The bottom line: Google Chrome 10 comes with a full range of competitive features, and is among the most standards-compliant and fastest browsers available. It lacks some of the fine-tuning customizations in Firefox, but Chrome's minimalist interface, fast page-load times, and support for extensions make the browser appealing to the average user as well as to Google fanatics.
Google Chrome continues to mature from a lightweight and fast browsing alternative into an innovative browser that's also on the precipice of a potential browsing revolution with the pending Chrome OS. The browser that people can use today, Chrome 10, offers highly competitive features including synchronization, autofill, and standards compliance, and maintains Google's reputation for building one of the fastest browsers available.
Chrome 10 represents a major milestone for the browser, but those expecting to see dramatic changes in major-point updates will be disappointed. For several months now, Google has been pushing features over what it calls milestone numbers, which means that as soon as new features are usable in the stable version of Chrome, Google will likely push them to all users.
First Look: Chrome still shines, 10 versions later
Please note that there are at least four versions of Chrome available at the moment, and this review only addresses the "stable" branch, intended for general use. Chrome beta (Windows | Mac), Chrome dev (Windows | Mac), and Chrome Canary (Windows only) are respectively progressively less stable versions of the browser, and aimed at developers.
Chrome's installation process is simple and straightforward. If you download the browser from Google's Web site, it will ask you if you'd like to anonymously submit usage statistics to the company. This can be toggled even after the browser's installed by going to the "wrench" preferences menu, choosing Options, then Under the Hood, and unchecking Help Make Chrome Better. Depending on your processor, the installation process should take less than 2 minutes.
Google's Chrome interface has changed remarkably little since its surprise debut in September 2008. Tabs are still on top, the location bar--which Google likes to call the "Omnibar"--dominates the minimalist design, and the browser has few visible control buttons besides Back, Forward, and a combined Stop/Reload button. Although some may not like having the tabs on top, we find it to be aesthetically preferable because it leaves more room below for the Web site we're looking at.
One change has been to remove the secondary Page options button and combine it with the preferences wrench icon to create space for extension icons to the right of the location bar. As it currently looks, it could be better organized. Some controls, such as page zoom, are readily available. Others, such as the extension manager, are hidden away under a Tools submenu.
Chrome's extensions are fairly limited in how they can alter the browser's interface. Unlike Firefox, which gives add-on makers a lot of leeway to change the browser's look, Chrome mandates that extensions appear only as icons to the right of the location bar. The benefit is that this maintains a uniform look in the browser, but it definitely limits how much the browser can be customized. Chrome doesn't support sidebars, either, although other Chromium-based browsers (such as Flock 3) do offer the feature.
A minor change in Chrome 10 is that settings pages now open in their own tab, rather than a dialog box. This brings Chrome the browser into parity with Chrome the operating system, where the feature first debuted. We like the left nav tabbed layout for settings, making it easy to jump between settings submenus as well as keeping Chrome to one window.
Even with its limitations, the interface design has remained a contemporary exemplar of how to minimize the browser's screen footprint while remaining easy to use and versatile.
Features and support
Chrome 9's features are accessible from the Preferences menu, via the wrench icon on the right side of the navigation bar. The browser offers a complete range of modern browsing conveniences. The basics are well-represented, including tabbed browsing, new window creation, and a private browsing mode that Google calls Incognito, which disables cookie tracking, history recording, extension support, and other browsing breadcrumbs.
Chrome's tabs remain one of the best things about the browser. The tabs are detachable: "tabs" and "windows" are interchangeable here. Detached tabs can be dragged and dropped into the browser, and tabs can be rearranged at any time by clicking, holding, dragging, and releasing. Not only can tabs be isolated, but each tab exists in its own task process. This means that when one site crashes, the other tabs do not. Though memory leaks are a major concern in Chrome when you have dozens of tabs open, we found sluggish behavior and other impediments weren't noticeable until after there were more than 30 tabs open. That's not an immutable number, though, and a computer's hardware will alter browser performance.
Some of the basics in Chrome are handled extremely intuitively. In-page searching works smoothly. Using the Ctrl-F hot key or the menu option, searching for a word or phrase will open a text entry box on the top right of the browser. It searches as you type, indicating the number of positive results and highlighting them on the page.
Account syncing is another area where Chrome excels. Using your Gmail account, Chrome will sync your themes, preferences, autofill entries, extensions, and bookmarks. You can toggle each of those categories, too. It does not yet offer password syncing, although the password manager offers a smart show-password option that keeps it visually separate from the site that it's associated with.
Like Firefox, Chrome gives broad control over search engines and search customizations. Though this doesn't sound like much, not all browsers allow you to set keyword shortcuts for searching, and some even restrict which search engine you can set as your default. Chrome comes with three defaults to choose from: Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
The Chrome extension manager, bookmark manager, and download manager all open in new tabs. They allow you to search their contents and throw in some basic management options like deletion, but in general they don't feel as robust as their counterparts in competing browsers. For example, URLs in the bookmark manager are only revealed when you mouse over a bookmark, and you must click on one to get the URL to permanently appear. That's an extra click that other browsers don't require.
Two other low-profile but well-executed features in Chrome are auto-updating and translation. Chrome automatically updates when a new version comes out. This makes it harder to revert back to an older version, but it's highly unlikely that you'll want to downgrade this build of Chrome since this is the stable build and not the beta or developer's version. The second feature, automatic translation of Web pages, is available to other browsers as a Google add-on, but because it comes from Google, it's baked directly into Chrome.
Chrome is also a leader in HTML5 implementation, which is uneven because of the continuing development of HTML5 standards. This will become more important in the coming months and years, but right now it doesn't greatly affect interaction with Web sites.
Other changes in Chrome 10 mostly address under-the-hood tech that users won't see, but will change the browser's behavior slightly. This includes sandboxing the built-in version of Adobe Flash, which means that if Flash crashes, it will only take down the page that it's loaded on and not the entire browser. Chrome has sandboxed other plug-ins for more than a year. Chrome 10 also integrates Google's open-source VP8 video codec, but notably removes support for the licensed H.264 codec, which requires the software publisher to pay a license fee before it can be used. Hardware-accelerated video also made it into this version of Chrome, which means that Chrome can now make use of your computer's graphics card to run video faster and more smoothly. At this point, though, Chrome's hardware acceleration is limited, unlike the soon-to-be released Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4.
Security improvements in Chrome 10 include disabling outdated plug-ins by default and automatic malware reporting. However, this does not preclude the need for adequate, up-to-date security software on your system. Password sync is also now enabled by default as a part of Chrome's synchronization feature.
Google has claimed that Chrome 10 is 66 percent faster than Chrome 9, and CNET benchmarks will be added here soon. Historically, Chrome has been one of the top three fastest browsers available across multiple benchmarks, and that's not expected to change in version 10.
It's hard to tell which is faster, user adoption of Chrome or its development. Certainly the two are linked, and due in no small part to Google's ability to lay claim to the "fastest browser" title, even when it may not be strictly true. The rest of Chrome's appeal lies in its clean, minimalist look, and competitive features that justify its still-increasing market share. Chrome is a serious option for anybody who wants a browser that gets out of the way of browsing the Web.