Chrome 11 wants to hear you

Google Chrome 11 comes with a full range of competitive features, and is among the most standards-compliant and fastest browsers available. It also introduces a new speech-to-text API.

The bottom line: Google Chrome 11 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 on the precipice of a potential browsing revolution with the pending Chrome OS. The browser that people can use today, Chrome 11, offers highly competitive features including synchronization, autofill, and standards compliance, and maintains Google's reputation for building one of the fastest browsers available.

Chrome 11 represents a major milestone for the browser, but those expecting to see dramatic changes in major-point updates will be disappointed. For a while now, Google has been pushing features over what it calls milestone numbers, which means that as soon as new features are usable in the beta version of Chrome, Google will likely push them to all users in the stable edition.

First Look: Chrome still shines, 10 versions later

The big change in Chrome 11 is the debut of an HTML5 speech API. This converts your speech into text via a microphone: you click a microphone icon embedded in a Web page and then speak into your computer's mic. This and other changes are discussed below in the Features and Performance sections.

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 and choosing Options, then Under the Hood, and checking or 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 in changing 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 to 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 Comodo Dragon) do offer the feature.

A minor change in Chrome 11 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 11'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 is based on WebKit, the same open-source engine that powers Apple Safari, Google's Android mobile platform, and several other desktop and mobile Web-browsing tools. However, Chrome runs on a different JavaScript engine than its WebKit cousins, and there are other changes as well.

In Chrome 10, the biggest improvement was to Chrome's JavaScript engine. The new Crankshaft version of Chrome's V8 JavaScript engine, Google claims, was 66 percent faster than the one in Chrome 9. The importance of JavaScript performance has grown dramatically in the past year as developers have been writing not just Web sites but full-featured Web applications in JavaScript. Check out CNET's own benchmarks of the browser below in the Performance section.

In Chrome 11, we get the speech-to-text API. The input records as text, and the browser automatically inserts the text into the available form field. At the time the feature was launched, it was only officially available on the Google Translate page when translating from English into another language. That's expected to change quickly as developers begin to incorporate the API into their sites.

The feature is a bit rough around the edges, with the need to hit the onscreen microphone icon every time you want to speak to your browser. It also struggles to differentiate background audio, such as streaming video from the computer, and input from human sources.

You can test it by going to Google Translate and clicking the microphone icon in the lower right corner of the text field. At the time of writing, the voice-to-HTML feature appears to work only with English.

While the feature is interesting to find in a browser, there's more behind Google's decision to include it. By gaining a speech-to-text feature, Chrome OS instantly provides a modicum of accessibility for users who have difficulty with keyboards. When the browser is the operating system, making it so people can speak to the computer and have the computer know how to interpret that speech is a quick way to ensure a broader appeal.

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 different computers' 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.

Chrome also offers a lot of privacy-tweaking settings. In the Options menu, go to the Under the Hood tab. From here, you can toggle and customize most of the browser's privacy and security settings. Cookies, image management, JavaScript, plug-ins, pop-ups, location information, and notifications can be adjusted from the Content Settings button. This includes toggling specific plug-ins, such as the built-in Adobe Flash plug-in or the Chrome PDF reader (which is deactivated by default).

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 autoupdating 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 11 include the introduction of hardware-accelerated 3D CSS, bug fixes in cloud print, a security update to the built-in version of Adobe Flash, and user agent string changes introduced to bring Chrome in line with user agent changes made in Firefox 4. The jump from Chrome 11 beta to stable also brings 25 security changes, including 15 marked as high-risk. These fixes cover potential risks such as URL bar spoofing during navigation errors, and numerous instances of stale pointers in PDF forms, sandboxing, and drop-down list handling.

In the realm of security, besides allowing you to disable JavaScript, Chrome will autoblock Web sites that are known for promulgating phishing attacks and malware threats or are otherwise unsafe. The usefulness of this depends on Google's ability to flag Web sites as risky, though, and so it's recommended to use an add-on like the Web of Trust extension or a separate security program to block threats.

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.

Based on the open-source WebKit engine and Google's V8 JavaScript engine, Google Chrome debuted to much fanfare because of its rocketing rendering speeds. Two years down the line, that hasn't changed, and the stable version of Chrome remains one of the fastest stable browsers available. The less stable versions, with their more recent improvements and bug fixes, are often faster.

Note that to effectively use hardware acceleration, you must make sure that your graphics card drivers are up-to-date.

You can read in this blog post CNET's most recent browser benchmark comparisons, which indicated that Chrome 10 stable had some room to grow. However, it's important to note that Chrome 11 includes a form of hardware acceleration that was turned off by default in Chrome 10, and so Chrome 11 is expected to be faster than Chrome 10.

Nevertheless, Chrome remains one of the fastest browsers available, and its rapid version update rate ensures that it is consistently competitive.

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.

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