Google Chrome needs a bit more polishing

For about three months, I have been taking Google’s Chrome browser out for an extended spin. What I am discovering is that while there is a lot to love about Chrome, it has some usability issues that annoy me.

As I noted three months ago, you have to love Chrome for how fast it is. It both loads quickly and renders web pages quickly. Although a new browser, it has proven to be much more stable than my browser for the last seven years, Mozilla Firefox. My instability issues with Firefox may have a lot to do with poor engineering of the many user created add-ons that I have grown accustomed to. Arguably, Chrome is better engineered for both stability and speed. One way it does both is by assigning one computer thread to each open tab window.

Three months ago, add-ons (or extensions as they call them) for Chrome were relatively few. That has changed dramatically. You can find equivalent extensions for most of Firefox’s voluminous add-ons, often written by the same developers who created them for Firefox. In some cases, they lack the maturity of the original Firefox add-on. The Firebug extension for Chrome, at least as of this writing, is just Firebug-Lite, which has maybe fifty percent of the features of the full Firefox add-on. If I need to peer deep into the document object model of a web page to troubleshoot it, I am using Firefox with the Firebug add-on. Still, most of the extensions I care about are already there, often in many subtly different flavors. These include Web Developer, an XMarks bookmarks synchronization tool, Web of Trust (which lets you know of suspicious sites), a Web to PDF converter, a webpage screenshot tool, a tool that automatically converts text links into real links, Chromed Bird (a really sweet Twitter extension), a Weather Underground add-on and a Yahoo Mail Notifier. Doubtless, I would find many more “must have” extensions if I spent more time trying them out.

You would expect Chrome to have a tight integration with the Google Search Engine, but it is not yet smart enough to act like Firefox’s Awesome Bar, which intelligently tracks your most frequent queries and finds them by typing a few characters on the URL field. Similarly, Firefox’s Bookmarks toolbar (where your bookmarks conveniently rest on a window on the side of the browser) is so much more usable than Chrome’s “Other Bookmarks” button and navigating through the multiple levels of bookmarks to get to the bookmark of choice.

In addition, Chrome could use a real menu system, so you can easily get to every feature. (You do get one with the MacOS version because MacOS requires it.) Say you want to open a local file or print a web page. You can click on the “Control the Current Page” button and get to it there, but it is counterintuitive and breaks the standard desktop computing metaphor. Instead, I clicked on the “Customize and Control” button (the little wrench icon) expecting it would be there, but it wasn’t. I sure would also like to be able to add a print button to the toolbar, but if there is a way to do it, it is not intuitive.

I understand why Google made these major changes. They wanted to maximize the extent of the browser window on the assumption that content is what really matters and every pixel counts. The reality is that using a browser requires an intelligent tradeoff between viewing web pages and swiftly navigating to (or finding) where you want to go, and that requires real estate for more controls. Chrome made too many compromises and broke too many metaphors in pursuit of its Holy Grail of making the largest possible browser window.

To understand why they became so anal, you have to remember their long-term vision. They want to kill Windows, and if they kill MacOS as well, they will be even happier. Their vision of the future is that everyone is carrying around a netbook running their ChromeOS operating system which will boot very quickly and immediately dump you into the Chrome browser. All your applications would be web applications that run inside of Chrome. In the netbook world, almost everyone is accessing as a wireless device and they are likely to be keyboard challenged as well. They want to wrest our minds away from the PC metaphor of menus and task bars into something new and compact, behaving more like an intelligent cell phone or iPad. Chrome aligns fine with their Chrome OS vision, but while we live in the Windows/MacOS world, the disconnect is quite jarring. It’s like sitting in a Prius and looking desperately for the slot for the ignition key. In short, right now it’s just weird.

Having said these things, Chrome is so smoking fast that a lot of the time I don’t care. If I just want to search the web to visit a few favorite sites or want integrated access to their search engine, it excels. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to having my browser do all these other tricks. Making Chrome do them as well is going to take time. I suspect Google’s engineers will get us there if we are patient.

At work because I have an extensive collection of bookmarks for obscure places I need to go to quickly in order to do my job, the small latency and instability in Firefox is a small price to pay versus the speed and counterintuitive ways that Chrome works. At home, where my needs are more modest and I have MacOS, I use Chrome. Meanwhile, feeling the heat and losing market share to Chrome, Mozilla is trying to speed up Firefox by imitating Chrome by placing each tab in a thread. Unfortunately, it will take some time implement it, as it requires a lot of reengineering. If they do it quickly enough, I may continue to stay with Firefox indefinitely. Given that Google’s pockets are far deeper than Mozilla’s, I am not too hopeful.

Taking Chrome for a Spin

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.

Love those Firefox Extensions!

Some time ago I wrote about my preferred browser: Mozilla Firefox. It was obvious to me months ago that those who tried it would probably feel the same way about giving up Firefox as the gun nuts would about giving up their firearms: when you pry our cold, dead hands off our keyboards. In a word Firefox rocks! It is now up to version 0.9 and only keeps improving.

As if the lovely standard features like tabbed browsing, easy in page search, Google search box and easily customizable toolbars weren’t enough, perhaps the best thing is how extensible Firefox is. That alone is reason to prefer it to Internet Explorer. Can you imagine Microsoft opening up its IE source code and allowing the user community to improve it? Actually it might happen one of these days since there is little money for Microsoft to make in the browser business and they are inept (at best) at patching its many security holes. Since Microsoft gives IE away it may make some sense to let others develop the code for free. Shareholders might appreciate it. For now its value is dubious and exists largely to market products by Microsoft and its affiliates.

But Firefox is wrapped around open source components like the Gecko rendering engine and the XUL framework. As a result very clever developers who don’t mind giving away their work for free are having a field day extending the usefulness of the browser. One fun thing you can do is simply download and install the many readily available themes. If you get bored you can just toggle from theme to theme. Suddenly the same old boring web pages aren’t as boring because the frame is jazzed up!

To me the coolest thing about Firefox is its tabbed browsing feature. Granted it inherited it from the Mozilla 1.0 framework, although most people first encountered it in Netscape 6 (which of course is Mozilla 1.0 under the hood). Once you get the hang of browsing with tabs you can’t let it go. Well earlier this week I discovered the Tabbrowser Extension for Firefox. Now I am not just in love with my browser but I am in ecstasy.

When I am online I live in my browser. I perfer having all my favorite pages open at once. Tabs give me an intuitive and easy way switch from page to page. Out of the box Firefox has cool features like the ability to open a whole folder of bookmarks with each page in a tab. But with the Tabbrowser extension I can finally have links behave the way I want them.

For example when I am in my email client and click on a link I don’t want it to open up a new browser instance. I want the page to appear in a new tab in the existing browser instance. Now I can do this with the Tabbrowser extension, after first adding a line to my prefs.js file and tweaking the Tabbrowser controls a bit. The Tabbrowser extension itself downloaded and installed in less than a minute. I had to close and reopen my browser. I discovered an extremely feature rich set of things I can do with tabs, thanks to the clever programmer Shimoda Hiroshi, who authored the Tabbrowser extension.

It took a lot of experimentation to get things the way I want. I will still tweak it from time to time. But most of the time I want any link on a page to open in another tab. But if the link belongs to the same site I don’t want it to open in another tab, I want it to overwrite the content in the current tab. It took quite a bit of experimenting but I finally figured out a way to get the extension to do just this.

And I’ve just scratched the surface. There are lots of things you can do with tabs with this extension. These include making bookmarks or items on your toolbars open in tabs. But I found most of the time I don’t want to enable this feature. Other neat features include displaying tabs in groups and anchoring tabs to the top, bottom, left or right sides of the browser window.

There are hundreds of extensions that can make Firefox behave the way that fits your mental model, not someone else’s. Admittedly some are more useful and professional than others. But all of them are fun for those of us who like to tinker. But even if you are not the tinkerer type for most people plain old Firefox out of the box will be just fine and a huge improvement over Internet Explorer’s many annoyances.

Firefox is not up to a production release version 1.0 yet but it shouldn’t be too much longer. It seems very stable to me. One tweak I would make to the out of the box Firefox interface would be to add the Print icon to the toolbar. It seems odd that you have to go to File>Print to print something out by default. Most novice users won’t bother to play with the customized toolbars.

At last: the browser done right! And it’s all free and cross platform. Do yourself a favor if you haven’t tried Firefox and download it now.