September 11, 2008


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When in Chrome...
First impressions on Google’s browser
By John “jaQ” Andrews

Hate Internet Explorer? Can’t get used to Mozilla Firefox? Boy, does Google have a browser for you.

Boasting advanced memory management, a streamlined interface and the caché of the Internet’s grooviest search company, Google Chrome doesn’t necessarily want to supplant your other browsers. Google says it’s putting ideas out there, in the form of open source beta code, that it hopes other browsers will adopt. Plenty of time for that; let’s nitpick!

For the most part, Chrome worked smoothly for me. The problems with past alternative browsers have mostly come from trying to render unfamiliar pages, especially those with non-standard HTML code that only worked in Internet Explorer. Firefox rarely has this problem, and Chrome doesn’t either. Whether that’s because more Web sites these days are adhering to standards or because Mozilla and Google are clever enough to compensate for proprietary code, I honestly couldn’t tell you.

Chrome does have the advantage of Google’s massive server farm that’s already dedicated to crawling and cataloguing the Web. The programmers threw page after page at Chrome with automated “bots,” challenging it to render everything properly. Drawing from their database of frequently searched-for and visited sites, they could concentrate on the places users were most likely to need.

Where Chrome does fall down is mature functionality and plain bugginess. Microsoft crams lots of stuff into its browser to begin with; Mozilla opted for a slightly leaner approach, but encouraged users to create extensions. The number of extensions is in the thousands, from weather updates to customizations for individual Web sites. Google plans to open up Chrome to similar add-ons, but they’re not there yet. If they can be ported over from Firefox easily, that disadvantage will evaporate quickly.

The bugginess manifests itself, for me at least, as a failure to scroll up when I use my laptop’s touchpad. It scrolls down just fine and external wheel mice scroll work too. Since the scroll function is spotty in other applications as well, I’ll blame that on the touchpad drivers. Chrome also failed to load a Word document into Google Docs from Gmail, oddly enough. You’d think of any complex sites Chrome would get flawless, it would be Google’s own.

Another annoyance is not a bug, but a failure to live up to its own philosophy. The programmers wanted to make the browser pretty much invisible, in the sense that you shouldn’t have to think about the browser itself so you can focus on the content or applications inside. Why, then, do the buttons in the top right ignore my Windows theme settings? They look Vista-ish all the time, even though one of the first things I did to this computer is change the interface to “Windows Classic.” It’s a classic example of ego programming, thinking your interface is so much neater that you force it on users despite their preferences. Trillian does it, Winamp does it — there are standard Windows buttons for a reason, folks. Use ’em.

Chrome eliminates the application title bar, too. Each tab is way up at the top of the window. Placing the address bar and navigation buttons inside each tab, okay, that’s fine. But no title bar does two things: it leaves no place for page title information that’s too long for the width of a tab and it just makes my operating system look different. Maybe I’m simple, but any program without the same basic elements as other programs distracts me.

Sorry. Rant over.

More detailed impressions next week.