Google has introduced a new Web browser, called Chrome, aimed at wresting dominance of the browser market from Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
The move takes the Google-Microsoft rivalry to a whole new level. If Google succeeds, it will be a big deal, with major ramifications for the future of the Web.
But just how good is Chrome? How does it differ from IE and from less popular, but still important, browsers like Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari?
I've been testing Chrome for about a week, trying out all its features and using it side by side with Microsoft's latest iteration of IE, which came out just about a week ago.
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My verdict: Chrome is a smart, innovative browser that, in many common scenarios, will make using the Web faster and easier. But this first version – which is just a beta, or test, release – is rough around the edges and lacks some common browser features Google plans to add.
These omissions include a way to manage bookmarks, a command for e-mailing links and pages directly from the browser, and even a progress bar to show how much of a Web page has loaded.
Chrome's interface has some bold changes from the standard browser design. These new features enhance the Web experience, but they will require some adjustment on the part of users. For instance, Chrome does away with most menus and toolbar icons to give maximum screen space for the Web pages themselves. Also, Google has merged the address bar, where you type in Web addresses, with the search box, where you type in search terms. This unified feature is called the Omnibox.
One striking difference in Chrome is how it handles tabs, which display a single Web page. In Chrome, each tab behaves as a separate browser. The bookmarks bar, Omnibox, menus and toolbar icons are located inside the tab, rather than atop the entire browser. The tabs appear at the top of the computer screen. Chrome also groups related tabs.
Despite Google's claims that Chrome is fast, it was notably slower in my tests at the common task of launching Web pages than either Firefox or Safari. However, it proved faster than the latest version of IE – also a beta version – called IE8.
Meanwhile, Microsoft hasn't been sitting still. The second beta version of IE8 is the best edition of Internet Explorer in years. It is packed with new features, some of which are similar to those in Chrome, and some of which top Chrome's features.
For example, while IE8 also groups related tabs, it assigns a different color to each such tab group and allows you to close them all with one click.
IE8 also has privacy features that exceed Chrome's, and includes a new technology called Accelerators, which allows you to take rapid action on any selected word or phrase on a Web page, such as generating a map for a place name, without switching to a new page.
As they develop, each of these browsers has a good chance of besting Firefox 3.0, which I have regarded as the best Web browser for Windows, the only operating system on which Chrome currently runs. But they will have to get faster at loading pages.