The Internet is Googles business, it started life as a web page indexer and search engine and has since expanded into dozens of other services in the web domain including email, personal organisation, video, instant messaging, VoIP, Office applications, picture hosting, blog hosting, web page construction, book scanning and a shit load more.
We're talking about a load of services hosted 'in the cloud' on Google servers and accessed via a web browser. This takes the imperative off the ability of the users computer to execute processes and places it on the Internet browsers ability to handle web-based programming languages and standards. Such reliance on 3rd party software vendors effectively ties the potential of Googles services to that of the browser running them.
Perhaps then it should be of little surprise that Google have joined in the infamous 'browser wars' with a product of their own dubbed Google Chrome. Introducing their own browser to the fray allows Google to ensure that the browser is optimised for their services thereby producing the best experience for their users for those services.
Technologically Chrome has a lot going on under the hood. Chrome is an Open Source project that brings together a multitude of open source components both Google developed (Chromium) and 3rd party developed (including Apple and Mozilla). For most of us the precise goings on are unimportant, what’s important is how Chrome impacts our day-to-day web use and how it compares to other browsers.
The measure of a browser essentially comes down to four basic elements: Speed, Security, Stability and Usability.
Chrome is the fastest browser currently available and every milestone update to the program increases its speed. For example, when Google Chrome initially hit the market it was the fastest browser available, version 4, currently in development, is said to be 400% faster than that – so that's pretty fast. In terms of usability the speed difference between Chrome and something like Firefox is barely perceptible, but between Chrome and Opera is very noticeable indeed.
Bottom line on speed is that across the same good quality connection Chrome will load pages faster.
Security in Chrome comes in two flavours, one is a standard blacklist that warns of known malicious sites, the other is to allocate tabs into their own processes. This is quite a complex system that is supposed to prevent malware installing or from tabs interacting with each other unduly. No browser is airtight on the security front and vulnerabilities are constantly identified and fixed, but Chrome certainly performs better than most in this regard. A Chrome user can feel more confident their browsing is protected than an Internet Explorer user.
The stability of Chrome owes much to the same process architecture that contributes to its security. As each tab is in effect its own process if something goes tits up in one tab it only affects that tab and not the entire browser. The downside to this behaviour is that Chrome may take up more memory tab-for-tab than other browsers. This may concern people on older systems with limited RAM and running a busy Chrome browser may impact the multi-tasking of the rest of the system, however modern systems typically come with 2-4GB of RAM which should leave plenty of overhead even when running a dozen tabs or more.
On the usability stakes Google have run with the “simpler is better” philosophy. They’ve put a lot of effort in to minimising the interface while maximising the feature set.
The interface - is the most simple of any of the other browsers out there right now. By default there are only three bars on the screen at any one time, the tab bar, the address bar and an optional Bookmarks bar which you can pop in and out with ctrl+B – effectively allowing you only two bars on the interface. There is a status bar at the bottom left of the screen, but this only appears during page loads or when you hover over a link thus further increasing the screens retail space during general browsing. The amount of screen space is further enhanced by having the tab bar placed on top of the address/tool bar and placing it tight against what we historically call the title bar (contains the close/max/min buttons and tells you what the program is), if I compare this with other browsers the amount of space between the title bar and the closest functional part of the interface is larger. But even better than that, when the Chrome pane is maximised the tabs actually sit on top of the title bar thus the interface only takes up one bar of space rather than 2 – note that I say maximised and not full screen mode, when full screened chrome removes all UI elements except scroll bars.
Aside from the space they take up the the bars are very spartan affairs, the only browser controls are back/forward, a combined reload/stop and a home button, you have an address box (with built-in bookmarker, naturally) while all the functions normally provided by the entire menu bar are reduced right down to two drop down menus accessed from the extreme right of the address bar.
The ultimate effect is a very clean looking browser with an absolute maximum of actual browsing area, which is a great concept to have.
Although Chrome bears an exceedingly simple interface this hasn’t come at the cost of usability. In fact over the last few days of use I have found Chrome to be incredibly usable. A lot of that comes down to the sheer speed and stability of the program, but it also comes down to the fact that everything works so well.
Extensibility - Many users, particularly Firefox users who have come to rely on the myriad of add-ons available for that platform may view Chrome with some scepticism, “sure it’s fast, but can it jump through hoops too?” Well the answer is yes, it can, but right now the number of hoops is quite small. Chrome has Extension capabilities, but for now they’re very much still in development and you’ll need to be using the very latest developer preview builds of Chrome ver 4 to find any worth while. Additionally Google haven’t opened up their Extensions website to the general public yet, only extension developers are permitted access to upload their extensions at present. Presumably it’ll go live prior to the Stable release of Chrome 4. In the mean time there are 3rd party sites offering Extensions for download.
The concept of Extensions in the future is great, but the reality for now is that most of them are lacking in capability compared to their Firefox cousins and not all (hardly any in all probability) of your FF add-ons will have a Chrome counterpart just yet. Extensions in Chrome are in their infancy, and Google themselves need to work on improving their Extension engine (as indicated by this blog post from the Xmarks people), but it’s all a step in the right direction.
So far I’ve found a mere handful of extensions worth using. Mouse Gestures is a must for any browser in my opinion, and there is a Chrome extension that adds this functionality. I find it a bit less tight than the native gestures function in Opera or the FireFox add-ons I’ve used, but it’s usable and as an early build it’s pretty decent. The only negative side is that it doesn’t work on non-http tabs, therefore it can’t be used to generate a new tab on the extensions tab for example.
Chrome has a version of AdBlock+, although it doesn’t work quite like the FF version. Rather than ubiquitously block all ads users are required to block individual elements. Confusingly there is still the subscription dialogue, it just doesn’t appear to do anything. Presumably it’s a work in progress and full functionality will be introduced later – but right now AdBlock+ for Chrome is a bit useless.
One extension I feel works very well in Chrome is FlashBlock. It’s roughly equivalent to NoScript, but makes it easier to identify blocked elements on the page although it doesn’t appear to have any way to remember which elements shouldn’t be blocked in future. Again, another work in progress.
The only other extensions I have worthy of note are related to Google Reader, one adds an icon in the address bar that allows you to add feeds detected on the page to Google Reader while the other notifies you how many unread feeds you have.
Chrome is a very impressive browser, certainly a worthy alternative to most of the other browsers on the market. Ultimately whether this suits you or not will depend on your tastes, I would definitely recommend taking this for a test run at the very least.
Even if Chrome doesn’t suit you now it may be worth keeping an eye on, in a years time the Extension framework should be mature enough to rival FireFox.
freedoms_stain, browsing faster than you do, out.