Sep 3, 2008

[Google] Google Chrome Beta - Build 1583 (First Look)

Google Chrome LogoGoogle is known to churn out a million and one projects in a year, some of them pretty interesting with a majority of them duds in one way or another that eventually fade into the background. Heck, even some of the products that develop a fan-following end up on the chopping block depending on what direction Google wants to take overall.

Every now and then, Google manages to come up with an idea so revolutionary that it changes the landscape around it. Take Gmail, one of Google's first major successes. While it may not be the most-used web-based email service in the world, the features and concepts it brought to the world like built-in instant messaging and an ever-increasing amount of mail storage forced other email providers to follow suit with similar features. Google doesn't mean to dominate these alternative product fields - it often just wants to provide competition in the form of new ideas and a radically different approach to things that takes innovation to the next level.

Google Chrome is their latest product to enter the public eye, ready to be subjected to every possible insane test users can throw at it. Call me crazy, but I get this feeling that Google's attempt at a web browser is just radical to tip the development scales once again and totally change the way we surf the web. Here's the Geeky Guide's first look at Google Chrome.

Based on the developers, the Googlers behind this browser decided to rethink the entire concept starting from scratch (or zero in programming-speak). Instead of simply improving on what was already there (i.e. Mozilla Firefox), they decided to look at how users surfed the web now, what they used the internet for and the demands of those online services.

Google Chrome on Process Explorer
Google Chrome processes on Process Explorer

First, they aimed for speed and stability thus they built onto the concept of tabs and took things to the next level by making each tab into its own process (see above image), thus making each tab responsible for its own memory usage and once the tab is closed, the used-up memory is release for recycling. This also means that if a certain page errors out, you don't lose the entire browser but just the individual process tab. It may not seem like something that matters to your average user but what this ultimately means is not losing all your work when a page goes buggy.

This also translates into increased speed for the user since you don't lose memory to closed tabs whose data remains in the memory since the browser is not sure if it can give it up. Coupled with V8, their own take on a Javascript virtual machine and you get one of the fastest rendering of Javascript ever seen in a web browser by far. This I personally have to attest to - even after just a few hours of Google Chrome surfing, the difference in page-load speed is ridiculous. I even tried one of my favorite and yet slowest memory hogs, Google Docs, and found it running far faster than I had ever seen it, thus making working with the web-based application a lot more realistic.

There are also all these little bells and whistles that make Google Chrome a lot different compared to other browsers - and I'm not just referring to its minimalist design and classic Google-blue tone.

Google Chrome Status BarThe Status Bar - or perhaps more like the lack thereof. The design philosophy behind Google Chrome was to give as much screen real estate as possible, thus the reason why the Menu bar has been totally removed and the classic bottom-of-the-page status bar is now a subtle little popup message of sorts that appears only when a page is loading. It's such a simple change but one that is definitely years overdue - why do we even need the status bar other than to monitor the progress of a page load, right? The Google Operating System blog was right in calling this the "The Invisible Browser given how you barely notice it's there at all.

Google Chrome Omnibar
Google Chrome Omnibar

The Omnibar - Google's answer to Firefox's Awesome Bar is their own Omnibar, the all-in-one address bar that also replaces your search box, a feature that has become standard fare as a consequence of the web search wars. Similar to Firefox's Awesome bar, it also checks recent URLs and bookmarks to try and figure out where you want to go. However it also throws in your search terms into the fray and makes more intelligent URL suggestion choices that give higher priority to things you've typed into the bar versus pages you've just visited. It takes some getting used to and if you want, you can still press ALT+K to go to the Omnibar. It adds a "?" at the beginning to make it clear that you're doing a web search, although it's not really needed in the long run.

Google Chrome Tabs
Google Chrome Tabs

Tabs - On top of changing things over to making each tab an individual process, they also opted to move them above the address bar, further increasing your desktop real estate. Yes, they got rid of the Title Bar, figuring the name of the tab is all that you need. Manipulating tabs is amazing easy (and pretty darned pretty, too!) in case you want to rearrange tabs. Heck, dragging the tab out automatically places it into its own window, great for instances you need to focus on certain tasks.

Google Chrome New Tab Options
Google Chrome New Tab Options

Better yet, they took an entirely different approach to the new tab debate of displaying the home page or a blank page in the interests of speed. The Google solution was to show you a comprehensive page that features the pages you visit most, your most recent search terms and your recently closed tabs. In other words, everything you're most likely to want to visit when you open a new tab.

I could probably go on and on about the neat new features built into this first beta release of Google Chrome, but that would make this sound too much like an advertisement for the browser, huh? So let's take some time to explore my initial concerns.

Learning Curve - More conventional users will have a bit of a learning curve converting to Google Chrome. Without all the menus and buttons they're normally used to, they'll need to re-learn where everything is, to some extent. More advanced users
will be happy to note that many of their favored Firefox keyboard shortcuts also work here, a fact that is bound to condition users to browse even faster.

V8 Isn't Perfect - V8, Google's answer to the Javascript conundrum is far from perfect. Sites that use a lot of complex Javascript or make references to other sites outside its domain either become very slow (like when importing a YouTube video into Multiply) or just break entirely (like with most Facebook Apps and even some Photobucket interaction). You're probably going to have to fall back on your current browser of choice to deal with pages of this nature.

Too Minmalist? - Years of Firefox usage has geeks like myself looking for the customization options we're so used to. In this initial beta release, Google Chrome has no extensions or skins. Ironically enough, I'm composing this entry in Firefox because of my dependence on Zemanta-enhanced blogging and the easy of having FoxyTunes on-hand to control Winamp for me. If you're too attached to all the tweaks you've made to your browser over the years, the switch to minimalist Google Chrome might be painful. Oh man, I might actually experience StumbleUpon withdrawal!

The Final Verdict

As far as beta products go, Google Chrome is a real gem. The speed benefits alone are sure to attract a large number of users and really provide Google with the sort of field-testing data they need to make Chrome even better. For average browsing, this is a great tool and seems to work for most pages.

On the flip-side, it's lack of special features like extensions and its challenges with complex sites like Facebook will definitely turn off app-heavy users who might not be ready to make the switch without all their electronic enhancements.

For me, I'm okay with having it as my default browser because I don't think I'll ever get over how amazingly fast it is. That and the promise of features to come definitely excite me and I want to be right there on the front lines ready to test them out. At the same time, I'm still going to keep Firefox handy for those other pages and services that aren't quite ready to make the Google Chrome transition and as a solid and reliable back-up in case things go wrong.

Still, Google Chrome definitely has the potential to change the entire browser market and really make developers think twice about how they'll prepare future releases of existing browsers. By releasing Google Chrome as an open source project, they help make things look like they're in the game purely for innovation and not to aggressively take away from the existing market shares of its competitors. At the same time, because of the kind of innovation associated with the Google brand, you know that this is going to make users flock to the new service and thus ultimately acquire a significant portion of the browser market perhaps without really trying.

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