The battle of the browsers rolls on, now with Google entering the fray with their Chrome browser. Becoming public on Tuesday, we got our hands on it to put it through its paces. Knowing Google, the "beta" tag will probably remain for the life of the product. So how does it fare in these early stages?
We’ve become accustomed to Google appearing with software solutions and are big fans of their Google Apps. It makes sense that the company with possibly the biggest name on the Internet has its own browser. A quick download and install, Chrome offers to import your bookmarks as you’d expect. It also pulls across your history, something that Google has always been pretty keen on.
The interface is rather minimal, losing the redundant top window bar, looking a little more like the full screen versions of IE and Firefox – except that there doesn’t appear to be an additional full screen option. Losing the top toolbar is great for netbook users as you claw back an extra line – hurrah!
Combine this with straight-up address bar search from Google and things seem pretty simple. The address bar doesn’t drop down, instead it provides intelligent suggestions from your history, as well as a straight search option.
The other thing you’ll notice is the lack of a hard Home button. As an IE user, this sort of sent me into a spin, frantically searching for my default return to Google. You can, of course, make a new tab open in any page you want, including your comfortable iGoogle page, but Chrome by default gives you a "Most Visited" home page, laying out thumbnails of your favourite websites so you can click and go. It also gives you recent bookmarks, recently closed tabs and an option to search your history.
Having pulled in the "Links" toolbar from IE7, Chrome gives you the option of always having these "Bookmarks" open, or only on the new tab page, so when you navigate to a window, your bookmark bar vanishes. This will be a personal preference point, but again, using a netbook, it does give you another extra line – twice hurrah!
The downside of this arrangement is that your bookmarks hide under "Other bookmarks" on the bookmark bar, and if you choose to close this bar, you can’t access your bookmarks. Again this is where the dynamic home page appears, as this lists your recent bookmarks, so could potentially supplant the need for a separate bookmark dropdown list. Personal preference rules, of course.
So basic navigation and surfing the Internet is great. Gauging speeds can always be a difficult thing with so many variables, not excluding the quirks of your OS, your internet pipe and the site you are visiting, but page loading did seem fast. Fast enough to make you sit up and pay closer attention. We won’t make any unsubstantiated claims about how much faster it might be, but you can try it for yourself. Image loading appeared to be noticeably faster; video, however, did not.
Downloading is an interesting area, because, like Firefox, downloads are handled more intuitively than in IE. Downloads have their own window, as well as a tab option so you can recall all your downloads, search them, or view them in folder, which will please IE users who have "lost" downloads into a random folder. Chrome deposits them in "Downloads" in My Documents, by default, but can also be defined by the user.
The right click approach still works, the default folder being the Downloads folder, but you can also copy an image URL from this menu which is great for those linking to images in IM, forums or blogs. If you take the right click approach, you get a toolbar across the bottom of the page so you can see what you have grabbed – great for pinching images. Navigate to a new page and this bar vanishes, returning once you start downloading again.
In normal browsing we found that most file types opened smoothly, although there is a growing list of known issues within the Google Chrome community, which you would expect with a new browser. Flash seemed to be something of a problem and after installation of the plugin we found things a little slow to get going, and ultimately resulting in a few crashes. At least Chrome has a sense of humour when this happens. Java support was also missing, but we don't think it will be long before it appears.
The tabs are pretty dynamic too, meaning you can rearrange them and pull them out of the browser and set up a new bunch of tabs elsewhere – perhaps into a different group relating to a different project. A lot was made of the resource demands of Firefox in comparison to IE and Chrome handles things slightly differently by having an umbrella process for the browser and then individual processes for each tab. This should mean that a crash takes out one page, not your entire browser.
To help with managing this arrangement, there is a Task Manager built-in to the browser, so you could go and terminate Shockwave Flash if you no longer want it running, for example. This can be taken one step further into "Stats for nerds", breaking down not only your Chrome stats, but also those for other browsers – see the images.
These little twists start to make Chrome feel more like a developers’ browser. Right click now gives you an "Inspect element" console option over IE’s rather primitive View Source. You also find a Developer option under the page controls which again gives you access to these types of features, which many users will never be interested in.
It becomes apparent after using the browser for a while that History is important as Chrome is constantly reminding you where you have been so you can head back there. Whilst you can avoid this by deleting, retaining the history seems to give you a much more complete experience. So what about those who want to do something in secrecy? Enter Incognito stage left.
Under the page controls menu is an Incognito browser option. This launches a browser window where no details are logged. In effect, it works just like the normal window, but nothing is logged in the history. Google suggest this might be great for those planning a birthday surprise, but let’s be honest, it’s for surfing porn.
There is a spell check function too that picks out errors as you enter text (it doesn't seem to recognise "Google" as a word though...), but there is a significant problem with highlighting text, which is fiendishly difficult, but you then can't drag it and drop it, so moving text around webforms means you have to resort to cut and paste.
Chrome does handle webforms with a little more panache than IE, allowing you to resize boxes so don't have to keep scrolling, the dragging text needs to be fixed with some urgency.
We've also seen incidences of the back button resending data, which leads to double posts on forums which is irritating, but could be easily ironed out.
Choice of browser is an area where lots of people get very riled. IE users are seen as social pariahs, Firefox users fight in bitter little battles claiming the moral upper ground, Opera users can’t understand why no one seems to want to play with their browser, and so on. But where will Google sit in this equation?
Of course, this is something new and Google will be under scrutiny every step of the way. It makes sense for them to have a browser though – after all, they want you to use an increasing portfolio of Google-owned online software alternatives and what better place for these activities to take place?
The clean fast interface will surely gain fans and some early complaints are easily countered with a little customisation. But as with Firefox, you could spend your whole time customising the browser to make it appear the way your old browser did. Chrome wants you to work slightly differently, but if you want a standard home page – no problem, just tell it to do that. Want a Home button? Just add a link to the browser bar.
Of course there are still problems with the browser and Google are the first to admit this. Yes, there is not yet a community behind the browser, but give it a chance – after all, it is free, no one is forcing you to use it, so you may as well see for yourself. From what we have seen so far, Chrome looks like an interesting proposition, but don't abandon your current browser yet.
One question though – why does the logo look like 80s kids toy Simon Says?