Google's "Chrome" Is Shiny… And Fast

Move over Microsoft and Mozilla - Google has its own Web browser. In a couple of hours of testing I found it fast, but not always faster than the competition, and confirmed that it's less likely to crash than other browsers. Still, this is beta software, so even though it has some innovative features, it lacks some of the basics that users get from more mature browsers.

I downloaded the browser to my laptop during a press conference at Google's "Googleplex" headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. and quickly started using it. As with any product, I'll need more time with it to form a definitive opinion.

Google's goal in creating Chrome was to build a browser that is faster, more secure and less likely to crash than existing browsers. Like Firefox and Internet Explorer, you can access multiple sites at the same time, each within its own tab.

But one difference is that each tab is a separate "process" - kind of like an individual piece of software - so if something goes wrong in a tab, it won't affect other tabs. For example, in a demonstration, a Google engineer simulated a browser tab crashing and showed how that tab could be closed without affecting the other tabs that continued to run.

This "multi-threaded" approach is especially important if you are going to use the browser to run web applications like Google's own Gmail or its Docs and Spreadsheets Web application. Applications often draw considerably more computing resources than simply visiting Web pages and by isolating them in their own area of the computer's memory and processor; they're likely to run faster and more reliably.

And Google did optimize the code for running applications - at least its own applications. When I tried clicking on a different tab in the middle of editing a Google document (in Google Docs and Spreadsheets), Chrome told me I have "unsaved changes in the document" to be sure I wanted to navigate away from this page. You don't get that message with Firefox or Internet Explorer.

One motivation for creating Chrome, said Google co-founder Sergey Brin in an interview, is to create a faster platform for JavaScript, the language used to developed web-based applications. "We were just having a really hard time with having reliable JavaScript performance as we write these apps and that's why we felt having a browser out there that could be really fast and robust for JavaScript execution would make it a lot easier to develop better apps for ourselves."

Tabs can co-exist within a single window or be dragged out to another area of the computer desktop and then put back into that window. You can also assign an icon for a particular Website or application so you can launch it directly from the desktop.



To save screen real estate, tabs are the top-most object on the screen. There are no menus or tool bars though there is a bar where you can type Web addresses as well as a separate optional bookmark bar. Chrome is able to import bookmarks, browsing history and other settings from Internet Explorer and Firefox. By default, there is no home page icon, but it is available as an option.

There is no search box for Google or any other search engine. Instead you use the address bar where you would normally type in a URL. If you type in a search term, Google will automatically search for it and, by the way, when you install Chrome you get to chose which search engine you wish to use.

Google cofounder Sergey Brin said that the company doesn't want to force users to use its products but choose whatever works best. The search area, which Google calls "Omnibar" allows you to search within certain sites like Amazon.com. After you've used a site's search tool once you can search that site from Chrome's address by typing the first letter of the site's name followed by tab followed by the search term. It even works within competing search engines.

Google makes a big deal about claiming that Chrome is faster than other browsers but I haven't been able to confirm that in my brief tests. It does seem to be pretty quick but with most sites that's also the case with Explorer and Firefox as long as you have a fast Internet connection as I do in my home office.

The program has what Google calls "incognito mode" which launches a window where any site you visit won't appear in any search history or leave traces like cookies. It will however preserve files you download and any Website that records information about you can continue to do so. Spyware and keyboard loggers could also continue to record what you type. A similar feature is available on Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 which is currently available for public beta testing.

As per video compatibility, I was pleased that Chrome worked immediately with videos from CBSNews.com, ABCNews.com and MSNBC.com. On my laptop that runs Windows XP, it worked fine with CNN video but for reasons I can't explain, not on my Vista desktop. In fact, it caused the site to grind to a halt but that was good because it gave me a chance to test Google's claims that problems are isolated to a tab. Even though that site crashed the sites in the other tabs worked fine.

Chrome is open source software which means that programmers in and outside of Google are free to enhance it. And in that spirit, Google was quick to acknowledge that the company borrowed code and ideas from other open source browsers including Mozilla Firefox and Apple Webkit, which it used for the rendering engine that displays pages. Webkit is used by Apple for the Safari browser that comes with Macs and also runs on Windows machines.

Chrome runs only on Windows machines now but the company says it's hard at work on a version for Macintosh and Linux. If you wish to try it yourself, you can download your own free copy from google.com/chrome.
By Larry Magid