Chances are good you’ve already heard the news but, in case you haven’t, Google recently released its own browser, Google Chrome. Naturally, the blogosphere is absolutely buzzing with feature mashups, performance comparisons, and more than a few conspiracy theories. I’ll digress with the more noteworthy points that you are better told by the front page of Digg and give you what you can only get here: My own first impressions of Chrome.
I’m an early adopter of pretty much anything Google-related, so naturally I had the Chrome page open through most of Tuesday waiting for the download to go live. The installation was surprisingly quick and painless. As others have noted, Chrome is very lightweight compared to other mainstream browsers, which is ironic when you consider that Internet Explorer is only getting fatter.
Shortly after download, I was prompted to select a default search engine. Even though it offers itself as the first option, Google was very smart to offer users a choice in search, as Internet Explorer was once bashed for failing to do so. Chrome also allows you to automatically import bookmarks, saved passwords, and other settings from other browsers, which was another unexpected plus.
Although it’s a deviation from what most users are used to, I found Chrome’s minimalist interface to be a breath of fresh air. Tabs are on top, there’s no title bar or extraneous menus, and the status bar at the bottom pops up only when it has something to report. It even disappears when you mouse over it so as not to interfere with browsing. Almost the entire screen is devoted to the web page.
This is a testament to Google’s design philosophy that Chrome should be a “shell for the web.” It seems like Chrome’s primary focus is to declutter. Instead of submenus and side bars, you open new windows for each task. For example, browsing history has become its own tab. This has the effect of making things very clean, which, in this age of information overload, is a welcome change.
Tabs are, of course, nothing new. They’ve been around for years, even long enough for Internet Explorer to grudgingly adopt them. Still, Chrome has managed to improve on an already good thing. Tabs are easily movable, with smooth, organic transitions. You can drag them around, or even out into their own windows and back. When you open a new one, you’re presented with a page of bookmarks and frequently-visited sites. So far, I’ve found the setup very intuitive and fun to work with.
My first thought on hearing that Google was releasing its own browser was, “Great, now cross browser compatibility will become an order of magnitude more difficult.” Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did Chrome pass all of the (admittedly elementary) CSS compliance tests I threw at it, but I have since come to find out that it’s built on the same rendering engine as Safari. Websites are difficult to hack for Internet Explorer as it is; thankfully, Google’s not making our jobs any harder in that area.
As with all initial user experiences, it’s the little things about Google Chrome that left a good impression. For example, in the address bar, the domain name is black and the rest of the URL is gray, causing it to pop out at you. This is a nice touch, since it lets you know what site you’re on. No doubt this feature was added as an anti-phishing enhancement, but it’s just plain nice to have in many contexts.
Another handy tidbit is Chrome’s Ctrl+F functionality. I’ve always been a fan of Firefox’s find box, but Chrome does an even better job by automatically highlighting all matches and even showing which match you’re on (i.e., “3 of 15”).
The Omnibox was, of course, just as useful as advertised. While typing in a friend’s name, it popped up the URLs of emails from him that I had previously opened. Seeing as his name was in neither the page title nor the URL itself, this goes to show how useful it can be. It’s literally a way to search everything you’ve browsed, among other things.
I’m a self-admitted Google fan boy, but even I managed to find a few problems. For example, some of the documents in the help section went to 404 pages shortly after launch. The same was true of several of the YouTube videos on the About Chrome site. Granted, these are minor quibbles, but I would’ve expected more from a company that has a proven track record for launching new products.
Also, much as Chrome handles tabs well otherwise, it fails when presented with large numbers of tabs. Firefox creates a scrolling list of tabs when it’s presented with too many to display, but Chrome continues to squish and truncate titles until there’s nothing left. This could have been done much better.
My last and perhaps most important criticism, however, is that there were no plugins available at launch. It’s an open source, extensible browser, right? Why not show us what we can expect from its plugin functionality? With Firefox, plugins aren’t an afterthought; they’re the main course. I look forward to seeing Chrome plugins in the future, but I was disappointed when I didn’t see so much as a teaser plugin at launch.
I’m an avid Firefox fan, but I’ll be switching to Google Chrome for most of my daily browsing needs. Of course, I’ll still be using Firefox for development-intensive activities until such time as plugins like the Web Developer Toolbar become available for Chrome. As always, I’ll be using Internet Explorer as little as possible (i.e., only for cross-browser compatibility testing and for the oddball website that refuses to display in any other browser).
Overall, for an initial public beta release, Chrome is incredibly polished. I look forward to seeing how Google and the world collaborate in improving an already outstanding browser. If you haven’t given it a try yet, you can download it at the Google Chrome website.