First released in 2008, Google Chrome is the third most widely used web browser, coming after Internet Explorer and Firefox with a 7% market share. However, until the recently, the GNU/Linux version lagged behind the Windows version.
Now, with the recent release of the 5.0.375 beta, GNU/Linux users can get the first real sense of Chrome. Mostly, the experience is promising, although a few customization options are missing, and some features may cause concerns for free and open software (FOSS) and privacy advocates.
Google is a company that knows FOSS, so packages for the Chrome beta are available for 32 and 64 bit Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE. The page also includes a link to a table of packages supported by other distributions.
Should you be using one of the official Google packages, you might want to read the end-user's license agreement. The agreement reads as though generic, and may not be the final license. Still, you may want to know that, like the license that openSUSE used on its betas until a few releases ago, it is non-free. When you download an official package, the license assumes that you have implicitly agreed not to copy or distribute it.
Moreover, the license also states that, by downloading, you grant Google the right to update without notifying you. But, despite the note on the download page that says that part of the installation is adding the Google repository to your sources, I could see no sign that it had actually done so on the Debian system I used to install. All the same, users who value their privacy might want to check when they update in case this arrangement is implemented later.
Possibly, Google had second thoughts about privacy because, the first time you start Chrome, the option to send statistics and crash reports automatically is not enabled by default. So is the option to make Chrome your default web browser.
Another option is to import settings from Firefox. It does not work if you are using Icedove, Debian's unbranded version of Firefox, but might just surprise you (as it did me) by tracking down an old ~/.mozilla directory and taking the settings from there.
A Minimalist Interface
Chrome's design seems to assume -- probably correctly -- that users are already familiar with web browsers. The design is starkly minimalist, with next to no window decorations, and the tabs and controls taking about two-thirds of the space that they do in Firefox -- large because the toolbar does double duty as menus, with drop-down lists on some of the icons.
The advantage of this minimalism is that it maximizes the amount of space for displaying pages, which may be especially handy on a netbook screen. It also reduces window clutter, since most (but not all) dialogs are shown on a tab, rather than in a sub-window, and makes hunting down controls much easier than in Firefox
The potential disadvantage is that the controls, which cannot be customized, are too small for some users. If so, this disadvantage may be compounded by the small and equally minimalist icons These icons are divided by the input field in the middle, with the browsing controls such as Next and Previous on the left and configuration options for the current page and for Chrome in general on the right.
A similar minimalism is visible in the input field, which automatically grays out the http:// at the start of an URL, as well as the pages after the site's main address. While that may seem like a small change, after ten minutes of using Chrome, you may find, as I did, that it makes addresses easier to remember because they are stripped down to the basics.
You can customize the interface by installing themes as extensions or reverting to the default at Options -> Personal Stuff -> Appearance. If you do, though, you may find the results disappointing: because of the minimalist interface, only the wildest themes are really noticeable.
A Growing Feature Set
Chrome's best-known feature is its speed. My own rough estimate is that is that it starts about 10% faster than Firefox, and loads pages about 35% faster on average. This is enough of a difference for bragging rights, although since the times are measured in seconds, the advantage may not matter for most users.
However, this speed disappeared when I opened 23 tabs at once. In fact, Firefox was about 25% faster in completely loading all the tabs. Could Chrome's opening of each tab as a separate thread actually be a handicap with large numbers of tabs?
In other areas, the beta shows Chrome gradually adding features. Earlier releases already had incognito browsing, which excludes sites that you visit from the browser and download histories. Now, in the beta, you can now drag tabs to the desktop to open them in separate windows, or choose Set Up Sync from the drop-down list on the control icon to share bookmarks through your Google account.
Options especially are more numerous in the beta than in previous builds. Although the default search engine is Google, naturally enough, you can choose from nine other defaults, including Google rivals such as Yahoo! and Bing. You can also choose to save passwords, and have Chrome show suggestions for navigation error or URL completion, and adjust the default font sizes. Many of these options are not unique, but they are the sorts of controls that users expect to find in a browser, and should make Chrome more competitive against Internet Explorer and Firefox
Unfortunately, some of these options need to explained in more detail. For example, what phishing and malware protection is enabled when you check this feature? Others, such as Options -> Translate, or HTML5 support, do not seem to be implemented in the build I test.. Overall, Chrome still lacks Firefox's rich array of customization, as well as features such as options for notifications display customization, but the gap is clearly narrowing.
The Growth of the Extensions Ecosystem
In the early reviews of Chrome, the most common complaint was a lack of extensions comparable to Firefox's. When the first Chrome extensions started to appear a year ago, such as AdSweep, it was bloggable news.