Review: Google's Chrome -- the first true Web 2.0 browser

Google's new Chrome browser uses simplicity and some clever new features to bring Web surfing into the 21st century.

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Application windows: Building a browser for Web 2.0

If you need any evidence that Chrome has been built for AJAX and for applications delivered via the Web, look no further than what Google calls application windows. An application window is a special Chrome mode designed for Web-based applications such as Gmail, Google Calendar and any other Web-based application.

Create a desktop shortcut to an application window by running the Web-based application, clicking Chrome's Page icon and choosing "Create application shortcuts..." That creates a shortcut on your Desktop, Start menu or Quick Launch bar to the application. Double-click the icon, and the Web-based application runs in a browser window with no browser controls -- no tabs, buttons, address bar, etc. All you see is the application itself, although there is a small drop-down menu in the header that offers various browser functions such as back, forward, print and duplicate. Right-clicking also gets you to functions such as back and forward.

In this way, you could have your desktop full of shortcuts to all of your Web-based applications -- word processing, spreadsheets, CRM and so on. When they run, they appear to be an application running on your PC.

This feature still needs a bit of fine-tuning, because different Web-based applications work differently in it. In Gmail, for example, when you click a mail message, it opens directly inside the application window, which is how you expect it to work. But in Google Docs, when you click on a document, the new document instead opens in a new browser instance, complete with the normal browser interface.

A lot of nifty extras

Buried beneath Chrome's bare-bones exterior are hidden some very nice extras, many of them for self-described nerds and techies. One of the niftier features is the Task Manager, an applet similar to Windows' Task Manager. It shows each separate process being used by Chrome and displays memory use for each, as well as the CPU use each takes up. And it also shows which are currently accessing the Internet or network, and the current access speed.

If you want to free up RAM or CPU, click any process, click "End process" and voila — the process is gone. It's a great tool that offers sometimes surprising information. For example, it showed me that a Shockwave Flash plug-in took up 31MB of RAM and quite a bit of my CPU, even though I wasn't watching any Flash videos or content. I used the Task Manager to shut it down and freed up both RAM and CPU usage.

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The Task Manager shows technical details about every process running.

Click to view larger image.

There's even more to the Task Manager. Click "Stats for nerds" at the bottom of the window, and a tab opens with even more statistics. It's geek heaven.

Another hidden extra is a kind of search accelerator that lets you quickly search through many popular sites without having to visit them. Type the first letter of the site you want to visit -- such as "a" for Amazon -- into the address bar, then hit the Tab key, and you can then immediately add a search term and search that site.

For this feature to work, you'll have to have done a search on that site previously. So if you want to get it working, go to a popular site and do a search. After that, searching that site is a cinch.

In fact, the way that Chrome handles search is far more intelligent than any competing browser's. When you do a search on a site, that site is immediately added to your search engine list. At any point, you can make that search engine your default, or you can do a fast search with the Tab key shortcut. And you can remove any search engines by using the Search Engines options screen.

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Chrome's new search feature makes it easy to search Web sites.

Click to view larger image.

Chrome handles downloads in a straightforward, helpful manner. Download a file, and when it completes downloading, you'll see a small icon for the download and the file name on the bottom left of the screen -- what Google calls a Download Bar. Click a down arrow, and you can open the file and the folder containing the file.

You can also go to your own personal downloads page, which lists every one of your downloads, including details such as the location where it was downloaded from, the file name and the date you downloaded it. This page also functions as a download manager. While a download is in progress, you can go to the page and pause and resume downloads.

There is one drawback to downloading in Chrome, though: It doesn't appear to integrate with your virus scanner, as does Firefox.

Spend enough time with Chrome, and you'll find even more extras. For example, click a portion of a Web page, select Inspect Element, and you'll launch a window that shows you the HTML coding for that element, as well as the resources the page element uses.

Keep in mind that this is a beta and clearly has some bugs. Ironically, on one page I visited, it was unable to display an embedded Google Map, while Firefox had no problem displaying the map.

The bottom line

Although Chrome is a beta, it feels quite stable; after many hours spent browsing to numerous sites, it didn't crash once. So you can download it without much worry about its stability.

Enterprise IT departments would do well to download Chrome now, particularly if they run or plan to run any Web-based applications. Chrome may well become a primary platform for running these applications, and it would be worthwhile to begin testing now.

Even consumers should consider downloading the browser now, because it represents a new way of browsing the Web. Chrome may be off-putting at first to some because of its bare-bones interface. But give yourself time with it. Gradually, the simplicity grows on you, and you may begin to find yourself using some of its niftier, less-obvious features, such as the search shortcuts.

That said, the browser still has some significant shortcomings. It needs a true bookmarks manager, and it should offer a right-click option to restore closed tabs. Expect the next iteration of the browser to be more fully featured; don't be surprised, for example, to see a true bookmarks manager.

So try out this beta today, and get set for what will come tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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