First Look: Google Chrome for Mac OS X

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Google finally releases a beta of its browser for Macs

Web browsers are a bit like fridges. They do one simple job and, no matter how many gadgets and widgets and doodads and thingummybobs you hang on them, they will always just be there to keep your beer cold in one case, and let you at the contents of the world wide web in the other.

We've always found it a bit odd that people are prepared to enter into heated discussions about their favourite flavour of web browser. It's a bit like being passionate about a breakfast cereal, or your favourite type of pencil.

Mac users have been well served in the past with Apple's Safari, which is fast, simple, stable and doesn't constantly nag you to use the company's products and services. It can, however, be a little flaky with some complex sites. The content management system that we use refuses point blank to have anything to do with Safari, for example.

In such cases, most Macolytes will turn to Mozilla's Firefox. The fact that most Mac users would rather just not use the internet at all than have to resort to Microsoft's bloated, overcomplicated and self-serving mess of a browser is testament either to their convictions, or their stupidity. We'll let you decide.

There are, of course, dozens of other Mac-friendly web browsers out there and the comments section is bound to be full of people howling with derision because we have failed to mention Opera or Sunrise or Seamonkey or Camino or Flock any of the other also-rans, but for our purposes here we are going to discount them as niche offerings made by and aimed at beardy geeks.

As far as we are concerned there are only three contenders for the King of the Browsers crown: Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer. And since it is quite clear that anyone willing to besmirch their beloved Mac with Internet Explorer is almost certainly clinically insane, we are down to just two.

The third way
Since Tuesday, however, there has been a third viable alternative in the form of Google's Chrome for OS X. It's not quite clear why the company that has dominated the whole internet search canon for so many years that Yahoo is just a distant memory took so long to come up with its own browser. But the Wintel version has been knocking about as a stable release for just under a year and, with the entire source code for Chrome released into the wild as an open-source project called Chromium soon after, Linux and OSX versions were eagerly anticipated.

There have been developer builds of Chrome for OS X kicking around for some time now, but Google has finally bitten the bullet and released an official beta which, although incomplete, gives a flavour of what to expect if the software ever makes it to a full version. And let's face it, Google is well known for dragging its heels when it comes to losing the beta label on most of its offerings. Having said that, Google is promising to upgrade the beta release to 'stable' by 12 January.

Having used Chrome on our Mac Pro for a couple of days now, what is becoming clear is that the current release probably doesn't deserve the lofty status of beta, feeling very much more like an alpha, not least because some pretty large chunks of the software's functionality is missing.

Despite the fact that there are over 300 plug-ins - or extensions as Google is calling them - available for Windows users, so far the Mac faithful have been left out in the cold, despite the fact that they were included in the developer versions. Also missing from the beta release are a working bookmark manager, the ability to view PDF files, bookmark synchronisation and 64-bit support.

Owners of older Macs will also be disappointed to find that the release is Intel only, not least because there is no port of the Google Native Client which only works on x86 systems. Given that it took over a year to develop this version, the chances of a PowerPC port are, quite frankly, slim to none.

Ignoring these serious shortcomings, and we're sure that many more will emerge over the coming weeks, Chrome does offer some intriguing features and is certainly worth a look. For a start, it's pretty fast. Perhaps not Safari fast, but as with most betas this is bound to improve. Installation is as simple as can be, and the installer will happily grab all of your bookmarks, settings and preferences from either Safari or Firefox without breaking stride.

Once launched, the interface is uncluttered and simple with nothing to obscure your view more complex than a single row of bookmarked sites, a single integrated search and address field that Google is calling the Omnibox and a row of tabs which, unlike most browsers, pops out of the top of the main navigation area. Unlike some web browsers - we're looking at you Microsoft - Google doesn't see the need to take up four inches of screen real estate with stack upon stack of unnecessary and confusing buttons, icons and search fields.

Opening a new browser window or tab brings up a three by three grid of your most visited sites, rendered in miniature form. Whilst this is nowhere near as pretty as Safari's version, it is considerably quicker to populate. Individual tabs and windows are isolated, meaning that the browser continues to work if one tab freezes or crashes, which is a comfort if you find yourself with dozens of tabs open simultaneously, as most users do.

Those of you who feel the need to gussy up your browsing experience can head over to Google's Themes page where you can spend your day staring into the shiny-cheeked, airbrushed within an inch of its life, grinning face of Mariah Carey - our favourite of course - or add any one of dozens of colour schemes ranging from esoteric squiggles to pictures of Porsches or ponies.

Secret agents can keep their browsing habits incognito with what Google calls Incognito Browsing. Stealthy surfers will leave no trace as the history is left unaltered and any stray and incriminating cookies are deleted once the session is closed.

Google has definitely gone for a less is more approach with Chrome for OS X. Missing functionality notwithstanding, this beta feels snappy and simple, making casual use a breeze. Power users will be frustrated by the current lack of extensions and what will be seen as essential tools like the ability to manage RSS feeds, bookmark synchronisation and a customisable toolbar. What we have here is a good indicator for things to come from Chrome, but the prospect that many sensible web surfers will turn their backs on the Mac mainstays of Safari and Firefox is doubtful.

The best thing about this beta release is that it will undoubtedly provide some serious competition for the current incumbents once it is finished, and competition in the browser market can only be a good thing.



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