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Chrome – Google’s Attempt at the ‘Ultimate Browser’

Date: September 3, 2008
Author(s): Rob Williams

Sure, the Internet has no shortage of web browsers, but it’s not often that someone comes along and tries something different, and believe it or not, it’s Google this time around. We’re taking a look at the first beta release of their Chrome browser, which happens to be ultra-fast, stable, intuitive and lightweight, all at the same time.



Introduction

When we posted in our news on Monday that Google was apparently set to release a browser, I don’t think many were expecting it to happen so soon. Did Google release early due to their ‘leaked’ comic strips, or was September 2nd in their plan for a while? As it turns out, Sept. 3rd was the desired date, but the browser was clearly ready, as was their launch plans, so we were all treated a day early.

I am never one to jump at the opportunity to test out a new Google application, and the only one I currently use on a regular basis is Google Earth. Something about Chrome was intriguing though, and while I didn’t quite like everything I was reading, I do think the company is going in the right direction, and for that, I had to give it a try right away.

The first question to come to mind though, might be “Why?”. Each popular OS already includes a native browser, and with the likes of Mozilla Firefox and Opera, what’s the point of building yet another? According to Google, they don’t like how current browsers are progressing. They state that the browser as it stands today was built for a simpler web, one that’s far different to the web we experience today, especially with all the integrated media and games we use on a daily basis.

Their goal was to build a browser from the ground up, one that’s minimalistic in nature, stable, secure and fast. Google wants to essentially evolve the browser, so that the web can also continue to evolve. How they plan to do this is interesting, and well-worth reading up on. We don’t often post content dedicated to a ‘simple’ web browser, but Google really caught my attention here, so let’s take a look at what’s here now, and what’s on the way.

Google Chrome offers what, exactly?

Google plans for Chrome to be the fastest browser out there, while being designed to handle all that makes the web so great. The base used is WebKit, a popular open-source framework that’s ultimately derived from a library that Konqueror in KDE uses. Apple has since picked up on it, which is why it’s also used in Safari and also the iPhone, while Nokia, Adobe, Trolltech and others, among Google, have also decided to use it in their own applications.

Safari is well-known as being a browser that offers great web speeds when compared to the competition, so the reason Google chose it is obvious. To help increase the speed even further, they modified the JavaScript virtual machine to optimize it for speed and stability, which they call V8. As our initial tests show, they really had a game plan in place, because the result is impressive.

Security & Stability

What might be one of the most impressive features is ‘Sandboxing’, the technique of putting each tab within the browser into it’s own instance within Windows, which will increase stability in case one of your tabs crashes. To better explain why this is important, the scenario I’d like to call upon would be one I tend to suffer rather often… random crashes that come out of nowhere while being in the middle of some work.

One example in particular is when I am preparing a post for our news section or our forums, and then all of Firefox goes down in one swoop, without warning and without error. To prevent this, Chrome throws each tab into it’s own instance within Windows, so if one tab crashes, it won’t effect the other tabs that are still open. When first starting Chrome up, you’ll notice that two instances are active – one for the browser, and another for the ‘speed dial’, I assume. Open up another tab, and you’ll see a third instance, and this increases as you open more tabs.

It might seem redundant to open up numerous instances like this, but it’s actually a smart way of doing things. If you are working on something and another tab crashes, you’re probably going to be thankful that Sandboxing exists. How the browser would cope with a fatal plugin error is unknown to me, but I have found it to be a rare occasion when a plugin will crash in a Windows browser, unlike 64-bit Linux, where it happens all the time.

The added benefit of Sandboxing is that the browser becomes multi-threaded in a sense, where each tab can use one core at a time. Theoretically, if you have four tabs open, each one could use it’s own core, and the same goes for the plugins. Webpages aren’t usually that intensive, but this might help out more in the future as 3D web games become more popular.

Since phishing attacks and malware-infested sites are all over the place, ‘Blacklists’ is another feature that Google is giving a lot of attention to. Chrome will feature two different lists, one for phishing sites and one for malware sites. It will automatically update these lists on a regular basis, so that you are kept up to date. This concept isn’t entirely new, but it’s implementation seems to be the best.

Ever get off the computer and then be called back into the room moments later with a family member showing you a porn site you were at fifteen minutes earlier? With the Incognito mode, that doesn’t have to ever happen, since when in use, it will not store cookies, a cache or anything of the nature. It will be as if you never visited the site at all.

From a security standpoint, Chrome seems to be taking care of how it operates, and so far, things are looking good. The Sandboxing method of keeping your tabs secure makes perfect sense, and with the malware site detection and multi-threading capabilities, this browser is already a league above the competition that has been in the marketplace for quite some time.

Chrome Features, Final Thoughts

Creating a browser might sound simple, but the route Google wanted to take complicates things. How can you create a browser that on one hand is rich with features users want or need, while retaining a small footprint, and not becoming clunky. Well, Chrome is off on the right foot so far, and I’m already looking forward to follow-up beta releases to see how Google is going to keep within their goals.

The first sign of Chrome’s light-weightedness might be during the installation. After the download completes and the installer is initiated, the entire app is installed within seconds. If you have Firefox (and presumably, other browsers) installed, it will offer to carry over your bookmarks and certain settings. I went ahead and allowed it to use my Firefox profile, and it did just that. All of my bookmarks were available and even custom settings that I had set in the ‘about:config’, such as which default search engine to use.

Although I like minimalism to a certain degree, I’m always wary about developers that take things too far. Google seems to have found a good level of where to take things though, and although the browser seems like it’s feature-less at first, you really have to look deep in order to see just what it’s made of.

First and foremost, this is one great-looking browser, under both Windows XP and Vista. It features clean lines, sharp text and a total lack of top menus, giving the design an even cleaner look. It does seem overboard at first to cut so much out, but after just a few minutes of browsing, you won’t even notice… at least that’s how things played out for me.

Minor Features

Rather than having the browser tabs located underneath the address bar, Google changed things up by placing them above, adding to the clean design and look. Since there is no top menu, there’s lots of room, so it seems to be the logical choice in placement. Google’s goals, as stated in their introduction video is that they wanted the browser frame itself to be as small as possible, within reason, to maximize what everyone uses a browser for… the web.

At current time, the UI cannot be configured much, and what’s there will remain there. I assume that with concurrent releases, such ability will be added, but it all depends on personal taste and what you want, whether or not it’s a real inconvenience. Plugins are also lacking right now, in that there is none. That’s due to be added, however, just like Firefox’s extensions.

Continuing with the goals of a clean UI, there is no bottom status bar. If you hover over a link, it will fade in and out at the bottom, but disappear once you move your cursor away. The lack of a bottom bar results in a few extra pixels that are dedicated to increasing the amount of the webpage you see. The UI as a whole is intuitive, and I’m actually impressed by how much I turned out to like it.

At this point and time, the coolest features of Chrome are features you don’t really see, but rather are part of the architecture that simply make the browsing experience better. Pop-ups, for example, won’t open up into a tab that they didn’t originate in. It’s simple things like that, that increase the cool-factor.

On feature sure to go overlooked by many is the built-in task manager, which you can see above. Right-clicking on the main UI and launching the mini-app will pop up the smaller window seen in that image, which shows very basic information about memory and CPU usage for all of the available tabs, even tabs open from additional instances of Chrome. Clicking on ‘Stats for nerds’ opens up ‘about:memory’ which goes even further in-depth, and goes as far as to include stats from other currently-open browsers. Note that these statistics even include the memory usage of the installed plugins.

Final Thoughts

Much more could be said about Google’s browser, but given that we are only seeing the first beta, it would be wise to wait and see what the future versions will bring to the table, before exhausting our database space. I’m not the type of person to be impressed that easily, especially by a web browser, but Google has more than impressed me here. I’m sure glad I didn’t bet money before the beta became available.

At the time of writing, Google is offering only a Windows version of the browser, but they promise that OS X and Linux support is en route, so we can only hope that the browser delivered to those OS’ will be just as impressive as the one for Windows. What’s interesting is that the browser is good now, and it’s only the first beta. That’s a good sign.

What needs work is a few things, such as web standards compliance. Although ACID2 passed without fail, it broke whenever the browser window was resized, and ACID3 scored 79/100 – good, but not ideal. Some users are also reporting some sites to run slower than others (compared to other browsers), although I haven’t experienced such a thing yet. I’m sure after days of use, such issues will creep up, but as it stands, for a first release, things should only get better.

At this point in time, there’s little use in throwing requests around, because I’m sure Google has other features in their roadmap that they are not talking about yet, such as plugin support, GUI customization, the ability to customize your speed dial and more.

If you haven’t already, you should give Chrome a try yourself. It’s a super-quick download, and hey, you might just like it. For alternate looks at the browser (mine wasn’t good enough?!), check out Google’s comic strip, features video and ’10 features of Chrome’ video, to help yourself get better acquainted.

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