Sunday, September 14, 2008

Google Chrome

Google Chrome

Wed, Sep 10, 2008
The Business Times

'SIMPLE, fast and intuitive' are likely the first impressions that users will form within minutes of poking around at Google's Chrome, launched last Tuesday.

And after living with this trial - or beta - software for the past week, it is easy to give Google top marks for its Web browser debut.

Side by side with the two mainstays in the market - Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) 7 and Mozilla's Firefox 2 - Chrome showed that it has several tricks that makes Web browsing a more robust and pleasant experience.

Fast and elegant

Harnessing an open source Web engine called WebKit, Chrome is nimbler than Firefox 2, my Web workhorse for the past two years. On my old 1.7GHz Intel Pentium M-equipped Dell laptop, which has 1GB memory and runs on Windows XP, Chrome consistently fetches Web pages faster than Firefox 2, as well as IE 7.

Chrome is also more robust. According to Google, its multi-processing engine effectively isolates processes within each browser tab.

Thus, a website that crashes in one tab will not cause the browser to seize up - something which Firefox is prone to do from time to time. This is verified by the Windows Task Manager, which readily showed each tab as a different process.

Chrome's fleet-footedness, however, comes with a caveat. Early reviewers have noted that the application is a memory hog, and a simple test confirms this. Concurrently opening five websites in their respective tabs, I found that Chrome consumed about 170MB of memory - compared to about 100MB in Firefox 2. Firefox's newest incarnation - version 3.1 - consumes about 90MB.

This means that on lower-end PCs that have less memory, Chrome's performance could hit the wall faster. The workaround is simple though: open fewer tabs at the same time.

In the look and feel department, Chrome has an uncluttered interface which some will find too spartan. There is no top menu nor optional sidebars.

Yet, despite its paltry feature count, Chrome shines in terms of usability, thanks to a raft of intuitive features.

Take the history feature, for instance. Open a new tab and the browser displays nine thumbnails of your most-visited websites in a neat three-by-three grid arrangement.

You'll also find a list of your most recent bookmarks lined up on the right side of the page. Such a visual way of displaying surfing history not only makes casual browsing more enjoyable, it also makes researching on the Web more productive.

Even better, Chrome lets you search within your history list. The search even extends to all data stored within your Google Doc documents and Gmail.

Another cool feature is a Web-browsing option dubbed Incognito, which keeps the browser from storing information about websites you've visited. In this mode, Chrome will also erase any new cookies created when the application is shut down.

I also liked Chrome's integrated search and address bar. One box now replaces the usual two separate areas in which to key in Web addresses and search terms. Chrome is smart enough to invoke the right command depending on what you type. It also provides helpful, contextual suggestions to your terms. For instance, typing in the word 'Chrome' brings up several contextual suggestions that included IE 8.

A convenient and expected feature is the integration of Google Gears within Chrome. Gears - Google's answer to Microsoft Office - is also available to Firefox and IE via external browser add-ons. This feature lets one use Google Doc applications offline just like a regular desktop office application, with a desktop icon to boot.

Competition heats up

Is Google Chrome a killer app? The answer has to be no. There is no question it is more sophisticated compared to IE 7 and Firefox 2. But compared to Microsoft's and Mozilla's latest Web browsers - IE 8 and Firefox 3.1 - the winner appears to be a toss-up.

I've been spending extra time on both trial browsers this week and I found myself liking them both - a lot. IE 8 has Chrome's multi-processing feature and private surfing capability. Firefox 3.1 - dubbed Shiretoko - has incredible expandability via third-party vendor add-on applications, although most of Firefox's current raft of add-ons haven't been upgraded to work on it yet.

And Shiretoko, which features a new JavaScript Engine said to be significantly better than the just-launched Firefox 3.0, also feels a tad snappier compared to Chrome.

Both Firefox 3.1 and IE 8 have a fab feature that is missing in Chrome: full page zoom. When the zoom command is invoked in Firefox 3.1 and IE 8, entire pages are magnified, including graphics. With Chrome, only the text portions of the Web pages are blown up. This typically messes up page formatting.

Bottom line: Google Chrome is a great piece of software engineering, but equally compelling are the latest versions of IE and Firefox. And don't forget to throw in Apple's Safari and the multi-platform Opera into the mix.

I can't recall a time when there are so many compelling options for Web browsing. Good news indeed for Web junkies.

This story was fist published in The Business Times on 8 September 2008.

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