In-Depth

Chrome Might Get You Home

Google's new beta browser shows promise, but needs lots of filling out.

At Redmond, all Reader Reviews until now focused on finished products, most of those from Microsoft. This review is a big departure. Google's Chrome browser has so much potential to succeed wildly or fail miserably that we thought we'd take a look at the beta.

Many magazines and Web sites have already had single reviewers do their tests. We think there is a better way to review a product of this importance: We think Redmond readers should judge this beta tool, and so we talked with more than a dozen of you. Initial reactions to the beta, which shipped in September, ranged from "unbelievably fast" to "a real disappointment."

Vivek M. Chawla, a Microsoft Certified Professional who's written Web apps for the last 10 years, has a typical reaction: Chrome is not quite there yet. "Chrome is very stable, but there's a lack of polish during this beta period," Chawla says. He was also underwhelmed by the feature set: "Who knows, maybe Google is taking the 'minimalist' approach too far by severely under-powering things."

Reader Troy, an MCT from Illinois, has an opposite view. "This thing rocks!" he says. "I downloaded and installed Chrome as soon as it was available. I like it. I'm an IE and Firefox user, but I have to say that Microsoft and Mozilla need to watch their backs."

Keep in mind that all of these impressions are based on the first beta. And as Google Inc. itself is fond of saying, it "launches early and iterates often."

Installation
In talks with more than a dozen of you, installation was a snap -- just ask Stephen Anslow, senior database developer for Saddleback church in Lake Forest, Calif. "I wasn't asked to close anything and didn't have to reboot -- a huge plus," he says.

As part of the installation, Chrome will import your bookmarks, and again, this worked fine by all reports.

Not all are in love with the installation, though. "The installer stinks," complains Tim Riley, an IT manager at Peng Cheng Aluminum Enterprise Inc. "It's a user-based install that automatically dumps itself in the admin's application data folder. I like to run as a limited user, so this doesn't work well for me. Whether I tried installing as admin, or using 'Run As' while logged in as a limited user, it automatically -- and secretly -- placed the installation in the admin's application data folder, which I couldn't access or execute files from while logged in as a limited user. What I had to do to get it working the way I wanted was temporarily give myself admin rights, install Chrome, then de-admin myself. Why not give me a choice to install for 'this user' or 'all users' like most programs, or at least let me choose which folder I want to install the software in?"

"Chrome is very stable, but there's a lack of polish during this beta period."
Vivek M. Chawla, Microsoft Certified Professional

Favorite Features One of the main comments about Chrome is j
ust how sparse the interface is, and how few features it has compared to older browsers. But make no mistake; there are a few things in Chrome that have users tickled.

"My favorite feature is the thumbnails of the most recently visited pages. This lets you quickly get back to the site you last visited without having to trawl through the history list," says Roy Humphreys, a technical support analyst.

Seth King enjoys how it tracks performance. "I love the internal task manager with the 'Stats for nerds.' At work, we're currently doing some final performance testing before we implement production, and would love to use Chrome to help distinguish basic memory usage issues ... but my company is much too bureaucratic for useful tools to be downloaded willy-nilly," says King, an internet architect with the TSYS Technology Center Inc. "As an Internet application developer I really get off on the memory usage, multiprocess-oriented tabs and 'Inspect element' feature. It's great for analyzing what exactly ASP.NET is shipping down to the client."

The Task Manager also scores big points for usability.

"The Task Manager is awesome. I've typically got about 20 tabs open across multiple windows, and eventually one of them has a Flash component go nuts with the CPU. I love being able to kill the plug-in with the Chrome Task Manager without losing any tabs in the process. The worst thing that happens is reloading individual tabs," says Chawla.

While sparse, there are several areas of Chrome innovation. "One of the most innovative features of this product has to be the anonymous surfing, which deletes all cookies and cached pages relating to the browser session you had open. This is a really useful security feature and ensures your own safety when you don't want other people to check on what you've been doing," Humphreys says.

Usability
Many of the favorite features relate to usability, including the overall layout. "Chrome is quick and light with a default screen arrangement that makes it very intuitive to get around. I especially like the tabs above the address bar -- they give the impression of more real estate on the screen," says Troy from Illinois.

For reader Anslow, sparseness is goodness. "As it's very clear of clutter, you can get straight to browsing and searching without assimilating 'what's on this window?'" he says.

"As an Internet application developer I really get off on the memory usage, multiprocess-oriented tabs and 'Inspect element' feature. It's great for analyzing what exactly ASP.NET or any other framework is shipping down to the client."
Seth King, Internet Architect, TSYS Technology Center Inc.

Many others agree. "The minimalist UI of Chrome is absolutely fantastic. It was a bit hard to lose the status bar at first, but now that I'm used to the very natural, unobtrusive way that Chrome shows status bar info -- for example, the URL of a hyperlink I'm mousing over -- I can't imagine ever needing a status bar again," says Chawla.

And tabs, while not original to Chrome, are highly regarded for their implementation. "Tabs are brilliant in Chrome. The fact that I can tear a tab off and move it to its own window is wonderful," Chawla says.

Find is another plus for Chrome. "Chrome's CTRL+F find feature is just incredible. It makes IE's find feature look like the severely limited creature that it has been since the very first version of IE. Notepad uses the same find feature that IE does," says Chawla.

There are, however, plenty of interface glitches and shortcomings.

"I couldn't figure out how to get the bookmarks listing to be always open on the left side of the program as in IE and Firefox. When you have a widescreen display, there's plenty of room to have that open and still have horizontal space for viewing pages," says Jim Sutton, a network administrator for the Goochland County IT department.

"I did like the sparse layout so that more of the page shows in the browser, but it wasn't as big a difference as I thought it would be. Overall it's a nice browser, but as someone who works at a Web-design firm my main reaction is 'great, another browser to test against,'" says reader Cameron Huff.

"Their approaches to security, processes and even compilation of JavaScript are all innovative and it shows. It seems rather solid for a beta," says Robin Jackson, a Chrome fan. "I love it."

Conspiracy Theories
When one vendor's tools fail to work with the competition, conspiracy theories quickly emerge. In Chrome's case, there are some unusual problems, but because it's a beta, one can't say that shenanigans are afoot. Here are some of the more interesting findings.

Reader Anslow found a range of sites that Chrome failed to handle. "MSN pages load horribly slowly. I also went to a Community Server-driven Web site in IE and couldn't get in, but switched to Chrome and voila! Session issues in IE were the problem -- no such problem in Chrome. My feeling is that it will be very site-dependent as to whether Chrome will outrun IE, but there are some sites that are DOA with Chrome, and that's a shame," says Anslow.

Curiously, Chrome is more compatible with Microsoft than IE. "I have both IE and Chrome installed. Frequently, when I'm downloading software from Microsoft.com using IE, it just spins and spins and doesn't download. But when I use Chrome, it connects and downloads right away. It's ironic considering it's Microsoft's own Web site," says Casey Wood, a senior network engineer at University Health System in San Antonio, Texas.

A network admin who asked not to be named had an interesting experience. "I have Vista on my home computer and IE is practically unusable, it crashes so much," explains this self-described Microsoft fan who is leery of Google. Meanwhile, Chrome "is working well for me and is unbelievably fast."

David Feldman had the opposite problem. "I tried Chrome on Vista Business and got an execution error. It loaded the interface but I couldn't load any pages," says Feldman, a systems analyst with service provider Fiserv Inc., based in Brookfield, Wis.

There were other Microsoft gotchas. "One of my home pages is a Microsoft personalized Live page. I could log into my Live account, but the personalized pages would not display -- it always went to the Live search screen no matter what I did," says Jim Sutton.

IE doesn't always like Chrome either. "I'll tell you a funny one: I'm also testing IE8 beta 2 and tried to use it to download Chrome, but it was a no-go, not even in compatibility mode. I had to use Firefox," says MCT Troy.

Figure 1

Extensibility
Firefox, with its add-ins, may have set the mark for extensibility, and here Chrome has a way to go, even in terms of supporting Google's own items. "The lack of a Google Toolbar really reduces usability where any fill-in may be required. This is probably the worst failure-to-deliver in the beta," says Anslow.

Add-ins are another shortcoming. "My only complaint is that I haven't found 'Add-Ins' like those in Firefox. From a user perspective, I'd say I still like Firefox better, but as a developer I'm quickly shedding my ties to all other browsers," says TSYS Technology Center's King.

Autonomous Tabs
Despite the hype, autonomous tabs -- where each tab runs as separate and protected process -- aren't ready for prime time, users say.

"I have two Gmail accounts. Firefox only allows me to have one open at a time. I open them both, but when I access one account, the other one automatically gets signed out," says reader Earl Moniz, a network admin with the U.S. Army. "I concluded that because the tabs weren't synched together in any way, I could open both Gmail accounts and access them without one getting logged out. Perhaps only one may run from any single machine? Not the case: I opened one in Firefox and the other in Chrome and both may be accessed without knocking the other offline."

Readers Recommend
Chrome is still in beta, which is a good thing: You still have a chance to get your ideas heard. Here are some of the things Redmond readers are looking for.

"Reload All Tabs -- or Refresh All, in IE talk -- is missing. If your Internet connection goes off briefly, and you have, say, 19 tabs open, you'll have to refresh each page one at a time," says Oladipo Ademola, a reader with Intelligent Business Solutions in Lagos, Nigeria.

"Some time ago, someone speculated that it would be 'killer' to integrate 'Search' with 'Find on Page' -- how about that, Google?" pleads Anslow.

Another of Anslow's wish list items is form fill-ins: "How about secure auto-fill so I don't have to sigh in exasperation every time I need to type a URL, UserID or password when away from my normal machine?" he suggests.

Other users, including Kevin Culver, who is vice president of operations for Machalek Communications Inc., want "the address bar drop-down of typed-in history. I miss that."

Performance
The buzz about Chrome is that it's fast. And despite the fact that it uses lots of processing, most find the speed claims true. "Everyone I've talked to loves Chrome for just one reason: it's fast, darn fast. It totally changes how you browse. Instead of keeping tabs open, you can just move on because you know that they'll open again really fast," says Jim Donelson, with software vendor iS3 Inc.

"Chrome is fast. Web apps like Gmail run faster and smoother in Chrome than either Firefox or IE. AJAX-heavy sites like Digg run much faster under Chrome than IE," says Chawla.

Not all give it high marks for speed, however. "I gave Chrome a whirl and I've been kind of puzzled by the number of people that say it's so much faster than other browsers. I did a side-by-side comparison on three of our own sites that are kind of slow and I didn't see any appreciable difference in performance between Firefox 3, IE7 and Chrome," says Huff.

Chrome seems to fit the mode of an old-style, rich-client app. "Chrome constantly chewed my processor. Not more and more processor, mind you, but I could count on the various instances to ultimately take more processor for the same number of tabs and windows as Firefox. There was constant chatter on my hard drive that I could always attribute to Chrome. Killing Chrome stopped the chatter every time," says Machalek Communications's Culver.

Lessons Learned
Firefox and now Chrome are exposing some Microsoft browser weaknesses. And if Chrome can steal market share, Microsoft's image is harmed.

"The few minor problems are nothing compared to IE. Of course there are problems -- it's marked 'beta' -- but after at least 4 'major' releases of IE over the course of a decade, Microsoft should hang its head," says Donelson. "When you consider the resources Microsoft has to bring to bear, which are for the most part unlimited, I really wonder what goes on there," he adds.

Chrome could be a game-changer, especially if it proves to support Web apps and services in a superior manner. "Extensibility and true behavior in each tab will make it stand out as a more reliable browser," Anslow argues.

But many readers warn that Google must tread lightly on user privacy. "My biggest concern is what Chrome is doing under the covers to track activity and report back to Google. Call me paranoid, but ... " says Sutton.

Russ Hall, president of Perfect Security LLC in Hastings, Neb., agrees: "My greatest concern about Chrome is the amount and type of information about me that the program will send to the Google advertising database. It bothers me that they store all my searches, want to know who's in my photos and want to serve up all my ads. But do they also have to know every Web site I visit?" Hall asks.

Generally speaking, Redmond readers are positive about the Chrome beta. Granted, there are still some bugs to be hunted down and some improvements to be implemented, but it looks like Google may be on the right track.

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