What is Google Chrome and how does it compare to other browsers?

Google Chrome is the surprise open-source web browser from Google that was launched in beta form at the start of the month.

Chrome has a clean, minimalist interface and incorporates a lot of interesting features and benefits, some already available in other browsers, some not.

From a design perspective, adding another browser that has the potential to take a large portion of the browser market would usually be a pain. Fortunately though, Google have decided to use the Webkit layout engine, the same engine used by a number of other browser developers, including Apple for their Safari browser on the computer and iPhone, and Nokia as the layout engine for their S60 mobile browser. This means that anything that works in Safari or any of the other Webkit based browsers, should work exactly the same in Chrome and vice versa. So most people won’t need to worry about their website looking different in Chrome, because in most cases it won’t.

I say most cases because Google have used a different JavaScript engine which may in some cases cause some differences in appearance where JavaScript is used. The other place that differences might occur is where there has been code written specifically for Safari, this may cause some differences as well. Generally neither of these things should be a problem, but it is worth testing to make sure.

From a consumer perspective, Chrome has a long list of features, some available in other browsers, some not. Lets have a look at the main ones:

Tabs

While not used by everyone, tabs have become a feature that is expected in modern browsers. Tabs have been around a long time, the first of the major browsers that still exist today to start using them was Opera in 2000 followed by Firefox in 2002Safari in 2003, then the tail of the pack, Internet Explorer, at the end of 2006.

Built-In Search

Having a search box in your browser has become commonplace just like tabs and is available in all the major browsers and has been for quite some time. Most current browsers allow you to type in both the address bar or the search box in order to search, Chrome takes a slightly different approach to the other browsers though and incorporates the search box into the address bar and gets rid of the separate search box altogether.

Application Shortcuts

Application shortcuts have been around for as long as bookmarks and that’s basically what they are. Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox all allow you to simply drag a bookmark (in Firefox you can drag tabs as well) onto the desktop or copy it to where you want it to be and it will become a shortcut to that site. Opera allows you to export a bookmark as a shortcut or drag a tab onto the desktop (dragging onto the desktop only works in Opera for Mac). So this idea is nothing new, however, Google has done it slightly differently. When a site is made into an application shortcut, rather than loading the whole browser when it is clicked, only that page is loaded in what appears to be its own application window. This is very similar to how web applications written for Adobe Air work.

Isolated Processes

To the average user, isolated processes won’t mean much, until one crashes. Chrome runs each tab in a separate process, this means that each one uses its own part of the memory and accesses the CPU on its own, separately from the other tabs and windows. If one crashes for whatever reason, it means that instead of the whole browser crashing as happens in any of the other browsers, only that one tab will crash, so you won’t lose everything else that you were doing. This is a great idea and is logical considering that tabs are separate pages, so there is no reason not to separate their processing.

Dynamic Tabs

All of the major browsers, including Firefox, Safari, Opera and Internet Explorer 7 allow you to move your tabs around as you see fit to change the order of them. A development of this is the ability to separate tabs into different windows or merge windows together. Firefox doesn’t allow you to do this at all, nor does Internet Explorer. Safari doesn’t allow you to drag tabs into new windows, but it does let you move a tab to a new window by right-clicking on it. Similarly, it allows you to merge the open windows to bring all the tabs into a similar window. Opera for Windows allows you to drag a tab into a new window or between windows. Chrome allows this as well, however, it is implemented in a cleaner fashion making it easier to use. This is because if you drag the only tab of an Opera window into another Opera window, the first window remains open, just with nothing in it. Chrome, however, gets rid of this window automatically so you don’t have to worry about closing it yourself.

New Tabs

Whenever you open a new tab in Chrome, it is extremely reminiscent of the new tab window in Opera. When you open a new tab in Opera, you have the Speed Dial page which is a list of your 9 favourite websites (specified by you) with screenshots and a search box. Google have taken this concept and modified it. Rather then you having to specify what websites you want shown there, the 9 websites you have visited the most are displayed instead. This means that they will change and update as your favourite sites change. From here you can also access your full browsing history sorted by day via a link down the bottom that will let you delete your browsing history if you wish. A search section has been included in the new tab page as well, just like Opera, but it doesn’t have just one search box, it has all of your favourite searches. So if you regularly search on Youtube, it will be displayed here as well. Then to further improve on this idea Google have added a list of recently added bookmarks and a list of recently closed tabs, in case you closed one by mistake. Firefox and Opera allow you to access your recently closed tabs as well, but it does involve going into menu’s instead of just a new tab.

Incognito Mode

Apple introduced a private browsing feature into Safari that does not save any data when it is enabled. When a browser is running normally, every page that you load is stored in the browsers cache on your computer, all of the data you enter into forms is stored and any cookies that a web page has written to your computer are saved. This private browsing feature means that form information is not stored and any cookies and information in the cache is deleted when the browser is closed. Incognito mode in Chrome functions very similarly to this and there is a similar feature available in the upcoming Internet Explorer 8.

Browsing Safely

Just like Firefox, Safari, Opera and Internet Explorer, Chrome displays warnings if you load a website that is suspected to be unsafe, be it phishing, malware or for any other reason.

Bookmarking

Bookmarking is virtually the same in every browser, Google have changed how it is done slightly in Chrome though. In other browsers you either hit a shortcut key combination or click add to bookmarks, then confirm the address and title are what you want and that its going in the right bookmarks folder and then click ok/save. In Chrome, Google have made the bookmarks functionality identical to the bookmarks functionality in the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer and Firefox. All you have to do is click the little star next to the address bar and it is added. If you want to do more you can choose a folder and change the name, if not just go back to browsing normally.

Downloads

Google takes the downloads panel from Opera and improves on it for use in Chrome. Internet Explorer opens an individual download window for each file being downloaded. Firefox and Safari both open a downloads window that contains all of the current and previous downloads until they are cleared. Opera though has a downloads panel in the browser that can be hidden or visible that shows all the current and previous downloads. Chrome has done this very similarly. In Opera the panel is by default on the left of the browser window and the website is pushed across to the right when it is visible. In Chrome, however, this panel is along the bottom of the browser and subsequently, it does not affect the websites appearance at all making for a cleaner browsing experience.

Cross-Platform Compatibility

At the moment, Chrome joins Internet Explorer as being one of the few major browsers available solely on Windows. However, Google have made a point of letting everyone know that a Mac and Linux version is in the works. Once this is out, Chrome will join Firefox, Safari and Opera in being available on Windows and Mac, and Firefox and Opera in being available on Linux as well.

Updates

Chrome has a unique updater, it checks for updates every 5 hours and downloads them silently. It then silently updates itself the next time it is run so that the user never has to be involved in the update process but will always have the latest version of the browser which is great for designers since almost everyone that uses the browser will see the same thing. For example, there is still a large amount of users running Internet Explorer 6, even though Internet Explorer 7 has been out for almost 3 years and Internet Explorer 8 is due to be released soon, most websites appear differently between these 3 versions, so when designing a website, we have to take into account how it will appear in each of these browsers. By having every instance of the browser automatically update itself as soon as it detects the latest update this virtually removes this problem. A user can manually update if they wish but there is no real need to do so due to this automatic process. Comparatively, Internet Explorer requires updates through Microsoft’s Windows Update tool which can be automatic or user controlled depending on the settings. Safari is updated the same way through Apple’s Software Update tool. Firefox and Opera check for updates and prompt the user to download the update, but won’t do so until the user is ready, or you can manually check for updates yourself. Chrome streamlines this process, but for users on a slow internet connection this could cause problems with their regular browsing, I am interested to see how the silent update feature works in this situation. It would be logical that it only downloads while there is no other activity on the connection, the same way that the Adobe updater works.

Final Thoughts

I have seen and heard a lot of criticism for Chrome since its release, along with a lot of praise. There is a lot that can still be done to improve it as a browser, but at the same time, there is a lot that has already been done to give it an advantage over other browsers. It is important to remember that it is still only in beta though and so by the time version 1 is officially released, there may be significant changes yet.

One thing to keep in mind when using Chrome is that even in Incognito mode, if you are logged into a Google Account at all with Web History enabled, your browsing and search history will be stored by Google. To prevent this, you need to pause Web History. To do this go to “Web History” from your account page and click pause.

I think Chrome has a lot of potential as a browser and it is, in my opinion, a natural step for Google given their increasing array of browser-accessible web applications and their development of the mobile operating system – Android. It is an interesting step given their substantial financial backing of the Mozilla Foundation and subsequently the Firefox browser, but having their own browser does make sense.

From my standing, the things Chrome needs the most at the moment are a Mac version, a plug-in or extensions system similar to Firefox, a decent set of developer tools such as Firebug for Firefox and DragonFly for Opera, and the option to either use the Google Toolbar with it or to integrate the browser itself with your Google Account. If these four things were available for Chrome, I could see myself using it quite a lot.

Have you had a chance to try Chrome out yet? What do you think of it? Let us know in the comments below.

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