All about Google Chrome & Google Chrome OS

11 Nov 11 Google Chrome 15

As it increases in popularity, Google Chrome is becoming more and more a conduit for Google services. With this release, Chrome 15, the Internet search leader has changed just one user-facing feature—the new tab page, which has been tweaked to give more prominence to the Chrome Web app store. Though this isn’t a huge improvement, Chrome remains your best Web browser, thanks to blazing speed, and ground-breaking features.  It boasts unique features like Chrome Instant, built-in Flash and PDF display, leading Web standards support, and a minimalist application window that lets Web pages shine unimpeded.

Despite the lack of exciting new eye candy or super-duper capabilities in Chrome 15, the competition–Firefox 7 (Free, 4 stars), Internet Explorer (Free, 4 stars), Safari 5.1 (Free, 4 stars), and Opera 11.50 (Free, 4 stars)–still struggles to equal Chrome’s sparse user interface and speedy operation. For this, Google Chrome remains our Editors’ Choice. Its recent expansion of graphics hardware acceleration, which previously trailed that in Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox, renders Chrome’s performance unrivaled on all scores.

Previous releases have brought major new features, such as bookmark syncing, a bookmark manager, a built-in PDF reader, and extensions, though others have just added speed, stability, and new standards support. The remarkable Chrome Instant loads pages before you even finish typing their addresses or titles. And in an homage to IE9, Chrome now includes graphics hardware acceleration. Its fine design, compatibility, and especially the speed have impressed the Web community enough to make Chrome the fastest growing browser in terms of market share. On this measure, it’s nearing 25 percent, and poised to overtake Firefox as the number two browser. Let’s take a look at what makes this browser so special.

Swift Setup
Even the setup process shows Chrome’s commitment to speed: Just click the Install button on the Chrome Web page, and you’ll have the browser up and running in less than a minute, with no wizard to go through and no system restart. The browser’s available for Mac OS X and Linux, as well as Windows. In each platform the browser’s up and running before you realize it, and it updates itself automatically in the background.

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Google Chrome 15

New new-tab page notice

Chrome's New-Tab Page

Chrome on Mac OS X Lion: Scrollbar

Chrome Instant Pages
Not to be confused with Chrome Instant (see below) or Google Instant (which works on all browser to load Google search results as you type), Chrome Instant Pages requires both Chrome and a site that supports the feature. Of the latter, there is now just one important one: Google Search. The idea is that when you perform a search in Google, the browser will pre-load the page for the result link you’re most likely to click on.

In several tests on a slower Wi-Fi connection, however, I only noticed an occasional improvement for simple pages. It seemed only to work for the first result link. Heavy multimedia sites still took their time to load. On a very fast wired connection, some page result were extremely fast, but in that case, you don’t really benefit from pre-loading. I saw a definitely faster load for than in Opera on the same connection. The idea makes a lot of sense though, particularly for multipage articles, where it’s most likely that the next link you’ll hit is the one labeled “Next.”

The only drawback: If the site guesses your next click wrong, page load could be slower than without Instant Pages, and you’ll have wasted bandwidth loading a page you never visited. But this is a technique that’s been done using JavaScript or HTML and CSS for years, so I’m not sure why we need a browser-specific solution to preloading pages, but Instant Pages does have the ability to load outside sites, rather than just pages of your own. If you don’t like the idea of your browser loading pages before you click on a link, you can turn off the feature in the Under the Hood section of Options (accessible from the wrench icon), and uncheck “Predict network actions to improve page load performance.”

Built-in Flash and PDF Support
Chrome is the only browser to come with Adobe Flash built in, rather than requiring a separate (and annoying) installation. And not having to perform the frequent required updates of the Flash plugin separately is another boon—it updates automatically with the browser. With version 10, many of the security issues with Flash (famously bemoaned by Apple’s Steve Jobs) went away, thanks to running the plugin in an isolated sandbox so that it doesn’t have access to critical system areas. But note that this sandboxing only applies to the Windows 7 and Vista versions of Chrome at this point.

Chrome boasts a PDF reader as well, so you don’t have to worry about installing any Adobe plugins for viewing specialized Web content. When you load a PDF, an intuitive toolbar shows when your mouse cursor is in the southeast vicinity of the browser window. From this, you can have the document fill the width of the window, show a full page, or zoom in and out. By default, you can select text for cutting and pasting, but I couldn’t copy and paste images. You can print the PDF as you would any Web page.

Chrome’s PDF viewer not only does what its name implies, but also serves as a print preview feature. Unlike IE’s print preview, Chrome’s shows up in a tab rather than its own window. But you have to go through it to print: In IE, I can just click the printer icon to send a page to the printer if I don’t want to fuss with settings. I could choose between color and BW, portrait and landscape, and choose the target printer, or print to PDF.

An Advanced button got me into the printer’s own settings dialog, but this dismissed the print preview, making me have to choose Print from the menu again. But Chrome didn’t let me choose a zoom percentage for the printout as Firefox and IE did, nor did it let me turn page headers on and off or choose margin sizes in a Page Setup dialog as those two did. So Chrome’s print preview is a decent start, but it’s still a bit behind the competition.

Minimalism has been a hallmark of Chrome since its first beta release. Tabs are above everything, and the only row below them holds the combined search/address bar, or “Omnibox.” Here you can type any part of an address or page title, and the most likely site candidates will be presented in a dropdown. Optionally you can display bookmark links in a row below this. And the control buttons on the top-right of the browser window have been reduced to the absolute minimum—just one.

Google has removed the Page icon and placed some of its functions under the Wrench choice. Some Page options have been combined into buttons on one line in the menu, such as Cut, Copy, and Paste. I like what Google’s done with the Zoom choice on the menu, adding plus and minus buttons that save you from having to fly out another submenu.

Another theme in the Chrome interface is that everything looks like a Web page, displaying in the main browser window, rather than in separate dialog boxes. This includes the interfaces for History, Extensions, and Bookmarks. With version 10 the Settings page got this same treatment.

Mac users haven’t been overlooked in the interface department, either. The browser now supports OS X Lion’s full screen view, along with overlay scrollbars that only appear when you’re scrolling. Other more minor characteristics of the OS X “Aqua” style give Chrome on the Mac a more Mac-y appearance.

Chrome Instant
This is one of the niftiest things added to Chrome in a while. Start typing a Web address in the Omnibox, and before you’re even done, a page from your history or a search result page is displayed below in the main browser window. I just type “PC,” and is already loaded. The idea was first implemented in Google search’s Instant feature, but I think it’s even more useful in the browser than in search, where I usually ignore it and finish typing my query anyway: Most sites we visit, we’ve visited before, so having them ready to go before you even finish typing is a big speeder-upper.

Chrome can also boast a less visible and less touted way of speeding up browser: it supports SPDY, an HTTP replacement that compresses header data and allows persistent connections between server and browsers. It turns out that some Google sites are already using SPDY when you browse with Chrome. As with Instant Pages, the technology is available to other Web publishers to implement, but again, Google itself is the most important player to support it.

Chrome also still sports excellent tab implementation. Tabs are prominent at the top of the browser window, and you can drag them out to the desktop to create independent windows (and drag them back in later) or split them side by side à la Windows 7 Aero Snap.

Google has put considerable thought into Chrome’s new tab page, which shows links to your most-visited pages, Web apps, and recently closed tabs. In Chrome 15, the new-tab page gets a redesign, emphasizing Google’s Chrome Web Store of browser-based applications—really customized Web sites that have more access to your system, such as more local storage. The new look offers two thin bars at the bottom that let you switch between Apps (showing large icons) and Most visited (showing eight thumbnails of the pages).

You can also switch between Apps and Most Visited by clicking large arrows at either side of the page. The new look may confuse some, who may wonder where there favorite sites have gone—you can no longer pin sites to the page, as you can in Opera or Internet Explorer. But you can pin a site up in the tab bar, and a corner X lets you remove a thumbnail from the Most visited view. To the right of these is a Recently Closed “dropdown” arrow, which actually pops up a clear list of closed tabs. 

If you’ve synced Chrome on different computers (see below), the Apps section with be the same on all. Any apps you’ve added on a Chrome OS machine will also appear in the browser on any other computer you log into Chrome on, and vice versa. To remove an app, you drag it to the lower right of the window, where you can imagine a trash can icon.

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