My first reaction to Google’s introduction of a beta version of its Chrome browser was: Do we really need another browser? So I decided to take Chrome for a test drive.

First impressions of Chrome

Google touts Chrome as an open source browser project, which means its main competitor seems to be Firefox and not Internet Explorer. The browser rendering engine was developed with the help of WebKit. Chrome is up and running after a painless download and install.

The first thing I noticed is the minimalist interface and its quick loading. The interface uses tabs (which most every browser does these days), but the tabs are located at the top of the window above the address bar. There is no bulky menu bar at the top and no status bar at the bottom, so it took a while to get accustomed to it. (This TechRepublic screenshot gallery offers a first look at Chrome.)

The following list outlines other Chrome features:

  • As there should be, there is a big emphasis on security in Chrome. This new browser maintains phishing and malware lists and warns users when they attempt to visit known harmful sites.
  • Google created a separate team to optimize the JavaScript engine used in Chrome. The result is the V8 JavaScript engine, which does show some improvements over its counterparts. (The various caveats of JavaScript performance are beyond this article, but there is a good discussion available online.)
  • Each tab within the browser runs in its own process — a sort of sandbox within the browser. However, browser plug-ins are not covered in this security model. One interesting aspect of Chrome is its ActiveX support. I read many articles touting its lack of support for ActiveX, but it there is an ActiveX plug-in available.
  • An interesting feature is the ability to browse in so-called incognito mode, which means the browser maintains no history or cookies of sites visited in this mode.
  • Gears is a standard component. This is more a feature for developers, as it provides a platform for creating Web applications that can run offline.

Given the beta status of Chrome, it is no surprise to find a few bugs. The browser crashed quite a few times while browsing various sites. Maybe Google is taking a page from Microsoft in releasing software to the general public before it is ready.

What Chrome offers to developers

With Internet Explorer and Firefox capturing most users these days, why should a Web developer concern themselves with a new offering? First, given Google’s footprint on the Web, it is hard to ignore anything new from the company. Of course, Google Apps is supposed to take market share from Microsoft Office but that remains to be seen. Other offerings like Google Talk have failed to dominate its space, so the Google name doesn’t guarantee anything.

I like to use Firefox since it offers so many development tool plug-ins, but I still have to make sure my applications perform properly in Internet Explorer. From a developer viewpoint, Chrome provides a few tools for working with Web pages. The list includes Gears, as well as the following:

  • Web Inspector: This allows you to take a closer look at any element on the currently open page. It is available by right-clicking on an element. It allows you to browse page elements and view object properties and style. This is a feature from the WebKit base.
  • JavaScript console: This allows you to enter command-line JavaScript code that can access page elements. It opens within the Web Inspector window — located in the bottom portion.
  • JavaScript debugger: A rudimentary command line JavaScript debugger. There is nothing intuitive about using this feature. (I did find a good tutorial online.)
  • Task Manager: This allows you to view the current processes running within Chrome; it is analogous to the Task Manager available in Windows. It shows the system resources by a process. This includes memory, network, and CPU usage. A button is provided to end a process along with link to a report that breaks down memory usage for individual processes.

All in all, this is a less than impressive list of tools for the Web developer. It remains to be seen whether more tools will become available to rival what is available with Firefox or Internet Explorer 8. At this time, I will stick with Firefox while keeping an eye on Chrome.

Don’t ditch your current browser just yet

For developers, the current beta version of Chrome provides no reason to switch from Firefox or even the latest Internet Explorer version. As for everyday end users, they will stick with whatever comes with their machine (Internet Explorer) with no reason to switch. Maybe Chrome can carve out a small slice of the browser market.

But what if Google makes it necessary? The company has an overwhelming Web presence, so it would be easy to serve up pages that provide Chrome-specific features. This sounds far-fetched, but it is something to consider.

Have you used the current version of Chrome? If so, what are your impressions of Chrome? Share your thoughts in the Web Developer forum.

Additional TechRepublic resources about Chrome

Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.


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