses the same WebKit browser code. We also do not have any kind of add-on system.

All-in-all, Chrome is a decent browser for basic browsing all the way up to advanced browsing. The built-in search system that the Omnibar offers is a major plus, along with the general speediness. The task-manager is also something that caught my eye. Last but not least, the fact that Chrome no longer carries the "beta" logo like other Google products is a relief.

Based on the above review, I would like to recommend that everyone give Google's Chrome a try. Google's first attempt at creating a web browser has a lot to recommend it and considering it carries the respected Google brand, one can be sure it's a serious effort that if anything will be improved even further as time goes by.

Article by Rey Matsuda-Levenstein is the owner, operator and webmaster of Yersys Technology Blog, posting news and stories concerning technology, computers, and general information & resources on a near-daily basis.

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