by: Seth Rosenblatt on June 07, 2011
The bottom line: Google Chrome 12 comes with a full range of competitive features, and is one of 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 just-released Chrome OS. The browser that people can use today, Chrome 12, offers highly competitive features, including synchronization, autofill, and standards compliance, and maintains Google's reputation for building one of the fastest browsers available.
Chrome 12 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.
There are no single big changes in Chrome 12; instead there's a series of smaller updates that are still worthwhile changes. Six weeks ago, Chrome 11 saw the debut of an HTML5 speech API that converted your speech into text via a microphone. Chrome 12 offers hardware acceleration improvements and better in-browser security, and notably removes support for the now-defunct offline tool Google Gears.
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 | Mac) 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 users 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. There is an option in Chrome's about:flags, a series of experimental features, that lets you move the tabs to a sidebar.
A minor change in Chrome 11 was to move settings pages to their own tab, rather than a dialog box. Chrome 12 extends that configuration to Chrome's synchronization feature.
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 12'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 11 gave us the aforementioned HTML5 speech-to-text API. The input is recorded 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 as developers begin to incorporate the API into their sites.
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.
Along with hardware-accelerated 3D CSS in Chrome 12, we also get some interesting security improvements. You can now delete Flash cookies from inside Chrome, which makes sense given that Chrome comes with Flash built in, and there's a new Safe Browsing protection against downloading malicious files. Chrome's Web app support, which debuted earlier this year, now includes the ability to launch Web apps from the location bar. This gives keyboard jockeys a bit more power to avoid mousing around, more readily apparent in Chrome OS but nevertheless good to have in the regular old Chrome browser.
Mac users now get a warning window when using Command-Q to close the browser. And finally, Google Gears support is removed in Chrome 12 in preparation for a new offline option for Google Apps. How this will work remains to be seen. Although it could be tied to a Chrome version of Internet Explorer's site-specific pinned tabs feature, that's mere speculation at this point.
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. Chrome 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 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 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.
The jump from Chrome 12 beta to stable also brings 14 security changes, including five marked as high-risk. These fixes mostly cover potential risks such as "use-after-free" issues with cursors and float handling. The bottom line is: Chrome continues to get safer as threat vectors are discovered and patched.
Note that to effectively use hardware acceleration, you must make sure that your graphics card drivers are up-to-date.
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.
Google Chrome is a browser that combines a minimal design with sophisticated technology to make the Web faster, safer, and easier. Use one box for everything--type in the address bar and get suggestions for both search and Web pages. Thumbnails of your top sites let you access your favorite pages instantly with lightning speed from any new tab. Desktop shortcuts allow you to launch your favorite Web apps straight from your desktop.
What's new in this version:
Includes a number of new features and updates, including:
- Hardware accelerated 3D CSS
- New Safe Browsing protection against downloading malicious files
- Ability to delete Flash cookies from inside Chrome
- Launch Apps by name from the Omnibox
- Integrated Sync into new settings pages
- Improved screen reader support
- New warning when hitting Command-Q on Mac
- Removal of Google Gears