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September 03, 2008

What Google Chrome Gets Right

By Phil Glockner of Scribkin (FriendFeed/Twitter)

There has already been a lot of coverage of Google’s new browser, Chrome, including on this site (See Here and Here). But I think that it is premature to judge and execute this new product so early in its life cycle, I think time will tell if it becomes a strong contender against Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera and Safari.

Therefore, I am not going to dwell on some of Chrome’s more publicized shortcomings. I will instead highlight a few features that Chrome gets right.

Learn About Chrome

Let me begin by pointing out that, true to Google’s “less is better” ethic, their download page is structured simply, with the download link prominent. The only other link, if you feel hesitant about diving in head-first, leads you to more information about the product.

Personally, I like this philosophy behind product presentation. None of the links are redundant, and the path to learning more about the product feels natural. Also, kudos should be given for the Chrome team embracing another new Google product, YouTube, in their presentation of the browser’s features.

First Effort

I think we need to remember that Chrome is Google’s first effort at a browser. Sure, they leveraged the maturity of the WebKit browser engine to give the browsing experience a solid, useful core. But in terms of development time, Chrome is competing against products that have been through at least one major revision, and in the case of IE, seven.

The advantage here is that they could really pick and choose the aims and feature set for their browser. The disadvantage, of course, is that they have to enter the playing field at a really high level, and the feature set they implement has to feel really mature. Even Firefox didn’t have to live up to that sort of scrutiny, since it was snapped up by the Mozilla team and its ‘grassroots’ status gave it a lot of protection as the rough edges were filed away.

Features Worth Noting

When I installed Chrome, the first thing I did is go to the help link. I have to admit that I had seen a mention of a “tab browser” that I wanted to learn how to activate. However, once I was there I really got distracted learning about the other features. I’d like to highlight a few that I think really stand out and are a clear response to what Google believes people would like to have natively in a browser.

Stealth Mode

The first unique feature that caught my eye was something Chrome calls incognito. If you have ever used a ‘mobile’ version of Firefox or Opera, you will get this mode. Basically, when you open an incognito tab, Chrome will not permanently record any of your browsing activity or cookies that are created in that tab. Once the tab is closed, all the cookies and history cached in memory goes away without a trace on your hard drive.

I have long thought that this is a feature that should be a native part of a browser for a while now. Whether I am surfing for a gift (as the Google documentation suggests) or … ahem … other things, I will definitely find this mode useful.

Much has been written about Google only respecting privacy when it benefits them. But this feature proves that they are in fact thinking about our local privacy when using a web browser. And with the rise of browser-based applications in the past year, I think this will become even more important.

Sandbox and Memory Management

One of the features that the Chrome team has taken pains to highlight is the products ability to partition off the memory usage of separate tabs and windows. While not a really flashy or obvious feature, I believe this is a critically important one, again especially as we move more into the browser-as-an-application space.

How many times have you clicked on a link from your email tab or from a browsing session and the flash or java app on the destination page made your entire browser crash? This has happened to me quite a few times, and I know for some people, this sort of situation is a regular occurrence.

With the built-in partitioning Chrome brings to the table, in theory, we may still have issues with certain pages behaving badly, but now this does not necessarily mean all your built-up context in other tabs and windows has to go away. Now, you can simply kill off the misbehaving page and go on with your life.

Management of this feature is through the use of Chrome’s built in task manager, which looks very similar to Windows’ task manager and will give you memory and network bandwidth of all your sessions at-a-glance. You have the ability to kill any tab or window off at any time.

Even cooler, there is a “stats for nerds” link that takes you to about:memory, a browser-generated page that gives you detailed information about the memory usage in each tab or window. This is a great insight into which pages take up the most memory, as well as Chrome’s total memory usage.

Speed

The last detail I would like to note for now is Chrome’s speed. Again, this is not a very flashy feature, as it is something that can only really be experienced through using the product for a while. But this is something that Google designers have been focusing on from the beginning. Chrome opens quickly, tab management is fast and pages render lightning-quick.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. All freshly-installed browsers behave well and move quickly. However, over time they tend to either slow down, or eat up more and more memory. We’ll see if Chrome lives up to its promise of delivering a consistently speedy and nimble browsing experience.

Read more by Phil Glockner at Scribkin.com.