What's in the latest Chrome update? Big performance boost, tab search and tab actions, native app for new Macs

Chrome 87 boasts a big speed boost and a revamped UI for the browser's PDF viewer and a native version for new M1-powered Macs.

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Chrome 85

Google last week released Chrome 85, boasting of several enhancements to the browser's tab-based user interface and a 10% reduction in page load times.

The Mountain View, Calif. company also paid out more than $10,000 in bounties to security researchers who reported some of the 20 vulnerabilities addressed in Chrome 85. Two of the bugs were marked "High," Google's second-most-serious threat level. One of those flaws, which Google said was in the iOS version of Chrome, was reported by a member of Microsoft's browser vulnerability research team. Microsoft now relies on the same core technologies — those produced by the Google-dominated Chromium project — for its Edge browser as Google does for Chrome.

Chrome updates in the background, so most users can finish the refresh by relaunching the browser. To manually update, select "About Google Chrome" from the Help menu under the vertical ellipsis at the upper right; the resulting tab shows that the browser has been updated or displays the download process before presenting a "Relaunch" button. People new to Chrome can download version 85 for Windows, macOS and Linux directly.

Google updates Chrome approximately every six weeks; the previous upgrade was released July 14.

Tabs, tabs and more tabs

Google bundled several new tab features into Chrome 85; one added functionality to the tab grouping that debuted earlier this year.

With tab grouping, users can organize tabs in — where else? — the tab bar by lumping together several tabs, each lump designated by color and name. New tabs can be added to the group by dragging and dropping or from a right-click menu; existing tabs can be dumped from a group as well.

Chrome 85 lets users collapse and expand those tab groups. A click on the group's label collapses all associated tabs into the label, removing them from the bar. A second click restores them to the bar. "This was the most popular feature request we heard from those of you using tab groups," wrote Alex Ainslie, Chrome's director of UX (user experience), in an Aug. 25 post to a company blog.

Ainslie said that Google was rolling out tab group collapse/expansion, meaning that it won't be available to everyone at once. To turn on the new feature manually, enter chrome://flags in the address bar and press Return or Enter. Search for the Tab Groups Collapse item and select Enabled from the menu list at the right. Finally, restart Chrome.

Google also introduced tab previews in Chrome 85, the Beta build. When the user pauses the mouse pointer atop a tab, a thumbnail of the page appears in a small pop-up, portraying what the tab leads to. Chrome 85 Stable users can manually engage previews by using chrome://flags and setting both Tab Hover Cards and Tab Hover Card Images to Enabled. 


PGO-a-go-go

Google claimed that pages will load up to 10% faster in Chrome 85 after "Profile Guided Optimization" (PGO) was switched on.

This compiler optimization technology — a Microsoft invention — was first introduced for Windows in Chrome 53 in October 2016, when Google asserted it would make Chrome up to 15% faster. That initial effort used the Microsoft Visual C++ build environment.

In Google's latest PGO effort, the company's engineers expanded PGO from just Windows to include macOS by turning to the Clang build environment. Google will roll out — turn on, in plainer terms — PGO over time in Chrome 85.

Chrome 85 also suspended page painting in browser windows covered by other windows, a way to save on CPU processing and thus save on power consumption. Only some users will see this in the latest Chrome, however. Google promised a "full rollout" for Chrome 86, the next upgrade.

(This functionality has been pledged for what seems like ages. At one point, the page painting suspension had been on the to-do list of March's Chrome 81, only to get punted, first to Chrome 83 (May) and then to 84 (July) with roll-out to be finalized in Chrome 85.)

Other stuff, and enterprise too

According to Google, it will enable a new PDF-related feature in Chrome 85 "over the next few weeks." Users will be able to fill out PDF-based forms — account applications, for instance — from within the browser, then save the results. If the same PDF document is later opened, the already-entered information is retained, and the user can pick up where they left off.

Chrome 85 also continues the multi-version implementation of a blockade imposed on downloads from insecure sources. The first download category — executable files in .exe format, for example — was barred here with more to follow from Chrome 86 through Chrome 88.

On the enterprise side, the Legacy Browser Support (LBS) add-on is to be scrubbed from the Chrome Web Store during Chrome 85's run. "LBS is now built into Chrome, and the old extension is no longer needed," Google said.

(LBS was designed so IT admins could deploy Google's browser but still call up Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) when necessary to, say, render intranet sites or older, written-for-IE apps. LBS wasn't an emulator but simply a URL director, sending any links on an administrator-made list to IE for that browser to open.)

As of Monday, LBS remained on the Chrome Web Store. Google has labeled it as "Deprecated" in the extension market, however.

Google will release Chrome's next upgrade, version 86, on Oct. 6.

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