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Google released its from-scratch open source web browser today called Chrome. The various articles and specs abounding the web seemed to be promising. Intrigued I took it for a test ride. 

Installation was a breeze. Coming from a Unix background I make prodigious use of the keyboard and one of them is to use the Run… option available in the start menu of Microsoft Windows. I am habituated to launching applications by typing in the names of their executable files in this little box that appears when you press the Windows key + R key combination. Chrome disappointed a bit here. I tried launching it by the name of its executable file, which by the way is ‘chrome.exe’, but unfortunately Windows complained saying nothing with that name was found. Well IE and FF both can be launched this way and no extra tweaking is necessary. It would be good if Google would make sure to add the path to the Chrome executable to the system path. Anyway, I had to launch it from the Start menu option. No big deal of course.

The browser launched in a jiffy. It was so quick to launch that one would have thought that it was just a dormant process that was minized to the taskbar that just maximized itself. To make sure I closed the browser and checked the task manager to see whether anything was there. Nothing. Good. I launched the browser again and it was just there. Very very quick. I compared it to the launch times of IE and FF on my machine and it surely beat both of them hands down. Good going Google.

Even though the browser opens with a single tab (this setting can be changed), two processes by the name of ‘chrome.exe’ are created. You can verify this by looking at the Task Manager. This is due to the way Google Chrome handles tabs. One of these processes is for the browser application as a whole and the other one is for the default tab that opens with it. This brings me to the really nice and handy feature called the Chrome Task manager. The architecture of Chrome is such that it handles each and every tab in a separate process. All these processes are listed in the Chrome Task manager. Usually the number of processes listed in the task manager is the number of tabs open in the browser plus 1 for the browser process itself. Also if any plug-ins were loaded these are also listed as different processes. The operating system process manager would however register processes that equal the number of open tabs plus one for the browser. The different processes that are launched for the plug-ins have the scope of the tab in which they are opened. All pop-ups also are also contained in a tab. With a browser running, if another instance of Chrome is launched from the Start menu, it registers as a separate process in the OS task manager, but as a new tab in the Chrome task manager. There is one thing though. After running the browser for some time a process called GoogleUpdate.exe starts running. This process does not show up in the Chrome Task Manager. From what I understand, this process is responsible for updates to the security and privacy features of the browser like anti-phishing. Through the Chrome task manager a user can view the resource utilization of every open tab and also the loaded plug-ins. If a tab or plug-in is seen to be hogging a lot of resources, it can be killed from this task manager. The isolated process architecture of Chrome spawns individual tabs as separate processes. So if a single tab crashes, it will not affect the other tabs and can be killed from the Chrome task manager or the operating system’s process monitor. If the browser process crashes and has to be focibly closed, a subsequent launch does offer the option of restoring the tabs that were open before the crash.

Chrome offers a lot of features. Of course these are also available in FF, IE and Safari but Chrome adds little twists to them. The private browsing mode for instance. When a private browsing window is opened it is immediately distinguishable by the different shade of blue that it uses and the icon of a detective at the top left corner. This is quite a nice improvement. At least on Safari you would have to check the menu to see whether you are in private browsing mode or not. When the browser is launched, it opens up a page (the default setting by the way) that shows up the recently visited web sites and also a search box to search the browser history. There is a slight digression from the normal practice of having a bookmarks menu though. In Chrome the bookmarks are only accessible via the bookmarks toolbar. I do not use bookmarks that much so I cannot really comment on how much this change would affect users who depend a whole lot on them. That having said, Chrome does offer features to search and manager bookmarks like other major browsers. There was another feature that I found missing in Chrome. Usually you can set the browser to show a blank page on launching. In Chrome apparently there is no such option available. The only way that I could do that was to add a custom page called ‘about:blank’ in the setting for this. This showed up a tab containing blank page each time the browser was launched. However, if you open a new tab, the recent history page shows up with all the data in it. I have not found out a way of stopping this from happening and I do not think one exists. If it really does not exist Google should think of putting one in. After all not everyone would like to launch a tab that lists all their recent activities. 😉

The address bar, called the Omnibar, doubles up as a search box. The default search engine is obviously Google, though there are options to change this. The address bar has auto complete enabled and the options that are shown are definitely more relevant than what I get in FF. For bookmarking, Chrome offers a simple star icon by the side of the Omnibar. Clicking this button bookmarks the current page. Also if a bookmarked page is visited in future, the star icon shows up in yellow color.

Other features include:

  • Detailed report of memory and process usage through the ‘Stats for nerds’ link in the Chrome task manager
  • Integrated Google gears, no separate download or installation required
  • Window controls on every tab making it possible for developers to inject specific window behavior that would not be overridden by the browser
  • A download history window
  • JavaScript console
  • JavaScript debugging
  • Bookmark management
  • History management
  • Import/export of bookmarks

The real preceptible difference is in how the browser performs. It sure is fast. The fastest browser that I have used till date is Apple’s Safari. But it had its own quirks. Chrome is really fast. Probably even faster than Safari. Even though I do not have any data to corroborate this, it sure feels to be so. Web pages loaded with a speed that I have never experienced with other browsers. The pleasure of browsing is palpable in Chrome. Gmail was fantastically responsive. The V8 JavaScript virtual machine seems to be doing a brilliant job. 

Having said that there are still a few features that I would like to have in Chrome:

  • Search as you type
  • RSS aggregator and news reader
  • Integrated universal chat client for the major protocols
  • Integrated blogging tools

These features would surely make Chrome the Swiss army knife of browsers. And since its from Google, it sure is possible.

There have been lots of discussions saying that Chrome would affect the user base of Mozilla Firefox more than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. But I am not very convinced with this argument. A present IE user, even if he/she wants to switch to a new browser has Firefox as the only alternative (Opera devotees might take offence to this, but I think Firefox is a whole lot more popular than it). So if this user does not like it (for whatever reasons) he/she might not make the switch. Now though they would have not one, but two very viable alternatives in Firefox and Chrome (not discounting Safari or Opera).

Exciting times lie ahead of us in the browser sphere. Chrome definitely has the potential of changing the rules of the game and I sincerely hope that even if does not do so itself, it engenders a new breed of browsers.

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