Review: Google's Chrome, The First True Web 2.0 Browser

Google's new Chrome browser uses simplicity and some clever new features to bring Web surfing into the 21st century.

Google's just-released Chrome takes the same approach to browser design that Google takes to its home page -- stripped-down, fast and functional, with very few bells and whistles.

That's both the good news and the bad news about this browser. Those who like a no-frills approach to their Web experience, and who want the content of Web sites front and center, will welcome it. But those who want a more fully featured interface with extras will prefer either Internet Explorer or Firefox.

That said, keep in mind that this is a first beta, and Google may well introduce new features in future versions. For example, this version doesn't have a true bookmarks manager, but it would be quite surprising if one didn't show up in future betas.

In fact, there's a very long list of features this browser doesn't have. There's no built-in RSS reader, like there is in Internet Explorer or that's available as an add-on for Firefox. You won't find a good bookmarks manager, such as you'll find in both Internet Explorer and Firefox. There are no add-ons like those you'll find in Firefox. Be warned — the list of what's not there can go on for quite some time.

That was all by design, though, and it's why Google calls this browser Chrome. The user interface of a browser is called its chrome, and Google set out to reduce the chrome -- in other words, simplify the user interface -- as much as possible.

In a comic book that gives technical background about the browser, Google explains its design philosophy this way: "We don't want to interrupt anything the user is trying to do. If you can just ignore the browser, we've done a good job."

If that was the goal, Google has succeeded. Chrome has so little interface, the content area of the browser is larger than those of other browsers -- it almost feels like full-screen mode. Nothing gets in the way of the content of the browser window itself. In the same way that Google puts search front and center on its home page, this browser puts content first.

Designed for consumers or enterprises?

A great deal of what makes Chrome different from other browsers is not what you see, but what you don't see. Chrome appears to be designed in great part to run AJAX and Web 2.0 applications. It's the only browser that has been built from the ground up for a world in which the browser is a front end to Web-based applications and services like those that Google provides, and like those that are used increasingly by businesses.

Chrome

To that end, Google has made dramatic changes under the hood. It has chosen the open-source WebKit as the rendering engine, and it built its own JavaScript virtual machine called V8 for running JavaScript faster, with more stability, and more securely. Each tab in Chrome runs as its own separate process, so if one tab is busy or bogged down, it won't affect the performance in other tabs. Google claims that designing a browser this way will also cut down on memory bloat.

Also important is that Chrome comes equipped with Google Gears, which is a kind of glue that ties together Web-based applications and your own hard disk.

The effect of all this should be — says Google — a browser able to run Web-based applications with the same speed, interactivity and stability as client-based applications. This means that Chrome may be aimed as much or more at Microsoft Office than it is at Internet Explorer. By providing a superior platform for running its Web-based applications, Google is giving itself a chance to supplant Office with Google Docs.

Seen in that way, the ultimate success of Chrome may be measured more by how many enterprises switch from Office to Google Docs than by how many consumers switch from IE to Chrome.

A look at the interface

All that being said, Chrome is, above all, a browser, and nothing would make Google happier than if the entire world switched to it. So the company has put a great deal of effort into rethinking the entire browser interface.

The Chrome interface looks different from any other browser you've seen. Tabs sit above the address bar instead of beneath it. There's no menu, no title bar and very few icons. In fact, there's not even a home page icon; look for it in vain. By default, it's turned off — to get one, you have to click the Tools icon, then choose Options --> Basics and check the box next to "Show Home button on the toolbar." Overall, it's as stripped-down a browser interface as you'll find.

To get to most browser functions and options, you use menus that drop down from two icons at the right-most portion of the browser — a page icon and a tools icon. But even there, this browser is stripped-down. For example, the Options menu is where you often find many hidden features, buried beneath multiple tabs. In Chrome, the Options menu (found under the Tools icon) offers only three tabs, none of which includes an overload of choices. You'll mainly find basics such as whether to display the home page icon, where to store your downloads and so on.

Chrome

The address bar — what Google calls the Omnibox — is one of Chrome's nicer features. It doubles as a search bar: Type in your search terms, and it uses the search engine of your choice to do a search. When you instead type in a URL, it works much like the address bar in Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3: It lists suggested Web pages as you type, which it gathers from previously visited sites and your bookmarks, as well as making suggestions of its own based on Web site popularity.

When you visit a site, as with Internet Explorer 8, the address bar highlights the domain (such as www.computerworld.com) while the rest of the URL is lighter, so it's easy for you to determine at a glance which domain you are currently on, even if you're visiting a long URL.

This story, "Review: Google's Chrome, The First True Web 2.0 Browser" was originally published by Computerworld .

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