The Google Chrome Review Web browser is beginning to dominate the category of software we use for consuming Web content, just as Google also leads in the fields of search, online video, maps, and more. It has reached this position among browsers thanks to some excellent qualities, including speed, simplicity, security, and leading support for new Web-code standards. Though other browsers have caught up to it and in some cases surpassed it in speed and simplicity, Chrome is easy to use, fast in our testing, and still the most standards-compliant browser. But Mozilla Firefox gets our Editors’ Choice nod, thanks to its speed, customizability, and lower drain on laptop batteries. The desktop version of Chrome has been steadily updated, but in terms of exciting new features, it’s been pretty quiet lately, given the exciting new entries from Maxthon and Vivaldi, as well as noteworthy improvements in Firefox. The most recent releases of Google’s browser have been for plugging security holes, improving reliability, adding coding capabilities, and removing unpopular features like the App Launcher and the Notification Center. They may not be eye-grabbing improvements, but they’re still important.
- Leading support for emerging standards.
- Fast in testing.
- Good security.
- Built-in Flash player and PDF reader.
- Highest battery drain in our testing.
- Weak on privacy.
- No reading mode or built-in social sharing.
Google Chrome Review
Chrome is available for Mac OS X and Linux, as well as Windows—all recent versions from Windows 7 to Windows 10($99.99 at Amazon UK). (It no longer supports XP or Vista.) Chrome installation is a snap, handled by first downloading a very small stub program that downloads the full browser. No reboot is required. A fresh installation on my PC took up a surprisingly large 406MB; by comparison, Firefox takes up less than a quarter of that, at 91MB.
When you first run Chrome, the start page is all about signing into a Google account, but don’t worry, you can simply open a new tab and close that one. Signing in doesn’t change the behavior of the browser, but it may raise concerns about browser-activity tracking. On the plus side, signing in to an account gives you the benefit of being able to sync your browser settings and bookmarks on different computers.
Chrome started the trend of minimalist browser interfaces. All the other major browsers have followed suit, to the point that a minimalist interface can no longer be seen as a Chrome competitive advantage. In fact, Microsoft Edge, the new browser that comes with Windows 10, actually uses less chrome—the developer term for window borders and other interface elements—than Chrome. Like Chrome, other browsers now have just a single Menu button for accessing options. As with Firefox, Chrome lets you dress up the browser using Themes that change the window border background, but with Chrome, you can’t change the design of buttons and other interface elements. Firefox’s Theme gallery is also more helpful since you can see the theme you hover over applied to your browser.
Search Box. Omnibox is the name for Chrome’s combined search and address bar, which runs all the way across the top of Chrome windows. In Edge, tabs are, by default, next to the search/address bar, so that the browser leaves even more space for the webpage you’re looking at. Firefox is the last major browser to keep separate search and address boxes, which is a boon to privacy since everything you type into the Omnibox is sent to Google servers. That happens even before you hit Enter if you have search prediction on, which is the default. Not so with Firefox.
Tabs. Chrome offers excellent tab implementation. The distinctive angle-edged tabs are prominent at the top of the browser window, and you can drag them out to the desktop to create independent windows. You can pin a site up in the tab bar. The New Tab page is less customizable than Firefoxes. It doesn’t let you choose site tiles. Instead, it puts tiles for your most visited sites on New Tab pages, though it does let you remove a thumbnail from the most-visited tile view of new tabs. Edge’s New Tab page shows helpful and editable tiles of your most visited sites along with a customized newsfeed, while Opera’s Speed Dial is the most customizable of all, with tiles that can contain live info such as the weather forecast.
Built-In Flash and PDF Support
Chrome was the first browser to come with Adobe Flash built-in, rather than requiring a separate (and annoying) installation. Now Edge includes Flash, too, as does Opera, since that browser uses all of Chrome’s underlying page-rendering code. Not having to perform frequent Flash updates is a blessing—it updates automatically with the browser. This also avoids Flash security issues, because Chrome runs the plug-in in an isolated sandbox without access to critical system areas.
Like Firefox, however, Chrome is now phasing out Flash. In Firefox, Flash content is on-demand, meaning you okay it with a button before it runs. Google claims that Chrome does this for some Flash content already and that in an upcoming release it take the same approach as Firefox.
Like Firefox and Edge, Chrome boasts a PDF reader, so you don’t have to worry about installing Adobe plug-ins for viewing specialized Web content. When you load a PDF, an intuitive toolbar appears when your mouse cursor is in the lower-right corner of the browser window. You can print PDFs as you would on any web page.
Extensions in Chrome
There’s a healthy supply of Chrome extensions, accessible from the Tools submenu of the Chrome main menu. A checkbox for each extension allows it to run while you’re in Incognito (private-browsing) mode. Enough users must have complained that extensions disappear when you enter that mode. It makes sense that you might still want to run your ad blocker while surfing anonymously. In comparison, Firefox’s extensions always work in its Private Browsing mode.
After I installed an extension, a tooltip popped up showing its icon either in the address bar or as an added Menu button next to the default page and Wrench menu. Some extensions, such as the RSS reader, don’t install icons, while others add choices to the browser’s options dialog. One quibble I have is that the Chrome Extensions store, unlike every other software download store, doesn’t let you sort by top downloads; it’s all curated entries. My guess is that that’s to draw attention away from the likely top downloads—ad blockers. Another peeve: There’s no privacy and Security category for extensions, which Firefox’s catalog offers.
Syncing Bookmarks and More
Bookmark syncing has been available in Chrome for years, duplicating a feature introduced by Opera and later implemented by Firefox. Chrome can now sync tabs, passwords, preferences, themes, the aforementioned Web apps, auto-fill entries, extensions, and Omnibox history. You can also add new users to one machine’s installation of Chrome, letting multiple users sync their customizations.
Both Chrome and Firefox let you sync bookmarks, history, and so on, not only to other desktop instances of the browser but also to Android and iOS versions. It’s refreshing to browse and bookmark sites at work and then find them waiting on your home PC or on your phone. Edge lets you sync favorites, your reading list, settings, and passwords, but you don’t get the mobile options Chrome and Firefox offer.
One caveat: If you set up Omnibox history syncing (enabled by default), you’re not explicitly warned that your entire search and address entry activity will be stored on Google’s servers. You can head to your Google Dashboard to see and control what’s stored.
One thing missing in Chrome is its now-retired notification center. That’s not a large complaint, as the feature wasn’t popular. A bigger issue is that the browser also lacks support for the Windows 10 and OS X integrated notification features. Even though Windows 10 usage already far exceeds all Mac OS installations, Chrome developers are working on OS X notification integration, but not, for the moment, Windows 10 Action Center integration.
I test on a Surface Pro 4($99.99 at Amazon UK) with a Core i5-6300U CPU and 8GB RAM, clearing all browser caches, quitting all other apps, and removing all extensions, and keeping the PC plugged in. Power options are set to maximize performance. I run each test five times, throw out the highest and lowest results, and average the rest.
Unity WebGL Benchmark. Now that all the browsers I look at support WebGL, for game-level graphics, I also check them with the Unity WebGL Benchmark. It’s a great-looking benchmark that runs through visually demanding Mandelbrot sets, cryptography, and gaming physics scenarios, both 2D and 3D. One test is adorably named, “Instantiating [sic] and destroying a lot of Teddy bears.” Edge and Firefox have a big lead over Chrome and Opera on this one—not surprising because the benchmark uses asm.js, which has better support in Firefox and Edge.
Battery Drain. In light of all the controversy over Chrome being a drain on laptop batteries, I ran PCMag’s battery rundown test. In this I charge the battery fully, unplug the laptop and play a song on SoundCloud in an endless loop, having connected the audio output to a plugged-in PC recording the sound in Audacity. The browsers are loaded with the same 10 media-heavy websites. I also keep the screen brightness at maximum, which helps account for the short time results I saw. The laptop I use is an Acer Aspire E1-470P, whose battery is no great shakes to start with.
Chrome lasted just 1 hour and 18 minutes in this test. All the other browsers got more life out of that poor old battery. The surprise winner, Firefox, lasted 1 hour and 55 minutes. Opera lasted 1 hour and 36 minutes, and Edge lasted 1 hour and 32 minutes. My methodology admittedly isn’t quite perfect, since I don’t simulate user interaction, but most of the sites loaded use auto-refresh to load new content, so that can be thought of as a reasonable simulation of active navigation.
Memory Use. I test browsers’ RAM footprint by loading 10 media-rich websites into all the browsers at the same time and noting their Memory entry in Task Manager. I have to make sure the sites actually load because some browsers like to save you resources by not loading background tabs. Chrome and Opera in particular showed a lot of empty tabs when I first clicked on them. Firefox wins this test, nearly halving Chrome’s memory usage, while Edge trails by a surprising margin in this test.
Standards and Compatibility
Chrome has one of the best records in the business on supporting new Web technologies. Keep in mind, however, that some of these ostensible standards are in flux and haven’t actually been ratified by standards bodies. But that’s never stopped Google from including a technology in Chrome.
For a comparison of Web technologies supported, the HTML5test website awards point based on the number of functions recognized by a browser, with a maximum of 555. As you can see in the Performance chart above, Chrome has a comfortable lead here. Keep in mind, however, that many of the functions tested for are used by very few sites.
Native Client and Other Speedup Technologies
Through its Native Client (NaCl) technology, Chrome also can run code developed in C and C++, for pedal-to-the-metal speed necessary for games and other Web apps. It’s certainly intended as a way to get developers to code for Chrome OS as much as a standalone browser speed perk. Firefox and Edge support a similar but more open technology, asm.js. Any browser can run asm.js, while only Chrome can run NaCl.
Another former Web-speedup technology spearheaded by Google, SPDY, has been replaced by the more-standardized HTTP/2. Edge and Firefox also support this standard. Usage of HTTP/2 has increased to 9.3 percent of sites (surveyed by w3techs.com) including big-time sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Yahoo.
Chrome has been groundbreaking when it comes to security. The entire program architecture is internally sandboxed to protect against site code infiltrating the rest of your system. By integrating Flash, Google automatically updates it, which is certainly an important security advance—one copied by Edge, along with sandboxing.
Google’s Safe Browsing supplies the same kind of anti-malware and anti-phishing protections you find in Firefox. You even see a red warning page similar to Firefox’s if you try to surf onto a bad site. But Chrome no longer warns about sites containing mixed content—in which some elements on a webpage are secured by HTTPS and others aren’t. Firefox still flags this.
Chrome’s Safe Browsing feature issues warnings when you start to download nefarious content. And Google claims to have built the feature in such a way that the search giant doesn’t have to know what sites generate the warnings. In sum, Chrome is at least as good in the security department as other browsers. Sadly, however, no matter what security features are implemented in any browser, there are bad guys smart enough to bypass them, so it’s important to also have good antivirus software installed.
Chrome was the last major browser to include support for the Do Not Track privacy option. It’s still buried in Advanced Settings, with a warning popup telling you that publishers might not honor it. A recent survey showed that 75 percent of users want the feature on by default, and another survey found 96 percent wanted Do Not Track to be respected by website publishers. But the Web ad industry has pretty much killed the initiative, even despite an FTC call for a viable way for consumers to protect themselves from being tracked.
Do Not Track is hardly the strongest privacy protection around, either. The outgoing Internet Explorer has the strongest anti-tracking feature among the most popular browsers. Not yet available in Edge, Microsoft’s Tracking Protection is the only built-in browser tool that doesn’t require total buy-in from the potential trackers, as Firefox’s Do Not Track HTTP header solution does. For a privacy-optimized Chrome experience, check out Comodo’s Dragon browser, a free download based on Chrome’s underlying code. Plug-ins like Privacy Badger and Ghostery also offer solutions for those who want to end tracking of their Web activities.
For local privacy, Chrome’s Incognito mode lets you move around the Web without leaving traces of your activity. Chrome lets you have one tab in Incognito mode while viewing others publicly. Firefoxes goes it one better, blocking trackers that collect your browsing history across different sites while you’re in Private mode—something I think should always have been into all browsers’ privacy features. Opera is working on what may be the best privacy feature of all: a built-in virtual private network, or VPN.
Does Chrome Shine the Brightest?
Google’s groundbreaking browser started the trend in simplifying the user interface and speeding up the Web considerably. The company continues to innovate, and its speed and standards support keep the browser an excellent choice. It’s no longer far ahead of the pack as it once was, though, and privacy and battery usage are concerns. For customizability, speed, lower power consumption, and privacy protection look to PCMag’s Editors’ Choice for PC Web browsers, Mozilla Firefox.