/ 22 September 2008

What you need to know about Chrome

Google’s new Chrome web browser is being hailed as a game-changer.

It’s fast, has a clean interface, some snazzy features that other web browsers don’t have, and, well, it’s free and it’s from Google.

Does that mean you should download it right now and spend the time to learn it? If you like new technology, the answer is: sure.

But if you need to be assured of some pay-off in new technology before you invest time in it, you might rightly want some questions answered before you switch. Here are a few.

Why did Google create a web browser?
The company line is that today’s web browsers — Internet Explorer (IE) and Firefox chief among them — were built at a time when most of what people did on the web was view static web pages.

Now, Google says, folks want to do all sorts of things on the web: play games, balance their cheque books, upload and watch elaborate multimedia presentations, even compose documents or create spreadsheets. The major web browsers, Google’s management and developers say, have been slow to keep pace with what users are demanding of the internet.

Google’s answer to this was to create a brand-new web browser built from the ground up using the latest technologies and technological innovations. And the goal was to build this new browser as an open-source model, meaning that developers from around the world will have access to the inner workings of the code so that add-ons, extensions, and improvements can be made by the worldwide community of developers.

Google believes that with this platform, developers will be able to build the next generation of web applications.

Holding the reigns of this initiative, of course, gives Google tremendous power should the browser come to dominate, and there’s clearly plenty of ways the company can exploit that for its own purposes. Chrome, for example, was built in part to handle the JavaScript programming language better than do current browsers.

Google’s own online office programs — dubbed Google Docs — use JavaScript heavily, and these programs may one day be in direct competition with Microsoft’s lucrative Office platform.

How is Chrome different from IE and Firefox?
Chrome is different in quite a few ways. It looks different, first of all. The interface is virtually bereft of the clutter that accompanies other browsers. There’s no menu bar in Chrome, nor is there a tool bar or status bar. The content area of the browser is larger than that of any other browser you’ve likely seen. Expand the browser to full screen, and websites essentially fill most of your desktop.

The area occupied by the address bar in other browsers — the place you can type or see the URL or web address of the page you’re viewing — acts as a search field in Chrome. So you don’t specifically need to visit a search-engine site to conduct a search. Once you land on a web page, however, the web address is shown in the same area where you conducted the search.

To customise the browser, you click a wrench icon to the right of the address bar. A page icon appears just before the wrench icon. Click that, and you’ll see a drop-down menu with all of the page-level options, including launching a new tab, searching, zooming and printing.

Chrome launches faster than IE or Firefox. Performance while you’re working with particular websites seems about the same. On the downside, Chrome’s bookmark feature is not nearly as robust as either IE’s or Firefox’s — there doesn’t even appear to be a way to access the bookmarks using the keyboard alone.

Chrome, like Firefox, also allows Flash-heavy pages, such as those on YouTube, to consume a significant amount of processing power, slowing your overall system performance.

The upcoming version of IE — version 8 — is much better in this regard.

Does Chrome have any features that are unique?
Yes, a new ”incognito” mode allows you to switch — with one click — to a stealth mode that does not record your movements on the web. No trace of the sites you visit or the files you download are stored, as they are with other browsers. All cookies are deleted after you exit incognito mode.

Google says this mode is great for planning surprises, such as gifts or birthdays. The mode will not free you from being identifiable by websites you visit, however. Your IP address — and ultimately your identity — could still be determined by websites.

Does Google promote its own search engine and products through Chrome?
No. The first time you use Chrome, you’ll see a cursor appear in the same area that on other web browsers is the address bar, but in Chrome it’s the search field. If you conduct a search right away, you’ll be using the Google search engine, but you can easily change which search tool you use by opening the Options panel and selecting a new default search provider.

No other Google products are advertised on or seen within Chrome. Whether that continues remains to be seen.

Is Chrome stable?
Chrome is still in beta — it’s not even at 1.0 yet. But Google reportedly ran a stress test on Chrome by loading and testing the one million web pages that users are most likely to surf, and Chrome in its current form passed the test. Expect Chrome to receive many updates going forward, however. Luckily, if you choose to adopt Chrome, updating the browser is a two-click affair.

Will Chrome interfere with my main browser, Internet Explorer?
No. Chrome will not affect the performance of any other browser on your computer, nor will it attempt to make itself the default web browser. If you want it to be the default web browser, you’ll have to open the Options panel and click the button that is labelled ”Make Google Chrome my default browser”. Chrome won’t even pop up messages saying
”Do you want to make Chrome your default browser?”.

I heard that Chrome tracks my usage habits. Is this true?
There has been some concern about how much information about you is communicated through Chrome back to Google.

The controversy arose primarily because as you type a search term into the search field/address bar — called an Omnibox in Chrome — the browser talks to the currently selected search service to offer suggestions about what you might be searching for.

These suggestions appear below the search field, as you type. Yahoo! has been doing this for some time, and the Google search engine does it now as well, regardless of whether you use Chrome.

Google reportedly stores about 2% of the search requests that it tracks in order to be able to offer search suggestions based upon what you’re typing into the search field. Included in the information Google stores is the IP address of the machine from which the stored search requests came. Bowing to criticism, Google has just announced that it will anonymise the information within 24 hours after receiving it.

If you don’t want to take any chance that Chrome might be storing information about your search habits, you can turn off the automatic suggestion feature. Right-click the address bar/Omnibox in Chrome, and select Edit Search Engines. Remove the check mark next to ”Use a suggestion service”, and click OK.

Will Chrome run on the Mac?
Not unless the Mac is running Windows using Boot Camp, included with Leopard. Chrome will also not run under Linux currently.

Where can I get Chrome?
Download it for free from www.google.com/chrome.

— Sapa-dpa