Now into its second year, Google Chrome has begun to mature from a lightweight and fast-browsing alternative into an innovative browser on the precipice of a potential browsing revolution, with the pending ChromeOS. The browser that people can use today, Chrome 8, offers highly competitive features including synchronisation, autofill and it maintains Google's reputation for building one of the fastest browsers available.
Chrome 8 represents a major milestone for the browser, but those who are familiar with seeing dramatic changes in major-point updates will be disappointed. New features include the sandboxing of Chrome's PDF reader, which means that if the PDF you're viewing crashes, it won't take down the entire browser. Experimental options, such as side tabs, remoting, disabling outdated plug-ins and a "tab overview" mode for Macs, have been given a slight refresh by changing the name of about:labs to about:flags.
Please note that there are at least four versions of Chrome available at the moment, and this review only addresses the "stable" branch, intended for general use. Chrome beta, dev and Canary are progressively less stable versions of the browser which are aimed at developers.
Chrome's installation process is simple and straightforward. If you download from Google's website, it will ask you if you'd like to anonymously submit usage statistics to the company. This can be toggled even after the browser's installed by going to the "Wrench" preferences menu, choosing Options, then Under the Hood and unchecking Help Make Chrome Better. Depending on your processor, the installation process should take less than two minutes.
Google's Chrome interface hasn't changed much since its surprise debut in September 2008. Tabs are still on top, the location bar — which Google likes to call the "Omnibar" — dominates the minimalist design and the browser has few visible control buttons besides Back, Forward and a combined Stop/Reload button. Although some may not like the tabs on top, we find it to be aesthetically preferable because it leaves more room below for the website we're looking at.
One change has been to remove the secondary Page options button and combine it with the preferences Wrench to create space for extension icons to the right of the location bar. As it currently looks, it could be better organised. Some controls, such as page zoom, are readily available. Others, such as the extension manager, are hidden away under a Tools submenu.
Chrome's extensions are fairly limited in how they can alter the browser's interface. Unlike Firefox, which gives add-on makers a lot of leeway to change the browser's look, Chrome mandates that extensions appear only as icons to the right of the location bar. The benefit maintains a uniform look in the browser, but it definitely limits how much the browser can be customised. Versions 6 and 7 of Chrome don't support sidebars either, although other Chromium-based browsers (such as Flock 3) do offer the feature.
Even with its limitations, the interface design has remained a contemporary exemplar of how to minimise the browser's screen footprint while remaining easy to use and versatile.
Features and support
Chrome 8's features are accessible from the Preferences menu and the browser offers a complete range of modern browsing conveniences. The basics are well-represented, including tabbed browsing, new window creation and a private browsing mode that Google calls "Incognito," which disables cookies tracking, history recording, extension support and other browsing breadcrumbs.
Chrome's tabs remain one of the best things about the browser. The tabs are detachable: "tabs" and "windows" are interchangeable here. Detached tabs can be dragged and dropped into the browser and tabs can be rearranged at any time by clicking, holding, dragging and releasing. Not only can tabs be isolated, but each tab actually exists in its own task process. This means that when one site crashes, the other tabs do not. Though memory leaks are a major concern in Chrome when you have dozens of tabs open, sluggish behaviour and other impediments weren't noticeable until after there were more than 30 tabs open. That's not an immutable number, though, and a computer's hardware will alter browser performance.
Some of the basics in Chrome are handled extremely intuitively. In-page searching works smoothly. Using the Ctrl-F hot key or the menu option, searching for a word or phrase will open a text-entry box on the top right of the browser. It searches as you type, indicating the number of positives results and highlighting them on the page.
Account syncing is another area where Chrome excels. Using your Gmail account, Chrome will sync your themes, preferences, autofill entries, extensions and bookmarks. You can toggle each of those categories, too. It does not yet offer password syncing, although the password manager offers a smart show password option that keeps it visually separate from the site that it's associated to.
Like Firefox, Chrome gives broad control over search engines and setting search customisations. Though this doesn't sound like much, not all browsers allow you to set keyword shortcuts for searching and some even restrict which search engine you can set as your default. Chrome comes with three defaults to choose from: Google, Bing and Yahoo.
The Chrome extension manager, bookmark manager and download manager all open in new tabs. They allow you to search their contents and throw in some basic management options like deletion, but ,in general, none feels as robust as their counterparts in competing browsers. For example, URLs in the bookmark manager are only revealed when you mouse over a bookmark and you must click on one to get the URL to permanently appear. That's an extra click that other browsers don't require.
Two other low-profile but well-executed features in Chrome include auto-updating and translation. Chrome automatically updates when a new version comes out. This makes it harder to revert back to an older version, but it's highly unlikely that you'll want to downgrade this build of Chrome since this is the stable build and not the beta or developer's version. The second feature, automatic translation of web pages, is available to other browsers as a Google add-on, but because it comes from Google, it's baked directly into Chrome.
Chrome is also a leader in HTML5 implementation, which is uneven because of the continuing development of HMTL5 standards. This will become more important in the coming months and years, but for right now it doesn't massively affect interaction with Web sites.
Where Chrome 5 was the first version of the browser that felt fully baked, Chrome 6 began to add serious features to that foundation while improving usability. Chrome 7 and 8 have felt more like minor-point updates. Still, it's a ready-to-go browser that offers top-of-the-line speed, a clean, minimalist look and competitive features that justify its still-increasing market share. Chrome is a serious option for anybody who wants a browser that gets out of the way of browsing the Web.