Google Chrome 4: Yes, it's fast, but is it usable?

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If, as Google says, a Web browser is not so much an application but a platform upon which a new class of applications may be built, then that platform must provide support. It needs to give its users the ability to accomplish tasks, and to devise new and better ways to accomplish them better. For as we all know now, "browser" is an inappropriate word for the thing we use to communicate with the Web using HTTP, because the Web is becoming a space for everyday applications deployment. Especially in the content industry, active work takes place within the browser, much more so than passive amusement.

To that end, a browser may serve either as a springboard or a plank.
Despite Google Chrome's achievements, the crucial element of support remains missing. For all the spotlight we've given Chrome for being the fastest Web browser on Windows, it does not yet serve the purpose of supporting users and helping them to make their online tasks more efficient. This is why Google's expert tuning of its V8 JavaScript engine for Chrome is so important, because the browser has truly evolved into a JavaScript platform rather than an HTML platform.

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For everyone I know who has, over the last year, made the switch from Microsoft Internet Explorer to any other browser, the reasons have had less to do with security than in the past. People who are compelled to switch are tired of how slow IE has become, and the sinking feeling that it's getting slower -- a feeling which Betanews confirmed this week with actual facts. If you're the manufacturer of a competitive browser, and you have the opportunity to offer your customer a free alternative that's close to 21 times faster overall than IE, and your brand is not only one of the most recognized in the world but the only one analysts believe can truly challenge Microsoft, you'd think there would be an exodus of mass proportion.

There has been no such exodus. The reason is because, despite the number "4" on the version currently under development, Chrome gives one the feeling that it's never been finished once.

In a way, it doesn't make sense to have a JavaScript engine that's as good as it is, running a platform that is so minimalistic. As the manufacturer of any set-top box can tell you, a viewer's entire experience in front of his TV can be ruined if the functionality of the program guide isn't solid. A browser user's bookmarks list is the counterpart of the program guide; it's "what's on," and it's also how to get there.

Not that a list of folders and bookmarks is anywhere near as informative as an STB's program guide. But for years, Firefox has had the good sense to enable users to open the bookmarks list in their sidebar, to open and close it with a keystroke (Ctrl-I) and scroll through it using a scroll bar. For IE8, Microsoft added an appealing and versatile Favorites menu that opens with the same keystroke (as part of an effort to win back refugees to Firefox). This menu starts off life as a pop-up, but can then be pinned to the left side as a sidebar. Then it too can be switched from Favorites (bookmarks) to RSS Feeds and browsing history. It's a versatile feature that Microsoft has thought through, and that performs well.


SEE THE FIREFOX/CHROME SHOWDOWN FROM THE TOP:

  • Firefox 3.5 vs. Chrome 3 Showdown, Round 1: How private is private browsing?: Firefox 3.5 (1), Chrome 3 (0) after 1 heat
  • Firefox 3.5 vs. Chrome 3 Showdown, Round 2: Are bookmarks outmoded?: Firefox 3.5 (2), Chrome 3 (0) after 2 heats
  • Firefox 3.5 vs. Chrome 3 Showdown, Round 3: Finding a place for more tabs: Firefox 3.5 (2), Chrome 3 (1) after 3 heats
  • Firefox 3.5 vs. Chrome 3 Showdown, Round 4: Finding a place for more tabs: Firefox 3.5 (3), Chrome 3 (1) after 4 heats

In Chrome 3, the Bookmarks Bar was only part of the New Tab screen, and was actually provided by a Google Web page. With Chrome 4, the Bookmarks Bar becomes a feature of the actual program (along with curious re-additions such as an actual button for the home page, a recent Google discovery). But the complete list of bookmarks is only available through an "Other Bookmarks" menu on the right. Clicking on this button pulls up a drop-down menu, whose folders in turn pull up other pop-up menus. So you're not perusing a folder tree as with Firefox or IE; instead, you're scrolling through pop-ups. And you're scrolling slow...ly... because these are classic menus; there are no scroll bars. So if you have a long bookmarks list, you're not going anywhere fast.

That I'm no fan of Chrome's bookmarks system is nothing new -- I first called attention to this last June. Back then, Chrome 3 was on the "beta" and "dev" tracks, while Chrome 2 was the version declared stable. Here I noted that Firefox 3.5 was more adept at searching for stored bookmarks by various criteria than Chrome, the browser from the company that's supposed to be known for search.

But I'm not exactly the only one screaming for functionality out here. Our own Fileforum features reviews from testers over the months who have explicitly asked why Chrome seems to be all chassis and no interface. "It's as useful as a chocolate fireguard," wrote madmike; "very bland, short on features, but competent," wrote bobad; and, "I wish they could make it look and act like Firefox," wrote CyberDoc999.

Next: Shelving basic functionality under "Other..."

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