Browser wars redux: The top 5 contenders duke it out

With major new versions released this year, Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari vie for the browser crown.

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Google Chrome 3 (Windows)

If you're the kind of person who favors minimalist art, svelte-looking Scandinavian furniture and speed for the sake of it, then Google Chrome may well be for you. It's a stripped-down browser with one main reason for being: speed. If you're a "just-the-fact's-ma'am" type who wants to browse the Web at warp speed, this is the one to get.

On the other hand, if you like features such as a built-in RSS reader or add-ons to extend the browser's capabilities, this won't be the app for you. Chrome may already be on version 3.0, but its interface has the look and feel of a very early browser that is still a work in progress.

Browser features

Even before the release of version 3.0 in September, Chrome was fast, and the new version ups the ante even more. Computerworld tests of five Windows browsers found that "Chrome renders JavaScript more than nine times faster than Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), is over five times faster than Opera Software's Opera 10, two-and-a-half times faster than Firefox 3.5 and 30% faster than Safari 4.0."

That being said, there is more to Chrome than raw speed. There's a useful if not overly powerful bookmarks manager, a pop-up blocker and "Incognito mode," which is another term for private browsing.

Chrome also has a nerd-friendly Task Manager, similar to Windows' Task Manager, that provides detailed information about Chrome's current status on your PC, including each separate process being used by Chrome, memory use and CPU use. It also shows which processes are accessing the Internet, along with access speed. You can even use it to free up RAM or your CPU by killing any processes you don't want running.

Apart from that, though, don't look for many features, because you won't find them. Unlike Firefox, there is no eco-system for add-ons. It doesn't have the type of nifty features such as Web Slices that Internet Explorer sports. And it doesn't come close to the massive feature set you'll find in Opera.

Interface and extras

Chrome follows the same design principle as does the Google home page: Less is more. There's an address bar, which Google calls the Omnibox, and two icons on the right for customizing Chrome -- and that's it.

Google Chrome 3

Google Chrome 3 is fast and lightweight.

The Omnibox does double-duty as a search box and address bar. On the plus side is its simplicity: You don't need to remember to type search terms in a separate search box. Type in a search term and your default search engine does a search. That's it.

The Omnibox uses your default search engine. There are ways use search engines other than your default from the Omnibox, but it takes a little work -- more work than it does in competing browsers when you want to use something other than the default search engine.

The page that appears when you launch a new tab is useful; it shows thumbnails of pages you've visited most recently, as well as a list of tabs you've recently closed. You can change the layout of the page, and you can display the sites as a list or as thumbnails. But the page isn't as customizable as Opera's new tab page.

Chrome shines when it comes to tab handling. You can "tear off" tabs into their own browser instances, and combine several browser instances into one, with each instance becoming its own tab. You can also easily close tabs in groups, re-open closed tabs and duplicate tabs. There's also support for the use of themes so you can "skin" the way that Chrome looks.

Google Chrome 3

Chrome's Task Manager provides detailed information about its processes.

One of Chrome's less well known features may be its more important from Google's point of view: what Google calls application windows. An application window is a Chrome mode designed for Web-based applications such as Gmail. When you're in a Web-based application using Chrome, you can create a desktop shortcut that will launch the application in a browser window with no browser controls, so that it looks like a desktop application.

Clearly, this feature is built for a world in which many applications are cloud-based -- like Google's. I've found the feature somewhat confusing, because different Web-based applications behave differently in it. Sometimes new documents open up in a new application window, and sometimes in a normal Chrome window, complete with the normal browser interface. It still needs work.

I have also experienced some compatibility issues with Chrome. In the blog I write for Computerworld (powered by Drupal), Chrome cannot handle all of the features required for writing the blog. When a pop-up appears for inserting a link, the pop-up doesn't display all of the features needed to insert the link. Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera all work with the system with no problems.

The bottom line

If you care more than anything about speed, Google Chrome is for you. In addition, because it's so fast and lightweight, those who have slow laptops that have trouble handling other browsers will find it useful. But if a rich feature set is more up your alley, you'll want any of the competing browsers instead.

-- Preston Gralla

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