And despite some jokes that Google Chrome would remain a beta for years-just like Gmail-the Chrome browser is no longer a beta and is now fully shipping.
So what does the release of Google Chrome 1.0 mean for the Web browsing world and the Web in general? Well, the simple fact that it is from Google has a major impact, and should put the browser in a good position to compete with Microsoft and Mozilla for market share.
But what about the browser itself? From a strict usability standpoint, Google Chrome is one of the most interesting and intuitive browsers I have ever used, and is probably the most impressive first version of a browser ever. Once a user gets over some of the quirks and differences from other browser interfaces (such as tabs at the very top of the window and no file menus), Google Chrome quickly begins to feel like the right way to surf the Web.
Google Chrome also has some other nice touches, such as a hybrid search address bar and integration with Google Gears to provide desktop Web applications. However, not everything about Google Chrome shines brightly.
The browser lacks many features found in other browsers, especially when it comes to highlighting text in a Web page and carrying out additional actions, and it is very limited in terms of options for users to define settings and customize their browser. In fact, Google Chrome is without a doubt the least customizable Web browser available today. Also, at this time Google Chrome is only available for Windows XP and Vista.
When a user first launches Google Chrome, there is definitely a moment of disorientation, as it has a different look and feel than most other browsers. The tabbed windows at the top of the browser took some getting used to, but I quickly became comfortable with them.
Overall, tabs are implemented very well in Google Chrome. Tabs can be easily moved and adjusted, and when launching a link in a tab, users can choose multiple options for the new site such as private browsing. I also liked the ability to drag and drop tabs outside of the browser to launch a new window.
When a new tab is opened, instead of showing a blank tab, Google Chrome shows thumbnails of the most frequently visited sites, along with links to bookmarked sites and recently closed tabs. I liked this feature, which is very similar to Opera’s Speed Dial, though I would have liked the option to customize it to always show certain sites no matter how frequently they are visited.
Incognito Mode and Security
The address bar in Chrome works as both a search bar and a standard address bar. Typing in here will suggest both search results and URL addresses, and I found this to be a very good way to look for content and Web sites.
Rather than menus, Google Chrome has two icons displayed in the upper right of the browser. The tool icon launches a menu for tasks such as opening new tabs or windows, accessing the browser options, history and downloads, managing bookmarks, and clearing browser data.
The page icon lets users print pages, do a “find in page” and create application shortcuts. Application shortcuts are an implementation of the Google Gears technology for creating desktop applications out of Web apps. With this feature, users can take any Web application-for example, Gmail-and make it possible to have the application perform like a desktop application, complete with dedicated window and shortcuts on the desktop, in the start menu and in Windows Quick Launch.
Incognito mode is Google Chrome’s implementation of private browsing, which lets users surf the Web without saving all the details and data of their search in history, password management, cache and other areas where browsers typically store information. Users can launch Incognito mode from the tool menu or right click on a link and choose to open it in Incognito mode.
Users can always tell if the window they are surfing in is in Incognito mode by the little Spy icon displayed in the upper left corner of the browser window. Also, whenever launching a new tab in Incognito mode, rather than displaying the frequently visited site thumbnails, the browser displays information on Incognito mode. I also liked that I could have some windows open in Incognito and some in standard mode.
Like most current-generation browsers, Chrome has security features in place to protect users against inadvertently going to malicious Web sites. A warning page displays whenever a user attempts to go to a Web site that has been identified as containing malware or being dangerous in some way.
Chrome can also display information on SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates and will warn a user if a site has a different domain name in the certificate. I also liked that I could just choose to pass to a site from this warning page rather than have to add the site to an exception list as Firefox requires.
Features and Performance
When a user downloads files from Google Chrome, status information and recent downloads are displayed in a status bar at the bottom of the window. Rather than a separate download manager window, Chrome displays a Web page with information on all recent downloads.
This page-based management style is also used to good effect for Chrome’s history. This proved to be a good method for viewing history and the search function in this window is the best history search in any browser I’ve ever used.
Chrome’s bookmark management is not anywhere near as good, however. A small star icon in the address bar makes it possible to quickly bookmark any site, but the bookmark management window is pretty basic and looks similar to those found in browsers from years ago.
A nice feature in Google Chrome is the integrated task manager. Accessed through the tool menu or by hitting Shift-Esc, the task manager shows all tabs, windows and plug-ins running and makes it possible to end any process, which proves useful when a single Web site hangs, letting users close just that tab rather than the entire browser.
However, I wish more attention had been paid to more traditional user setting and management options. The option window in Chrome provided pretty basic options for customizing the browser, especially when compared with Firefox and Opera Software’s Opera browser. And the lack of anything like an about:config in Chrome made any kind of power use of the browser nearly impossible.
Standards support for Chrome, which is based on the excellent WebKit browsing engine, is overall very good, and the current version of Chrome scores a 79 on the Acid3 standards test.
In general, I had very few problems with Web sites not displaying properly in Chrome. A bigger problem is that some sites don’t identify Chrome as an acceptable browser and will tell the users they need to use another Web browser (even though most likely Chrome will run the site fine).
Adding to this problem is that, unlike most other browsers, it is very difficult to configure Chrome to display its user agent information as another acceptable Web browser. In fact, the only information I could find on doing this involved using a hex editor to change a .DLL in Chrome, something typically outside of the capabilities of all but the most capable tech users.
Still, in most cases we aren’t talking about the browser being even a full second faster than other current browsers, and in my opinion, at least for now, speed is not a major factor when choosing a Web browser.
All in all, despite some hiccups and obvious shortcomings, Google Chrome is an impressive new Web browser and should be tried by any serious Web user (that is, any serious Web user on Windows, for now).
To download Google Chrome, go to www.google.com/chrome.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.