My First Few Days With Chrome for Linux Beta

When Google Chrome beta for Windows was first released last September, I tested it briefly on a Windows XP box and was quite impressed by its speed and simplistic user interface.

But it would have been too early to tell how the future lies for Google’s budding browser platform without first seeing it running on other platforms, particularly on Linux. Although the market share for Linux has been a distant third comparing to Windows and Mac OS (depending on how the market share is calculated the figure goes anywhere between less than 1% to a few percentages), it is a sign of serious commitment when we see the support for Linux finally comes. To be honest, the developer build Chrome for Linux had been around for a while now, but the release of Beta last week was the first official release from Google.

Before I started using it, I wasn’t keeping my hopes very high. I was prepared to experience some glitches as after all it is still in its early Beta stage and comparing to Firefox, Chrome is only in its infant stage. But the result is much beyond my expectations.

The installation process was pretty much flawless. Google provides both Debian and RPM packages (Chrome 4.0.249.30) and installing on 64bit Ubuntu (9.10) was as simple as any other Ubuntu packages. And upon starting for the first time, it offered to import my favorites from my current Firefox installations. Unfortunately, I had my Firefox sessions open at the time, and it was unable to import the settings. But it was easy enough to manually import all my favorites ones I started using it.

My first impression is that the user interface is very pleasant. It is clean, minimal and almost barren. Like the simple design of its homepage, Google wanted to emphasize on the content and rather the shell. This clean design is also a necessity given Google’s intension of a Chrome based web-centric OS. Serving as the desktop surface, every square inch of client usable screen real estate counts. This philosophy virtually dictated every aspect of the Chrome browser. When maximized, borders are gone. The top border was shrunk down further–an other nice touch–as users do not need to move the window when the browser is maximized. Even the status area is not permanently utilized. It only appears when there is message to display.
All of these efforts add up to give users the maximum screen space.

Another well thought behavior was the slight delay when closing tabs. When you have dozens of open tabs, the tab sizes were adjusted dynamically to accommodate the limited screen width. If you try to close these tabs one by one, it would be annoying if you had to constantly adjust your mouse to find the “close” icon of the tab. Google realized this, and designed Chrome such that as long as mouse remains in the tabbing area, the tab sizes do not change. So that closing multiple consecutive windows is a simple matter of multiple mouse clicks, without the need to move or adjust. The tab sizes are only adjusted after a brief delay when the mouse moves out of the “tabbing” area (see screen shot below).

Tab closing behavior

Tab closing behavior

Chrome is also a full-fledged web development environment. It has many handy tools (developer->developer tools menu) you would need to inspect/debug your web pages. It even provides a task manager, listing the resources each web page utilizes. Presumably, being an OS rather than a simple browser means that it has to have a task manager of some sort.

Needless to say, page loading in Chrome is generally noticeably faster than that in Firefox. Fast page loading is extremely important for concurrently loading multiple pages (for example, opening a folder of favorites). If a browser is slow, many pages will time out due to the limited rendering capability of the browser. When I loaded a set of a couple dozen or so sites in both Firefox and Chrome, only a couple of sites failed to load properly in Chrome, where as in Firefox as many as ten sites were timed out.

Sites with Flash also worked flawlessly. While this has less to do with Google than Adobe, supporting Flash out-of-box is certainly a nice thought as users generally assume that a web site should just work, regardless of what plug-in is required.

And of course, Chrome is standard compliant. It passes even the most stringent ACID3 browser test. The only gripe I had was the lack of a bookmark menu icon when bookmark bar is not used. In this case, you will have to open the bookmark manager in order to retrieve bookmarked items.

Remember though, this is only a beta browser and it’s not near its completion by any means. I am sure there would be more pleasant surprises down the pipeline.

Whether or not the Chrome OS lives up to its hype, Chrome as a browser is certainly a serious and credible challenge to Microsoft Internet Explorer and it is here to stay.

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