Review: Google Chrome 8

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In the months since we reviewed version 5 of Google's Chrome Web browser ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), the developers in Mountain View have not been slacking off. The latest stable release of this contender for the Mac browser crown now stands at version 8 and counting. While it doesn't pack many major improvements, the new features it does sport are welcome and well implemented. More importantly, its increased speed and standards compliance help Chrome 8 largely leave the latest version of Safari eating its dust.

All hail the new king

I tested Chrome 8 against Safari 5.0.3 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), Firefox 3.6.13 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), and Opera 11 on a 2GHz Core 2 Duo aluminum MacBook with 2GB RAM. While Safari eked out wins in a few categories, Chrome took a decisive lead in the more important metrics.

In pure XHTML and CSS rendering speed, Chrome still lags Safari, though not by much. Chrome rendered a local XHTML test page in 0.64 seconds against Safari's 0.55 seconds, Opera's 1.53 seconds, and Firefox's 9.26 seconds. When loading a complex page of CSS code, Chrome took 54 milliseconds, compared to Safari's 32 milliseconds, Opera's 208 milliseconds, and Firefox's 342 milliseconds.

In JavaScript performance (crucial to many emerging Web technologies), Chrome cruised past the competition. It chewed through the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark in 374.2 milliseconds, edging out Safari's 388.5 milliseconds, and solidly besting Opera's 416.5 milliseconds and Firefox's sad 1256.8 milliseconds.

Chrome posted an even wider lead in its compliance with the still-developing HTML5 standard. Out of 300 possible HTML5 tags and features checked by html5test.com, Chrome supported a total of 244, compared to 215 for Safari, 185 for Opera, and 143 for Firefox. When I ran it through a series of HTML5 demo tests, Chrome did well with video, audio, embedded fonts, and animated photo galleries. Only CSS 3D transforms, which use a set of proposed additions to the official HTML5 spec heavily favored and promoted by Apple, weren't supported in this version of Chrome.

Like all the browsers tested, Chrome earned a perfect score in CSS3.info's test for CSS3 selector compliance, and like Opera and Safari, it snagged a perfect 100 in the Acid3 standards test

Shiny new abilities

A lot of the absent features I wished Chrome 5 had are present and accounted for in version 8. The most notable addition is a built-in PDF viewer, which includes buttons to zoom in or out, display an entire page within your browser window, or expand the document to fit the width of your browser.

Movie fans can breathe easy: Netflix's Watch Instantly video now works like a charm in Chrome. Google's engineers have made a few more modest refinements as well, including the ability to drag and drop multiple bookmarks into a folder on the Manage Bookmarks screen. (There's still no way to directly edit a bookmark's URL, or to open up an entire folder of bookmarks from the Bookmarks Bar without first right-clicking it.)

Back in June 2010, Google drew flak from some usability advocates for Chrome's lack of support for features for visually impaired users. Since then, the company's made earnest efforts to improve, with its own GoogleVis extension leading an entire modest but useful category of accessibility add-ons available for Chrome.

Sadly, the browser's still tough to use with Mac OS X's VoiceOver screen reader; I could navigate Chrome's menubar, and open the various folders in the Bookmarks Bar, but I couldn't get to any of the bookmarks contained within them, nor easily access or get my computer to speak aloud any of the text on a web page within Chrome. Efforts continue in Chromium, Chrome's open-source development version, to tackle this and other accessibility shortcomings in future versions

That aside, Chrome 8 still has the same slick interface, useful features, and sturdy design as its previous version, and if you don't need accessibility options, it's still a pleasure to use.

However, one late-breaking wrinkle might complicate Mac users' interest in Chrome. Right now, the HTML5 tag lets you view videos without Flash, QuickTime, or other plugins. This feature embraces three rival video formats: the little-used Theora and Google's homebrewed WebM, both open source, and H.264, the Apple-favored solution used in QuickTime, iTunes videos, and a host of other online and offline video technologies. Along with Theora and WebM, Chrome 8 still plays H.264 video. But Google recently announced that it will drop H.264 (which requires royalties from developers in some cases) from future Chrome releases.

Google claims this move will "enable open innovation," while H.264 supporters argue that the company's simply trying to promote its own WebM standard. Either way, the controversy shouldn't affect your browsing experience much. Web developers will likely start serving H.264 videos through Flash (which can play the codec) for Chrome users, and via HTML5 for Safari. Google has also just announced a WebM plugin for Safari. Google and Apple can fight over formats, but users just want to watch video, and the folks providing that video will make sure they can

Macworld's buying advice

Chrome 8 is free, it's fast, and there's very little it can't do that other browsers can. Firefox users in particular may find that Chrome combines all of that browser's advantages with vastly faster performance. If it keeps improving at this rate, Chrome could soon leave Safari a distant second place in the Mac browser competition.

Nathan Alderman is a conspicuously shiny writer and editor in Alexandria, Va.

This story, "Review: Google Chrome 8" was originally published by Macworld.

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