Hands-On With Chrome: Clean and Crisp, But Needs Extensions

by Ostatic Staff - Sep. 02, 2008

Google's Chrome open source browser is now available for download in beta, for Windows users. We've put it through some paces today, and have overall been favorably impressed with how clean and complete for a beta browser it is. If you haven't yet read through Google's explanation of its goals for Chrome, see that here. The browser reflects a focus on web applications--letting you create shortcuts for your favorite ones that will open the apps even if Chrome is closed, and more--and runs well. Still, it will be some time before I consider it as my default browser.

One of the first, most central interface motifs you'll notice in Chrome is that it constantly tallies and collects which web sites you visit most frequently, and puts thumbnails for the most visited ones on one Most Visited page. The thumbnails look like the one seen at left, with many of them on the Most Visited page for you to scan.

Chrome feels, interface-wise, like it comes from Google. It doesn't load a standard Windows menu system up top by default; instead, you just have a toolbar up top, and a place to collect your bookmarks. To bookmark any page, just click the Star icon at the left of Chrome's address bar. Google is also making a big deal of Chrome's "one box for everything" (OmniBox) address bar approach.

If you go to the browser's address bar and type, say, Jennifer Aniston, you can quickly do a Google search on her name from right there. Or you can use the address bar to enter URLs as you would in any browser. The Google searches from the address bar may strike some as self-serving, but I use Google a lot, and I don't always want to go to Google.com or a toolbar to search.

Chrome's design was squarely centered around being friendly with web applications, and not just static web pages. It has a powerful JavaScript engine, for example, dubbed V8, and it includes Google Gears. The browser also lets you create application shortcuts on the fly, very much like creating shortcuts in Windows, and then you can use the shortcuts to launch web applications regardless of whether you're running Chrome or not. If people start to use arrays of cloud applications, I could see this becoming very useful. It also appears to be easy to copy, though.

I tried a number of non-Google web applications, including Zoho apps and spreadsheets, Flickr, some scripted video and graphics from complex pages, Yahoo! Mail, and more. It did an excellent job of rendering everything, and running scripts and videos. It also appears to live up to one of its promises: It's capable of letting you work with many open tabs at once without crashing or causing rendering problems. See the plus sign at the right of the tabs in the screenshot shown here? Just click that to create a new tab in Chrome.

Judi Sohn, at our sister blog WebWorkerDaily, has also been putting Chrome through some paces with her web applications. She notes some problems with a few applications recognizing it as a supported browser, and how it handles passwords for some applications. Some of these issues may be fixed as Chrome comes out of beta. 

Many people have been asking how Google-centric Chrome is, and whether it is unfriendly to Firefox.  Mozilla's CEO John Lilly has said that he is not worried about Chrome. As far as being Google-centric, Chrome does ask you upon installation whether you want Google to be your default search engine, but it doesn't do a lot more to promote Google. I am going to watch how the sites collected on my Most Visited page behave, though. As I used Chrome and went to many sites, it kept showing a Chrome download page first and foremost on my Most Visited list.

With regard to Firefox, while many blog posts have made note of the fact that Chrome is based on Webkit, Google has also acknowledged that it uses much code from Firefox. When I installed Chrome, I had Firefox open, and was informed that Chrome would not be able to import my bookmarks and settings from Firefox until I closed it. I received no prompt about importing my Internet Explorer settings, and I have IE on the same system, so Chrome doesn't appear to be Microsoft-friendly, which is not a surprise. You can, however, tell Chrome to import either Firefox or IE bookmarks and settings, through the drop-down seen here at left, which pulls down from the wrench on the upper right of Chrome.

Like the new version of Internet Explorer from Microsoft, Chrome offers an Incognito mode. This allows you to surf without having your history of visited web sites collected in your History list. Chrome also warns you as you surf if you try to go to pages that may contain malware or phishing exploits. And, Chrome has a simplified download manager, so that when you do a download, there is no separate window where you see download activity (as there is, sometimes annoyingly, in Firefox). In Chrome, your download is at the bottom of your browser window, and you can drag downloaded apps right to your desktop.

Google offers videos on this page showing how the "one universal box" concept works in Chrome, and other features, but I kept getting a "this video is no longer available" message when trying to view some of them. (Update: later in the day the videos were working.) There is also a video from the development team, explaining Chrome's goals.

Overall, the browser feels very clean and snappy and didn't trip up even with lots of tabs going concurrently. However, I'm still going to stick with Firefox for now as my primary browser. The main reason for that is the power I get from my Firefox extensions. I like populating my Bookmarks list with scripts I create in the iMacros extension, and more.

Chrome is going to need, as an open source browser, to get the kind of community support for extensibility that Firefox has. Until it does, it's not as powerful in my eyes. Google does have its eyes on all of this. Chrome has a browser extensions framework that will allow it to make Adobe-AIR type hybrid apps, and because of its sharing of code with Firefox it may even become easy for Firefox extensions to be ported over to Chrome 

Not all Google applications get the kind of community love that Firefox has gotten, though, so we are going to have to wait and see on this issue. I also remain interested in the fact that Chrome is arriving right before the first Android phones. Google may very well have its eyes on Chrome as a mobile browser capable of running many rich, connected apps concurrently.Chrome has a tiny footprint--only seven megabytes--and Google is at work on a Linux version.

It's definitely too early to call Chrome a Firefox- or IE-killer, and too early to call it "an OS" as some people are. It's a fast, clean, stable beta browser that shows promise but will need community support.