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My Thoughts On Chrome

Posted by | Posted in Geek Stuff | Posted on 19-09-2008

…but beware it carries a terrible curse! … Oh, that’s bad!… But it comes with a free frogurt!… That’s good!… But the frogurt is also cursed… That’s bad… But you get you’re choice of toppings!… That’s good!… But the toppings contain pottasium benzoate…

I’m a bit of a techy person when it comes to computers and the internet, so like every other Google fanboi, I downloaded Google Chrome and have since been using it on a daily basis. I still have to use Firefox 3 at work (which is no bad thing, of course) but at home I’m free to browse the endless pits of the web with Google’s new baby. So what do I think of it then?

If any of you have been keeping up to date with it, you’ll probably know that there have been so many reviews of it already it’s not even funny. So I’m going to add my own two cents into the mix. Firstly, the good stuff.

It looks nice. Although the look of a browser isn’t exactly important, I have found that Firfox isn’t the prettiest browser. In fact, it’s probably one of the worst-looking browsers out there. On Windows Vista it looks quite nice, but on Windows 2000 and XP it looks like a typical Windows 98 application. Naturally, within a day of release, someone (or a few people actually) released a Google Chrome theme for Firefox, to make Firefox look like Chrome, if that’s your cup of tea. Personally I try not to install any excess themes or plugins for Firefox that aren’t necessary.

Chrome also has a simple user interface. To coincide with the nice shiny look of the browser, it also simplifies things massively by having the bare minimum of “things” on the user interface. But a lot of the good points about Chrome probably wouldn’t even be noticed by many people. First and foremost, the sheer speed of the thing defies belief. I try never to buy into the hype of a new technology/gadget/thing-me-bob if I can help it, and so when people were conducting speed tests for Chrome and reporting about how much quicker it was, I didn’t really believe them. But alas, after having used it for a couple of weeks now, I can say that it is. Especially (as totally unsurprising as it sounds) with Google services like iGoogle and Gmail. This is partly down to minimul code used to write the application, but mainly because of the new Javascript engine (V8), written by some of Google’s guys in Sweden.

I’ve also noticed that the RAM usage when using Chrome for long periods of time isn’t nearly as high as it is with Firefox. IE always performed fairly well in RAM usage tests, but Firefox has traditionally been dreadful. But it was a refreshing change to come home after work and find that my PC wasn’t giving me memory usage errors because Firefox had been left open for 10 hours. Which is never a good sign when you’ve got 4Gb of RAM in your machine.*

There are other supposed good points about Chrome, but I’ll file them under ‘bad points’, as explained forthwith.

Each tab is a separate process thread. The idea behind this concept is that, in the same way each open program you use on your desktop is considered by the OS as a seperate entity, each tab you have open in Chrome is also considered a seperate entity. The idea being that if one tab were to load a webpage it didn’t like and decided to have a paddy, it wouldn’t affect the other tabs and you could close the bad tab and continue using the others, without Chrome going completely tits up.

What a load of garbage. Perhaps in some very minor set of circumstances it might work that way, but in a fortnight of occasional crashes, not once have I been able to continue using the other tabs after one has crashed. The whole program crashes, nomatter how many (or few) tabs I have open. Thankfully, Chrome makes use of one of Firefox’s best features – the session restore. So even though the browser crashes, when you next open it up you can choose to have all your websites and tabs opened up again as well.

Marketing hype. You’ll hear many a Google tech guy say that Chrome is “not just a browser, its a full-blown platform for running online applications”. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the internet is fast becoming home to web applications that are almost as complex as common desktop applications, but since when have the other browsers not been able to cope with that? To me, that just sounds like a load of marketing fluff. They’re all platforms for running web applications. That’s what a browser is. They’re all limited to displaying HTML, nomatter how fancy the server-side scripts or Adobe Air apps are. Every online app is limited to the scope of the browser (and the installed plugins it comes with) and so in that respect, Chrome is no different to other “normal” browsers.

Maybe it’s all a prelude to something bigger. There are rumours that Google wants to take away some of the responsibility of running online web apps away from the computer’s OS, and give it to the browser itself, making the OS that little bit more redundant. If that were to happen, then Chrome would certainly become more than a mere browser. However, the nature of the software industry generally dictates that as software versions progress, more features are aded to that product, not less. So can we see Microsoft deciding not to include Internet Explorer as part of Windows, simply because the responsibility for web browsing “shouldn’t” be part of the OS’s job description? Hell no. It’ll be a battle to the death with that one. And of course, Microsoft will simply include their own copycat features into later versions of IE, so that even if browsers do take away some of the internet-related punch of the OS, Windows will still be shipped with a browser that does what Microsoft wants it to anyway.

The Omnibar. OK, so another nifty little feature of Chrome is the all-seeing, all-knowing Omnibar. It’s basically an amalgamation of the Address Bar and the Search Bar, which browsers typically have as two seperate items on the interface. What it does is allow the user to enter both web addresses and search terms into the same place, saving valuable screen real-estate. But how is that any different from what’s available already? You can type in a search term into IE or Firefox’s Address Bar, and if it doesn’t recognize the characters as being part of a web address, it’ll assume you were typing in a search term and it’ll search the default search engine for results. Granted, the search engines will be different for each browser, and you can specify the search engine to use explicitly if you use the Search Bar, but does it really matter?

IE will search Windows Live Search by default because Live Search is Microsoft’s own search engine; and Opera and Firefox will use Google by default because Google funds their organisations in return for having the browsers use Google’s search engine by default.

But whichever you use, you’ll always get decent results, even if you type search terms into the Address Bar. So while it’s certainly a good idea that Chrome removes the unnecessary Search Bar, it’s not exactly providing anything that hasn’t been provided before. And yes, you can specifiy which search engine Google Chrome’s Omnibar uses.

Extensions, themes, plugins and add-ons. Being an open source project, Firefox has had a steadily increasing fanbase since it was introduced. That means it’s also had a growing repository of very nice little addons and themes for users to download and install. These give Firefox a new look, or provide it with new functionality, depending on the theme or add-on that you install.

Google Chrome is also an open source project, and developers can get stuck right in and have a look at what makes it tick, but so far, it doesn’t support plugins or add-ons of any kind. There are websites out there that have circumvented that issue (after all, if developers can manipulate the free code, they can change it any way they see fit) and so people are developing add-ons for Chrome, but they’re all unofficial. That’s likely to change as Chrome moves out of it’s beta stage, and it wont be soon enough. Firefox already has a massive collection of add-ons that people can’t live without, and so if Chrome wants to keep up, it had better come up with the goods. Top priority for many people is a Chrome equivelent of AdBlock.

I know that there seems to be a lot of good and bad points (and most of the bad aren’t really bad at all) but remember that Chrome is still in it’s beta phase, and if Gmail is anything to go by, it’ll be in beta for at least four years. (I doubt that that will actually happen, considering how fast the browser market is moving at the moment).

So if you’ve got Windows XP or Vista, why not give it a go. I like the browser as a whole, and as it makes use of the same WebKit HTML rendering engine as Safari, it wont introduce yet another set of quirks that us Web Developers need to design for.

Oh and by the way, if like many others, you dont like the new Facebook layout, there’s a way to switch it back to the old-skool. I’m not sure how long that method will work for, especially as I’m writing this article days before it’s being published, so make the most of it while you can!

* Actually, that’s a lie – I’ve never had a memory usage error because of Firefox. But it made my point, though, so sue me!

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