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Google's Chrome in a word: revolutionary

First INQpressions Blazingly fast. JavaScript still not 100 per cent compatible
Wed Sep 03 2008, 09:41

MINUTES BEFORE 8:00PM GMT time, the much-anticipated beta of Google's own web browser dubbed 'Chrome' hit the Net. We immediately downloaded it and here are our few first impressions after running it for a couple minutes.

First, it should be noted that this web browser uses Apple's WebKit HTML rendering engine, so if you used Apple's Safari for Windows and found bugs, the same rendering bugs are likely to be present as it shares the same rendering core. Second, the browser is, following Google's tradition, a beta so bugs are to be expected. We just hope it doesn't end up being a perpetual-beta like GMail. Like Firefox 3.0, every tab includes its own close button.


Google's innovative start-up screen

The most critical departure from current browser designs is that Google seems to have put a lot of emphasis on stability, so that a crash in one browser window or tab doesn't bring the whole application down. Google claims they do this by having every browser tab open as a separate system process. So if you have 20 tabs open you will have 20 small programs running at once. Pretty clever... but how does this affect RAM requirements?

Google offers an FAQ for webmasters over here. Notably absent is any mention of the standards compliance of the ubiquitous Mozilla browser engine... it just mentions "there are other browsers available" and proceeds to list the Big Four in passing.

alt='chrome-options' Options configuration dialogue

The FAQ reads: "Google Chrome is built on top of WebKit, so users will benefit from the CSS3 features being added to WebKit as those features are released." It also touts Google's tying of "Google Gears" into the browser, " which allows webmasters to take advantage of APIs such as offline storage" and "allows your web application to look and feel like a desktop application, as users can launch Google Chrome in a mode with a minimalist UI, featuring nothing but a title bar."

This is all very bad news for the Mozzarella foundation which, as we said over here has lost out against Apple a fourth time. First it lost when Steve Jobs decided to look for a small, lean browser engine for OSX and Mozilla's Gecko was still buggy and fat. The second time Mozilla lost was when Google decided to use WebKit for its Mobile OS project, Android. The only time Mozilla's Gecko made any significant inroads was when Nokia selected it to replace Opera as the web browser engine of choice in its N800 / N810 Linux powered Internet Tablets.

alt='chrome-downloading-files' Status of downloads are shown below each browser tab where the download was started.

Back to Google's new desktop browser. As a new player it obviously still lacks what has arguably made Firefox popular among bloggers and power users: a full ecosystem of software add-ons and extensions. But if Google complies with the promise of having it released under an Open Source license, Google's Chrome could gain that in a very short time.

On the compatibility side, it wins by resting on the shoulders of Apple's Safari, and having a user-agent which impersonates almost everything but IE and Opera: Mozilla, WebKit, KHTML and Gecko. Its "User-agent" string sent to web servers is ludicrous due to all the different product references trying to match as many strings as possible: "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US) AppleWebKit/525.13 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/0.X.Y.Z Safari/525.13".

alt='chrome-all-downloads' Seeing all downloads at once. Notice the use of screen real estate and white space

Load times? It's blazingly fast. We couldn't honestly time it. We also couldn't crash it, for now. It just pops on the screen. This on a single-core Athlon 64 powered Gateway 7422 notebook with 1Gig of RAM. Your mileage might vary.

When it comes to innovations, the first striking one is the 'favourites' screen of sorts that you get when you open a new browser tab with the familiar Ctrl-T -or a new window with Ctrl-N... you see thumbnails of the most visited sites, followed by a list of recent bookmarks in a vertical list. In the top-right is a search box, which, predictably, defaults to Google, but that option can be changed by going to the configuration screen.

The 'Options' configuration screen is overly minimalistic but the stuff most users will change, like default download locations and proxy(s) are there. The most advanced options like cookies and enabling / disabling pre-fetching for faster browsing are listed under a tab titled 'Under the hood'.

alt='chrome-taskmanager' Chrome's Task manager

When you download files, all downloads started from a given browser tab are sown in a little progress update widget below that tab, instead of polluting a single unified download manager. A 'Show all downloads' button switches to a single unified screen.

It's visually much more pleasing than the crowded one in Firefox, which, for some reason, this scribbler never really got the hang of. If we had to praise something about Google's browser it could be condensed into the fact that everything looks clean, evenly spaced and not crowded.

The best feature, in this scribbler's humble opinion is the 'incognito mode'. You can right-click on a link and select 'open link in Incognito Window'. It's basically the same as opening up a URL in a separate browser instance with cleared cookies, and with the cookies and browsing history disappearing the moment you close the 'incognito window'. Useful stuff for some people, we guess. But we couldn't possibly imagine what it could be used for.


Chrome's 'Incognito mode'

The good
Despite being a Windows browser, it doesn't support the security hole that are Active-X objects, instead relying on the plug-in system. There's a JavaScript console and a JavaScript debugger, which will surely please users used to similar functions in Firefox and SeaMonkey. It also imports all your bookmarks and most common settings from your current default browser - in our case it identified Firefox and asked for it to be closed so it could read the bookmarks and the rest of the settings-.

Since Chrome runs every tab as a separate process, it makes browsing a lot more stable endeavour. A nice feature dubbed "Task Manager" reachable from Page -> Developer -> Task Manager shows all Chrome processes, and how much memory and CPU resources each is using. You can also invoke this function by pressing the somewhat rare hot key Shift+Esc. It's slightly confusing to have two 'task managers' of sorts... the OS one and the browser's own. But we will surely get used to it, eventually.


AJAX performance is blazingly fast

The Chrome browser is installed by default with the language of your country. We're not sure if it used geolocation or the data of our currently logged-in GMail account, but being down at the INQ LatAm HQ in South America, we initially got a Spanish language installation, despite the fact that this system runs WinXP SP2 in US English with all locales set to the US or UK equivalents, including the keyboard layout.

Luckily, switching languages takes a few clicks, and after restart you get the browser in your language of choice, from a drop-down list of several dozen. This surely beats the cumbersome process of downloading xpi files. Changing or adding additional languages to the spellchecker is a similarly pain-free experience.

The bad
like all things new, it takes some time to get used to it. There aren't thousands of extensions for it. In fact, to our knowledge, as of this first release there aren't ANY. Zero, nada.

The ugly
The areas where it has bugs are predictably the Javascript engine: Chrome chokes on Hippo, the open sauce Content Management System (CMS) we use here at The INQ, throwing a Javascript error. So we won't be using it for work-related matters at least until the bugs in the new "V8" Javascript engine are squashed and the quirks ironed out.

We guess it will take a while to have it mimic Firefox' own JavaScript engine exactly. Of course Google has the upper hand here as its server-side developers were able to test their web sites with the new browser before everyone else. But this isn't much different as what happened for years with the Vole and its own web sites.

The Verdict
In short: it's a revolutionary browser. It has the potential to blow Firefox out of the water, if it gains traction with developers and gets the same third party add-ons and extensions ecosystem as Firefox, over time.

Despite being a beta, our initial impression is very positive. It's nice to see a beta browser that doesn't totally suck. Eight beers due to all the innovation and overall pleasing experience.

If you get stuck by a given incompatibility with your favourite site and its Javascript engine, your own score will surely be lower.


But please don't take our word for it, you can get Google's Chrome beta and make up your own mind over here. ?

IE8 Breaking Microsoft's Web Standards Promise?
Mozilla the Biggest Loser with Google's Chrome


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