Posted by: reformedmusings | September 2, 2008

Initial thoughts on Google Chrome

Google released the first beta version today of its own browser which it calls Chrome. It only supports Windows XP and Vista at this point, which is disappointing. I downloaded copy into a Windows XP virtual machine tonight to take it for a drive. I thought that I’d jot down a few thoughts about it.

Install was simple and quick. The installer only asked a few easy questions. You are offered the opportunity to allow Google to collect usage and crash data. Chrome imports existing bookmarks and file location settings so you don’t have to start from scratch. This worked fine with Internet Explorer 8 beta 2 installed.

Google Chrome with multiple tabs and Chrome's home page

Google Chrome with multiple tabs and Chrome

Chrome renders web pages blindingly fast, even complex frames. It does start to lag a bit when loading a number of images, though. Firefox is no slouch, but Chrome is visibly faster. In a way, that’s not surprising since it’s a pretty bare-bones operation. The window is clean, with few icons or toolbars. The status bar (more of an area in the lower right of the browser) comes and goes based on whether or not it has anything to display. I don’t know whether or not this is the final form of the browser, but if so, it will not be very customizable or flexible.

Chrome Options dialog

Chrome Options dialog

Settings in Chrome are few and relatively simple. Again, this is an early beta, so it’s hard to tell if this will stay as the browser matures.

Operations are a bit different than current browsers. There’s no separation between the address bar and search bar. One bar serves both purposes. As you type, Chrome presents search results from which to pick. I tried a number of approaches, including starting to type company names. Chrome presented the correct website within the top three choices. This is what one would expect from one of the web search gurus, and it is well done.

YouTube worked perfectly

YouTube worked perfectly

Although early in its life cycle, Chrome already handles a lot of media content. Flash did not come installed, but when I loaded a page that needed Flash Player, Chrome offered to install it. After that, I went to YouTube where the videos worked as expected, as did Brietbart. I haven’t rung it out across all possible content, but so far, so good. Secure websites also work well. Chrome offers to remember your passwords, but I declined the honor because I don’t know whether they are stored encrypted or the encryption algorithm if one is used.

Tabs work as expected. One wrinkle is that after you develop some browsing history, Chrome offers you thumbnails of pages that you’ve most frequently visited when opening a new tab, plus recently created bookmarks. This is interesting, but really doesn’t add much value over bookmarks themselves. It does look neat, though. Every tab is actually like an independent window, so theoretically one can crash without affecting the other tabs. That’s bound to use more memory per tab than a browser like Firefox, but can keep you working if things go bad with a site.

Chrome can do other interesting things, such as create application icons for websites or web applications. Chrome has an “icognito” mode for private browsing without saving cookies, cache, or history. That’s become a popular feature lately, and Google delivered in the first round.  Chrome also monitors for phishing and other malware sites.

When you download files, a download monitor appears in the auto-appearing status bar on the lower right. When complete, the file icon and name remains in the status area. Clicking on it presents a pop-up menu that offers to open the file or show it in its folder. The file opens in Windows Explorer, which I rarely used when I used Windows. It would be nice to specify another file manager in the settings.

Did I mention that Chrome is blazingly fast?

So, what’s the downside? A couple of things. Primary is the ubiquitous ad content. I use AdBlock Plus under Firefox and frankly don’t see ads. With Chrome, there’s no way to block ads. I doubt that Google will ever do so because ads provide their revenue stream. That’s not a criticism per se, but it’s just not how I and many others prefer to browse. I couldn’t imagine how fast Chrome would be if it could be set not to load ads.

The other shortcoming is the oversimplicity of Chrome. It browses the web quickly and simply. That’s it. Period. Coming from Firefox with almost 40 extensions that provide lots of customization and power, I see Chrome as profoundly anemic by comparison. Even the low-ball Internet Explorer has more power. Blocking pop-ups, cursory control over cookies, and checking for phishing sites seems to be the extent of browsing security. [See my update on this] Chrome is a speed demon, but it isn’t so much faster than Firefox that I’m willing to sacrifice power and security for the extra speed.

Google’s strength has been in serious search power hidden behind a simple search interface. Apparently that’s the idea behind Chrome–simple browsing. For some, that may be enough. For me, not so much. UPDATE: See my updated assessment here.



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