Taking Chrome for a Spin

The Thinker by Rodin

Does it really matter which browser you use? So many of us spend our lives in a browser that it is reasonable to think the answer is yes. Nevertheless, all browsers pretty much do the same thing. Once familiarity sets in, you have to have a compelling reason to move from one browser to another.

In 2004, I ditched the world’s de-facto browser Internet Explorer for a weird upstart browser called Mozilla Firefox. It was an easy switch. It was true that back then, thanks to Microsoft’s proprietary extensions to HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that things would not always behave the same way in both browsers. Six years later, I still have to use Internet Explorer on a few sites, because the application has not been updated to use web standards. This is now largely a past memory. Unless you need some quirky feature like HTML 5 compatibility (which most browsers are racing to address anyhow) most of the rendering oddities are in the past. Not that a few don’t still bite us. Last I checked, Internet Explorer still did not allow rows in HTML tables to dynamically collapse through Javascript.

For six years, I have been satisfied with Firefox, and generally happier with each new release. I loved all the free plug-ins that were available. The latest version of Firefox (3.6) that I recently downloaded introduced personas. These are sort of like themes for the blank spaces around the edge of your browser. It’s pretty neat to look at, but it’s really window dressing, just like the wallpaper on your computer’s desktop. What matters the most to me is usability. Simple tends to be better.

Firefox’s weakness the last year or so has been its instability. It crashes a lot for me on both Windows and the Mac. This could be more annoying than it is, for you can at least restart it quickly and it will remember your open windows. Firefox also suffers from new version syndrome. Once every few weeks it wants to install a new minor version of itself, sometimes with new features, but mostly to fix bugs. As annoying as new versions are, it’s a straightforward and quick process. It’s better than Internet Explorer, which even though it claims to have excellent security is rife with bugs that require all sorts of mostly behind the scenes patching. IE wants to keep you in the dark about its bugs. Firefox is in your face with them by patching them so quickly.

Since I have a Mac, I also have Safari, which I use from time to time. It’s pretty nice, and there actually is a version of Safari for the PC, although it looks quite a bit different on a PC. There are lesser-known browsers out there like Opera (proprietary and not necessarily free) and Konquerer (for Linux boxes). Now there is also the official Google browser called Chrome. Chrome is part of Google’s grand design toward a web-centric architecture. Its operating system Chrome OS, which I wrote about recently, is taking wings and will soon be appearing on fine netbook computers.

I had installed the Chrome browser but had never really put it through its paces. I did so over the last long snow-congested weekend. After a couple hours, I was hooked. I will still need Firefox for quite a while. If Firefox can be made as fast and stable as Chrome, I would gladly drift back to Firefox. I must say though that Chrome’s speed and stability are both very compelling. I didn’t need Firefox to come out with a persona feature. What I need is a browser that is a lot like my Mac: I don’t have to think about it. It should just work. The best browser is like a sheet of glass. It renders the page of interest transparently, cleanly and correctly. Chrome just takes you where you need to go quickly and with (so far) none of the quirky rendering issues that plague most browsers. Through delivering high backwards and forwards compatibility, Chrome seems to have filled the niche. No wonder that Chrome’s browser share is climbing rapidly, mostly at IE and Firefox’s expense.

Clearly, it is not as feature rich as Firefox. The bountiful plug-ins that are available with Firefox for the most part do not exist with Chrome. However, some Chrome plug-ins do exist. My suspicion is that a good part of the Firefox plug-in community is already working on Chrome compatible plug-ins. As a web developer, I need the amazingly excellent plug-in called Firebug for Chrome. I sure hope it is being ported, although Chrome comes with some built in developer features that are quite decent.

The average user will just notice Chrome’s rendering speed, which tends toward blazingly quick. I had no idea so much of the slowness in Firefox was just its code trying to make everything look pretty. Of course, if the Internet is slow or congested, no browser will speed it up, but whatever Chrome is doing to render content quickly it is doing very well. It helps to have very deep pockets. Since a lot of our content comes from Google, Google can do a lot to put its content on the edge of the network so it will download quickly.

Simplicity and too much intimacy with your favorite browser have a downside. It would be nice, for example, if Chrome would refresh the page by pressing the F5 key, which I have used for the last 15 years. (Instead, it is Ctrl/Command-R.) It would also be nice if my bookmarks would appear on the side, as in Firefox, by pressing Ctrl/Command-B. I also like Firefox’s search box in the top right corner, although by integrating the URL field with search engines you arguably have a simpler interface. Perhaps those features will show up in time. Maybe it would be better if they did not. Simplicity also has a certain virtue. Most of us prefer cars that are simple to use. Too many gizmos and gadgets on the dashboard can make for a confusing experience

Here is hoping that the folks at Mozilla address the instability and page rendering issues so I can go back to it. I hate to give any monolithic company, even one as friendly as Google, all my loyalty. Still, Chrome is compelling in a way IE never was. If you try it for a couple days, you are likely to find yourself also hooked.

2 thoughts on “Taking Chrome for a Spin

  1. Firefox crashing alot is not normal behavior for it, usually this is caused by some add on or plugin or possibly something else. Have you tried debugging this issue? And yes I do like chrome and am interested in seeing it mature but really I am a firefox addict and doubt Chrome will ever make that change. As to the page rendering a few about:config tweaks will increase firefoxs speed to where it surpasses Chrome in rendering most web pages. I have tested this on win xp and ubuntu linux on three different machines using http://service.futuremark.com/peacekeeper/. The only exception is in javascript execution, Chrome is much faster and that can’t really be changed.(Using http://www2.webkit.org/perf/sunspider-0.9/sunspider.html to test javavscript)

    Anyway enjoy Chrome:)

  2. I’ll try out some of your links. IMHO though, bad plug ins should not be allowed in. There should be some sort of rigorous quality checking and peer review before a plug in is accepted. If plug ins are to blame for slow access, it is because they are sloppily written and the Mozilla framework could be better.

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