Friday, September 05, 2008

Web browsers: The Chrome wars


From TODAY, Tech
Friday September 5, 2008

REVIEW Google Chrome Beta
The newcomer pits itself against the giants, but how does it fare?

As you use the browser more, it’ll churn out a customised homepage with a list of your most visited websites and recent bookmarks, each time you launch a tab.

HEDIRMAN SUPIAN
hedirman@mediacorp.com.sg

How it scores
PROS

• Fast
• User-friendly interface
• Smart, predictive searching
• Learns from your usage
CONS
• Buggy
• Not compatible with some websites
• Flaky password management

THE next step in world domination for Google, it seems, is a brand new Web browser. Christened Chrome, it’s been in the pipeline for the past two years and is aimed at weaning us off the default ones preinstalled on our computers.

We spent some time with the open-source browser and our experience so far has been mixed. While it does provide much-needed improvements in security, stability and speed, the software is buggy.

Chrome initially refused to start after installation. Only when we uninstalled portions of our security software (with instructions from an online forum) did it manage to work — a daunting step for the masses who aren’t quite as tech-savvy. But to be fair, Chrome is still in beta.

Here’s how we think it measures up:

Stability
The first thing that catches your eye when you launch Chrome is its lean blue interface. It’s minimal and lets you focus on surfing the Web, rather than mucking around with a complicated set of settings or features.

Chrome has tabbed browsing, just like any modern browser like Internet Explorer 7 or Safari 3. But in Chrome, each tab is sandboxed. This means that it can run faster by tapping on its own resources.

If a single tab or website crashes, it won’t take the whole browser with it. You can simply close that rogue website and continue viewing the rest of your tabs.

Chrome also allows you to view the amount of system resources each tab takes up, killing the ones that run rampant with your resources.

But Chrome made our computer slow down to a crawl when we kept several tabs open for about an hour. Things went back to normal when we closed the browser.

Security
Chrome has access to an extensive and constantly updated list of websites linked to malware and phishing. If you visit such a site, the browser jumps in and blocks access to the site, displaying a warning that the site is malicious. We visited a suspected phishing site and true enough, Chrome did as it promised. The browser gives you an option to load the site if you’re sure that it’s not malicious.

If you’re using Chrome on a public computer or are viewing confidential or sensitive material online, you can launch an “incognito” window. With this privacy mode turned on, the browser will not remember the sites you visit and will not store information on any of your online activities.

However, we’re concerned that the browser can blatantly reveal your passwords to anyone if you set it to manage and save your the passwords to your websites. This could be an issue if there are multiple users using a single computer.

Search
When you install Chrome, it imports your bookmarks from Firefox or Internet Explorer and also the default search engine.

As you use the browser more, it’ll churn out a customised homepage with a list of your most visited websites and recent bookmarks, each time you launch a tab.

But Chrome’s main substance lies in its Omnibox (traditionally called an address bar). It indexes each site you visit and can auto-complete your Web addresses with a few keystrokes. It doubles as a search box too.

Suggestions from Google’s search index pop up as you type, offering you a list of the most visited and searched sites cultivated from the mass of online users.

In some cases, we just needed to type in two letters of a Web address to get to the site. If you previously visited a site that had a search feature, the Omnibox allows you to search through the site by entering the keywords into it instead of navigating to the site itself. Now, that’s nifty.

Speed
Under the hood, Chrome features a new JavaScript engine dubbed V8. In our tests, Web services from Google like Gmail, Reader or Calendar performed as fast, if not faster, than some of our desktop applications.

Performance isn’t confined to Google’s Web services; any Web application can benefit from the new engine. Even Facebook and Flickr were more responsive on Chrome. However, websites that were feature-dependent on Internet Explorer did not work. You can’t use the more fancy and newer features of Microsoft’s Hotmail, for instance.

We don’t recommend you depend on Chrome as your sole Web browser till the kinks are worked out and a more stable version is released. But we are impressed by the simplicity of its user interface and by the speedy performance of Web services and applications on the browser.

Chrome debuts on Windows first, with Linux and Mac versions in the pipeline.

www.google.com/chrome
Check out the Chrome browser for yourself
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