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September 2, 2008

The Invisible Browser


Google Chrome has been released and you can now finally try it. Developed in the past two years, the browser is barely noticeable after you open it. It loads faster than Internet Explorer and it has very few buttons and controls.

In fact, Chrome is an ironic name: Google wanted to create a browser that has a minimal chrome (that's how software developers name the menu and the toolbar of an application). The browser replicates the simplicity of Google's homepage that hides the complexity of the search engine.

Even if it's just a beta, Chrome already supports 43 languages and it automatically detects your language. To change the interface language, just click on the wrench button, click Options, select the "Minor tweaks" tab, click on "Change font and language settings", select the "Languages" tab and change Google Chrome language. That's a lot of clicking, but you won't change the UI language too often.


Google's browser merges the address bar and the search box in a single box that provides suggestions from the local history and from Google search. Google suggests queries and web pages that you are likely to visit, so in many cases you'll not even need to perform a search. Of course, you can change your search engine in the Options and Google provides two great alternatives: Yahoo and Live Search (OK, Live Search is not that great). But the great thing is that you don't need to choose a search engine: just browse the web search, visit your favorite sites and Google automatically detects search engines and saves them for you. Try this: go to amazon.com, search for the title of a book and then type amazon in Google's address box. You'll see an entry that allows you to search on amazon.com using Amazon's search engine. Click on the list item or press Tab to access the search engine.

Google automatically creates keywords for sites that have search engines: the automatically generated keyword for Amazon is amazon.com.


Let's say I want to download an application, like the fabulous Opera browser. Instead of being asked if I truly want to download the file, the location from my computer and other pesky details, Google Chrome just downloads it without opening any dialog. A small bar at the bottom of the window shows the progress and the greatest thing is that I can drag the file to any location directly from the browser. You should definitely try this if you install Chrome.


The browser has a modern JavaScript engine designed for improving the performance of complex applications like Gmail. But to make Gmail feel like a true applications, try this: click on the "New" button, select "Create application shortcuts" and a new chromeless window will open. You'll also create a desktop shortcut for Gmail. That's a feature of Google Gears, which is included in the browser.


In Wired's article about Chrome, the engineers that built the V8 JavaScript engine talk about its performance. "We just did some benchmark runs today, Bak says a couple of weeks before the launch. Indeed, V8 processes JavaScript 10 times faster than Firefox or Safari. And how does it compare in those same benchmarks to the market-share leader, Microsoft's IE 7? Fifty-six times faster."

Like Opera 9.5, Google Chrome fully indexes all the web pages you visit and you can find search results from your browsing history in the address bar. To bookmark a page, click on the star icon and you can choose a folder for your bookmark (that's right, folders in an application created by Google). The browsing history, the recently closed tabs and the most visited pages are used to automatically create a homepage. Try this when you install Chrome: create a new tab, resize the window and notice how the thumbnails adjust to the new size. And another tip: go to Options and select "On startup... restore the pages that were last open".


Developers shouldn't a miss menu created especially for them: Control > Developer. They'll find a JavaScript debugger for the new V8 engine, an element inspector that includes some great charts for monitoring the performance of a page and something truly innovative: a task manager for your tabs. Remember this shortcut: Shift+Esc to instantly open the task manager if one of the tabs slows down your browsing. As you probably know, in Chrome (almost) each tab runs in its own process, which can be killed without crashing the browser.


Those who want to find more about memory usage, including a comparison with other browsers that are currently opened, should click on "Stats for nerds" in the task manger or type about:memory in the address bar. Here's a comparison between Chrome 0.2, IE8 Beta 2, Opera 9.52 and Firefox 3.0.1 when only three web pages are loaded after a restart: google.com, yahoo.com and youtube.com.


Google Chrome borrowed many features from other browsers: Opera's speed dial used to show thumbnails of the most frequently visited pages, Safari's inline find feature, Internet Explorer's private browsing mode, Firefox's spell checker. Google hopes that other browsers will borrow features or even code from Chrome. Sergey Brin said that what Google truly wants is a diverse and vibrant ecosystem of browsers and Chrome is just another option.

Google's browser might never become popular, even if it's fast, stable and more secure than other browsers. The most important thing is that Google Chrome will certainly have an impact on the next versions of IE, Firefox, Opera, Safari. Even if you don't have a Gmail account and you use Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, you benefited indirectly from Gmail's breakthroughs. If Gmail is the invisible feature of Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, Google Chrome could be the signal that browsers need to become platforms for web applications.


Related links:
Download Chrome
Chrome help group - useful to report problems or ask questions
Answers to common Google Chrome objections - by Matt Cutts
The secret project to crush IE and remake the Web - Wired
More links

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