An Uncluttered Interface
Chrome has a clean, almost spartan look, partly thanks to its fresh blue-and-white color scheme, but mostly because Google has removed many of the tabs and bars we're used to seeing in Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari. In lieu of dual address and search bars, Chrome has a single area, called the Omnibox, that doubles as both. Just like Firefox 3, the bar autocompletes phrases or URLs based on your browsing history, and has empty stars next to each site, which users can click on to mark as a favorite.
When we typed in letters, Chrome's address bar accurately autocompleted the URLs of sites we wanted to visit. Like in Firefox 3, however, the list of autocompleted suggestions appears jumbled and unorganized. We much prefer IE 8's breakdown of the list into suggestions, items from our history, and our favorites.
Google has also done away with the menu bar lining the top nav. If you want to copy, cut, or paste text, click the Page icon to the right of the search bar, which offers those options as well as several others. To the right of the Page icon is a tool-shaped icon, which contains options such as clearing your history and importing settings from other browsers. For the most part, we didn't use these controls, but as Google rightly guessed, we didn't use the menu bar in our old browsers either. So, more than anything else, we like that Chrome minimizes functions we don't often use.
To the left of the search bar are back and forward arrows and a refresh button. While a page loads, the Go To button at the right of the Omnibox changes to an icon to stop the page from loading.
Small Feature Set--For Now
Downloading the 476K setup file took seconds, as did installing the program. It's not yet available for Mac or Linux, although Google says compatible versions are on the way. Almost immediately, Chrome imported all of our bookmarks and settings from Firefox 3, our default browser. Although the default search engine is Google, you can choose another if you like (the options include AOL, Ask, Live Search, and Yahoo). Getting started and mastering the interface took little time.
Chrome is unique in that when you download something, the file appears at the bottom of the browser, not in a separate downloads window. This is ultimately a good thing, because let's face it, those discrete downloads windows are annoying. And yet, it took us a while to get used to finding the downloads; we often clicked a download link multiple times because we didn't immediately see it at the bottom of the screen.
The flip side of Chrome's minimialist approach is that, right now at least, it skimps on many of the features users are accustomed to. There are few customization options; there's no full-screen mode, no discrete menu for managing favorites, and no way to e-mail Web pages.
Fun with Tabs
Google Chrome isn't the only browser that's tried to make working with tabs easier. Firefox and Internet Explorer 8 both allow users to reopen closed tabs, and IE 8 groups similar sites by color. But one of the best things you can do with tabs in Chrome is far simpler: add them with lightning speed. Next to the rightmost open tab is a small plus sign, and clicking this button opens a new tab almost instantly. No shortcuts, no right-clicking necessary.
Moreover, to reopen a tab you've closed accidentally, just open a new tab; a box in the lower right-hand corner lists all recently closed tabs. When you open a new page, you'll also see up to nine of your most recently visited sites, including a link and screenshot. Chrome also shows bookmarks and your search history.
Like IE 8, Chrome groups related tabs together, so if you open a NYTimes.com article in a new tab, it will appear next to the NYTimes.com home page, not at the end of the row of tabs. This is convenient, but we like how IE8 takes it a step further and color-codes different tab groups.
Users can also pull tabs out, turning them into new windows, and then drop them back into the original window. And when you open a new page, by default you see screen shots of the sites you visit most, along with links. (See the screenshot below for detail of the address window, icon options, and default opening page.)
Tabs + Searching
So, we've covered tabs, and we've covered searching. Now let's talk about how Google combines the two. If you start typing in a site in the address bar, such as YouTube, that Chrome recognizes as having its own search engine, it will give you the option of Tab-to-Search, which means you can press Tab and search within the site you're typing in, not your default search engine, whatever that might be. The trick to getting this feature to work is that you have to have searched on that particular site before. In other words, if you download Chrome and type in YouTube.com without having visited the site, Tab-to-Search won't appear as an option.
This feature might be a time-saver, but Firefox 3 and IE 8 both allow users to search various sites on the fly by selecting their preferred engine's icon from a drop-down menu. Firefox 3, for example, lists Amazon, Answers.com, eBay, Yahoo, and more by default, and you can add many more, ranging from the Weather Channel and Merriam-Webster to Expedia and LinkedIn. That involves pointing and clicking, yes, but it's intuitive and also more visual.
Integration with Everything Google (Sort of)
If you have Google Gears, you already know you can access your Web-based Google Docs offline. Used in conjunction with Chrome, Google Gears lets you create desktop shortcuts for your favorite Web sites or, let's be frank, Google services (think Gmail). To do this, go to the Page icon, select "Create application shortcuts," and check the boxes indicating where you want your shortcuts to appear (desktop, Start menu, and/or Quick Launch bar).
The setup is simple enough, but we wish you didn't have to navigate to Picasa or Gmail before being able to create a shortcut. Google would be wise to add a laundry list of its commonly used services for which users might want to create desktop shortcuts. Better yet, why not have an icon near the address bar for adding a desktop shortcut, just as there's an icon for marking a site as a favorite?
In brief, Chrome was the fastest, with an average page load time of 2.6 seconds, with Firefox 3 on its heels, rendering pages at an average of 2.8 seconds. IE 8 had an average page load time of 3.6 seconds.
Chrome took 1 second to load NYTimes.com, whereas Firefox 3 and IE 8 both took 2 seconds. Chrome took 4 seconds to load Laptopmag.com; Firefox 3, 6 seconds; IE 8, 7 seconds. Chrome and Firefox 3 both took 2 seconds to load Hulu.com's home page; IE 8 took 4. Chrome stumbled a little, taking 3 seconds to load both Picnik.com and Pandora.com, whereas Firefox 3 took 2 seconds to load both these sites. IE 8 took 2 and 4 seconds, respectively.
Surf in Private
Many of Chrome's stability and privacy features remind us of the recently released IE 8. Like Microsoft's InPrivate browsing, Chrome's Incognito feature allows you to surf without adding sites, cookies, and cache files to your history. Just as InPrivate opens a new window with a blue logo in the address bar to indicate your Web surfing won't leave any tracks, Incognito opens a separate window with a purple banner at the top, including, cutely, a graphic of a man wearing sunglasses and a fedora. On this feature, IE 8 and Chrome are evenly matched: Both do what they claim to do, make it easy to begin private browsing, and also make it obvious that you are doing so.
In addition, Chrome has a phishing filter that shows an easily understandable message--"This is probably not the site you are looking for!" or "Warning: Visiting this site might harm your computer"--advising users not to enter a site. In this regard, too, it's well matched with IE 8: both put warnings in layman's terms and color the warning pages bright red. Chrome allows pop-ups to load, but they don't appear unless you click on an indicator in the browser.
Similarly, both Chrome and IE 8 claim that even if one tab crashes, the other open tabs will keep working normally. While we observed several incidences of crashing when we tested IE 8 in beta, we haven't had any problems with Google's equally fresh Chrome browser.
Additionally, curious users can press Shift+Esc and then click Stats for Nerds; you can see a breakdown of how much RAM each tab takes up. Power users, or those with RAM-challenged mini-notebooks, can use this to see which programs cause the most strain, but really, as the name suggests, it's for nerds (read: mainstream users can function just fine without this feature).
Google Chrome Verdict
Because of its limited feature set, Google Chrome probably isn't ready to oust Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Safari as your default browser. To be fair, according toThe New York Times, Google has said it plans to add a way to manage bookmarks, the ability to e-mail links and pages from the browser, a progress bar, full-screen mode, and the ability to magnify pages. In the meantime, though, its uncluttered interface and blazing speeds give it plenty of potential. As soon as Google adds more of the features users are accustomed to, it will pose a larger threat to the more mature browsers out there.