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Google Chrome Fast, Stable, a Bit Tricky to Use

September 14, 2008

By Troy Wolverton

Chrome, Google’s shiny new Web browser, has some eye-catching features, but I’m not ready to trade in Firefox for it.

I downloaded Chrome last week, when it first became available. I haven’t run any benchmark tests on it, but my impression is that it’s generally about as fast as Firefox, which is my everyday browser. However, I had a hard time figuring out how to do simple tasks like printing in Chrome, found it more difficult to search sites other than Google and was frustrated that I can’t yet use it on my Mac at home.

The big difference you notice with Chrome right away is that it doesn’t look like Firefox – or any other Web browser. It doesn’t have a menu bar, and there’s no way to add one to it.

Instead, at the top of the Chrome program window, you’ll find the browser “tabs” for each Web page you have open. In order to change Chrome’s settings, print the page you’re on or clear your cache, you have to click on one of two icons located near the location bar.

As Google developers describe it, their idea was to emphasize the “content” that you’d access through Chrome, not the browser program or its features. They thought the best way to do that was to keep Chrome’s interface – the buttons, options and icons – to a minimum.

The problem is that a minimal interface makes it difficult to figure out how get the browser to do what you want it to. In Firefox, if I want to, say, create some folders for my bookmarks, I go to the “bookmarks” menu option and click on “organize bookmarks.” Easy enough.

In Chrome, though, it’s not so clear. There’s an “other bookmarks” button, but clicking on it gives you your list of bookmarks. Through trial and error I finally figured out that I needed to right click on one of the buttons in my bookmark toolbar and select “add page” or “add folder.”

I mistakenly clicked on “open all bookmarks” – the top choice when you right click – resulting in dozens of browser tabs being opened at once. The good news is that I was able to close all those tabs without either Chrome or my computer crashing.

Other commands that are easy to find in the menu bars of Internet Explorer or Firefox are similarly difficult to uncover in Chrome. If I want to view the underlying code of a page, for instance, do I click on the “page” icon, the “settings” icon or right click on the page? (Answer: right click – although you find the same command buried in a submenu under the page icon.)

The minimal interface also means that instead of having both an address and a search bar, Chrome has combined the two. So, if you want to search Google, you type in a keyword into the same area you’d type in a Web address.

Google is Chrome’s default search engine, but the program asks when you are installing it if you want to choose a different one. You can also set a different default search after you have the program up and running by tweaking its settings.

Additionally, Chrome helps you use search engines built into other pages. To search for William Shatner’s entry in the Internet Movie Database, for instance, you’d type in IMDB’s address, then hit tab and type in “William Shatner.”

In Firefox – and in the new Internet Explorer – you can add a whole slew of different search engines to your search box. When searching a particular site, instead of having to type that site’s address, you simply select the one you want.

Chrome also lacks a progress bar. So, unlike with IE or Firefox, you don’t have any sense of how much of a Web page you’ve already downloaded – or how much more you have left to go.

Another shortcoming of Chrome is that it currently runs only on a Windows operating system, though Mac and Linux versions are in the works.

But despite its shortcomings, Chrome has some features I really like. It seems as fast as – and more stable than – Firefox. I’ve noticed that Firefox can choke on Javascript, the coding language widely used to add buttons or other interactive elements to Web pages, and never completely load particular pages.

Chrome’s Javascript engine was designed from the ground up to run faster than other engines and in a way that doesn’t stop the browser from working if the Javascript engine gets hung up on something.

I love tabbed browsing, and often have half a dozen or more tabs open at once. But having so many tabs open can slow down your browser. And sometimes a coding error or script problem will bring your entire system to a crawl.

With Firefox, you generally have to guess which tab is causing the problems. Not so with Chrome. It has a “task manager” similar to the one for Windows that allows you to see how much memory or processor capacity each tab or plug-in is consuming and to shut down the ones gobbling up too much of your computer’s resources.

That’s something I wish I could do in Firefox, especially when it’s about to crash.

Originally published by San Jose Mercury News.

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