Chrome for Android: Speed, and sync

Chrome for Android provides the missing mobile piece for Chrome addicts. Watch out for that brain freeze, though: it's only for Ice Cream Sandwich and above.

The bottom line: Chrome for Android provides the missing mobile piece for Chrome addicts. Watch out for that brain freeze, though: it's only for Ice Cream Sandwich and above.

Review:
Google sure took its sweet time getting its redonkulously popular browser onto its well-received mobile operating system, but there's finally a version of Chrome for Android. It comes with a number of caveats, the biggest being that there's a really good chance that you're not going to have a compatible device for a while.

Installation
Chrome for Android installs like any other Android app, and is freely available from Google's Android Market, Download.com, Amazon, and other Android marketplaces. If you have more than one Google account synced, it will ask you which one you want to associate with it. You can choose not to sync it, but then you'll be missing out on one of the browser's best features: the capability to instantly share bookmarks, open tabs, and browsing history across your desktop and mobile devices.

A more noticeable tarnish on Chrome for Android is that it only works with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and above. There's a reason for this that we'll get into, but this will no doubt have a chilling effect on Chrome's Android adoption for the foreseeable.

Some Android 4.1 Jelly Bean devices, such as the Nexus 7, will ship with Chrome pre-installed as the default stock browser. Many will not -- at least, not right now.

Chrome for Android also takes up 48.36MB of disk space when installed, and that's before adding in any synced information. By comparison, Firefox for Android, which uses a different engine to drive it, takes up only around 15MB before throwing in sync data. Of course, app size doesn't mean as much as it did when Android was younger, but it's still a notable indicator that Chrome is rough around the edges.

Interface
Chrome for Android is decked out in digital threads that any desktop Chrome users ought to feel instantly comfortable in. Like its desktop site, Chrome for Android is sparing and minimalist.

Chrome for Android may look like other mobile browsers, but it's designed to take advantage of Ice Cream Sandwich in ways that competitors don't... yet.

Chrome for Android may look like other mobile browsers, but it's designed to take advantage of Ice Cream Sandwich in ways that competitors don't... yet.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

It's also got two slightly different looks. The phone version includes a tab button just to the right of the location bar, which allows you to check out your open tabs. The tablet version doesn't have the button because it has so much more screen real estate. Tabs on tablets appear identical to the ones on the desktop version, complete with an onscreen star icon for quick favoriting, and a microphone icon so you can talk to the browser. This is a clever bridge between low-powered tablets and high-powered laptops.

Also on the toolbar is an ICS-styled icon for the options menu. If you're not familiar with ICS -- and who could blame you, given that it's on only 5 percent of Android devices eight months after its release -- the options menu is three small square boxes arranged vertically. From it, you can launch a new tab, a tab in Incognito mode, or access the browser settings.

As with the desktop version, the location bar does double-duty displaying your URL and as a dedicated search box. Much like Chrome for desktops, the Android version simplicity belies what the browser can actually do.

Features and support
Chrome for Android brings most of Chrome's desktop features to the mobile operating system. Of course, it's not the first to do so. Firefox, Opera, Dolphin, and others have brought their A-games, and the mobile browser wars are about to make the desktop ones look like patty-cake.

Chrome for Android overlays multiple tabs if you tap the tab button in the upper right.

Chrome for Android overlays multiple tabs if you tap the tab button in the upper right.

(Credit: screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET)

Let's start with what Chrome for Android does. It appears to sync like a boss. If you're into Firefox's sync, you'll find an equally instantaneous experience here. Bookmarks, open tabs, Web address autocomplete suggestions, and browsing history will all find their way quickly to your Android, if you associate a Google account with the browser. However, it's not a prerequisite for using it. Password syncing is expected in a future update, but hasn't it arrived yet.

Rebooting our device appeared to break the sync connection for open tabs, and we've heard reports of the feature not transferring open tabs at all for others. Sync also appears to be one-way at this point, so while you can get your desktop tabs, bookmarks, and history on your Android, it won't go in the other direction just yet.

One neat feature in Chrome for Android is the link bubble, which highlights likely tap-targets when your fat fingers are trying to parse a cluster of links.

One neat feature in Chrome for Android is the link bubble, which highlights likely tap-targets when your fat fingers are trying to parse a cluster of links.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich offers a lot of new hotness to users, but one of the less apparent improvements is hardware acceleration APIs. These hooks let apps run faster by leveraging graphics processing toward app performance, and Chrome for Android makes great use of them. A single flick against the screen will send the page rapidly scrolling up or down, great for those lengthy vertical sites. Holding down your finger on one edge of the screen and dragging it across will switch tabs, another place where hardware acceleration comes into play. You can also see it in effect when playing a video and using pinch to zoom--we detected no loss in the stream while zooming around or scrolling.

Google's also brought in its site precaching. As you start typing into the location bar, the first option at the top of the list will be predownloaded, so that if you select that site it will appear to render nearly instantaneously. It's on for Wi-Fi connections only by default, although you can go into Settings and turn it on for mobile data.

When you tap the tabs button, you can swipe through your open tabs with the same gesture you use to swipe away notifications. It's a very intuitive, natural way to navigate through your tabs. Tap a page to expand it to full size.

Chrome brings pre-caching to Android, which downloads likely sites you want to visit before you've even told the browser to load them.

Chrome brings pre-caching to Android, which downloads likely sites you want to visit before you've even told the browser to load them.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Chrome for Android also offers Incognito mode, which turns off browsing tracks such as history, cached images, and cookies. Be aware, of course, that just because the browser isn't leaving tracks on your phone doesn't mean that your carrier can't see where you've been surfing. You can launch an Incognito tab from the Settings menu, which then opens in a new window. A button will appear that lets you switch between the Incognito stack and the regular Chrome stack of tabs.

The browser supports a wide range of Web standards, including HTML5 video and audio, Web sockets for faster server-browser communications, Web Workers for multiple computing processes, and IndexedDB for offline storage.

One clever tool for developers lets them remotely debug Web sites that don't work in Chrome for Android on their PCs. A command on the PC will open the mobile browser's Web pages for scrutiny.

The browser doesn't have it all, though. Adobe Flash player isn't supported, which means that all streaming video you want to watch must be done on HTML5-compliant sites. Also, add-ons are not supported. But basically, despite being in beta, this is a fairly usable browser and anybody on ICS ought to check it out.

Sync comes to Chrome in a big way, with easy cross-pollination of bookmarks, history, and open tabs.

Sync comes to Chrome in a big way, with easy cross-pollination of bookmarks, history, and open tabs.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Performance
When it comes to page-rendering times, Chrome for Android feels comparable with the desktop version. It's fast and responsive, and is definitely worthy of the Chrome name on the performance front.

We noticed occasional problems in Chrome for Android, such as very rare crashes and problems with overlapping characters on extremely close zooms. Still, this is mightily impressive. Full benchmark tests will be updated here soon.

Conclusion
The browser's real performance problem isn't one of performance at all, but one of availability. The fact that 95 percent of Androids out there can't run Google's own browser speaks more to the problems that Google is currently having with mobile carriers than problems inherent in Chrome. At the end of the day, though, the statistics indicate that you won't be using Chrome for Android. That's a real shame because mobile browsers just got a whole lot more competitive.

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