Google's Chrome for Android: A hands-on tour

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

After years of unexplained separation, Google's Chrome browser and Android operating system are finally joining forces.

Google Chrome Android

Google officially launched Chrome for Android on Tuesday. The app, available for any Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) device, functions separately from the stock system browser -- and offers plenty of advantages over it, too. In fact, Google says it expects the new Chrome browser to eventually replace the stock Android browser, becoming the platform's default program for mobile Web access.

The reason Chrome for Android is only available on ICS devices, by the way, is because of the browser's dependency on hardware acceleration -- something earlier versions of Android don't support.

But enough chit-chat: Let's dive into the new Chrome for Android browser and see what this bad boy's all about.

Chrome for Android: The User Interface

The first thing you notice about Chrome for Android is how different its interface is from the stock Android browser. Chrome for Android looks like, well, Chrome. The app has a clean, simple design with a light gray color scheme. It also has a handful of nice animations, like a pleasant slide-in effect when you open a new tab.

Chrome for Android (1)

The app's similiarity to the Chrome desktop browser is even more noticeable on a tablet than on a smartphone, thanks to the extra screen space and the way the app adjusts to fill that form.

Chrome for Android (2)

Chrome for Android: The Tabs

Chrome for Android gets tabs right. On a phone, a small icon at the top of the screen shows you how many tabs you have open. Tapping the icon brings up a card-like view of live thumbnails featuring all your open pages. You can scroll up and down to browse through the thumbnails or tilt your phone to have them move as if they're affected by gravity. Tapping on any thumbnail causes its page to open; flicking any thumbnail left or right closes its page completely, following the flick-to-dismiss thread woven throughout ICS.

Chrome for Android (3)

You can also navigate through tabs by simply swiping left or right at the edge of the screen -- no menu-opening or extra gestures required.

Chrome for Android (4)

On a tablet, tabs take a more desktop-like form, showing up along the top of the application. They function just like they do on the desktop browser, too: You can tap on any tab to switch to it or touch the "X" alongside it to close its page.

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Chrome for Android: Link Management

Ever find yourself trying to tap a link on your phone and pressing the wrong one by mistake? The new Chrome for Android app includes a smart link-tapping feature that makes that annoyance a thing of the past. The Chrome Android browser automatically pops up a magnified view anytime you tap a link that's close to other links on the page. That way, you can confirm you're actually selecting the one you want before the browser loads it.

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Chrome for Android: Sync, Sync, Sync

Perhaps the most impressive feature of Chrome for Android is its integrated sync capability. Like the Chrome desktop browser, Chrome for Android lets you sync bookmarks and autocomplete suggestion data across multiple devices -- but now, those devices include computers, tablets, and phones.

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The coolest part: Chrome for Android has the ability to sync open tabs, meaning you can actually see what tabs you have open on any other Chrome-running device. All you do is tap on the browser's drop-down menu and select the option labeled "Other devices." Any Chrome-connected device on which you're signed in will show up, whether it's a desktop computer, an Android tablet, or an Android phone.

Chrome for Android (8)

The Chrome Android browser also has a neat PC-to-mobile page beaming feature with offline reading capabilities. It even allows you to let other people beam links to your device, if you want.

Chrome for Android: Incognito Mode

Like the stock Ice Cream Sandwich browser, Chrome for Android offers a quick and easy way to switch to incognito mode. Not that you ever have a reason to keep your browsing history off the record, of course...

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Chrome for Android: The Speed Factor

It's impossible to show in images, but one of the biggest benefits of the new Chrome Android browser is its speed. Because of the browser's use of Android 4.0 hardware acceleration, browsing is F-A-S-T. Plus, when you search -- which you can do directly from the browser's "omnibox" bar, of course -- Google predicts what page you're going to visit and starts loading it before you're even there. (This feature is limited to Wi-Fi only by default to avoid eating up too much mobile data; you can adjust that behavior in the browser's settings if you want it to remain on at all times.)

Chrome for Android: What's Missing

My first impression, without a doubt, is that Chrome for Android is a tremendous step forward for Android-based browsing. That said, there are a couple of noteworthy things missing from this initial release:

1. Support for Flash. Plain and simple: The Chrome for Android browser doesn't have it. Based on a blog posted by Adobe this afternoon, it appears this is a direct result of Adobe's adjusted approach to mobile Flash development. So if you want to access Flash content, you'll have to use the system browser or a third-party alternative.

2. The ability to change user-agents or easily toggle to desktop view. The stock Ice Cream Sandwich browser introduced a one-touch toggle that lets you switch from a mobile version of a Web page to the full desktop alternative. As of now, Chrome for Android does not have this capability.

Android Power Twitter

All considered, though, Chrome for Android is polished, slick, and gives even the stock Ice Cream Sandwich browser -- which itself was a huge leap forward from Android browsers of the past -- a run for its money. In many ways, it feels like something that should have been integrated into Ice Cream Sandwich from the start.

The Chrome for Android app is available as a free download in the Android Market for any Android 4.0 device. You can also see more about the release in Google's official Chrome for Android introduction video, embedded below.    

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Article copyright 2012 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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