By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Your Web browser is probably the most important program on your computer, and it's now getting the competition it deserves.
Mozilla Firefox, the most successful challenger to Microsoft's incumbent Internet Explorer, is an outstanding piece of work and more than deserving of the raves it has won since its debut four years ago. (I made it my default browser in Windows even before its 1.0 version arrived.) But its developers don't have a monopoly on all the bright ideas in browsing; people looking for better ways to the Web have two new options.
One comes from Microsoft, which two weeks ago shipped an impressive, but unfinished, release of IE's next version. The other comes from Google, which last week offered a preview of its own browser.
Both browsers are free downloads for Microsoft's Windows XP or Vista, though Google says it's working on Mac and Linux versions of Chrome.
IE 8 looks like the disappointing IE 7 Microsoft released in 2006, but it's considerably more useful. It catches up with two of Firefox's best conveniences -- the auto-complete function that takes you to recently visited pages whether you type their address or their title and the "find as you type" searching that jumps to matching text on a page as you type your query. It also adds useful tweaks of its own.
One deals with tabbed browsing, the feature that lets you flip among open Web pages in a single window as if they were tabbed folders in a drawer. Microsoft's developers noticed how Web readers will open a set of links from one page in new tabs, then not read these pages until later; to help you keep your place, IE 8 dyes the tabs of pages opened from one site in one color.
The blank page that loaded when you opened a new tab in IE now features links to pages you've viewed before and such options as "accelerators" -- shortcuts to Web services such as mapping and word-translation sites that you can invoke with a right-click. There's also "InPrivate browsing," an option that, like the "private browsing" in Apple's Safari, lets you visit sites without the browser keeping any record of your activity there.
IE 8 also adds sturdier defenses against hostile Web sites and some performance tune-ups, though it's still slower and it uses more memory than Firefox.
This browser has looked stable in a couple of weeks of testing. But some sites that tweaked for old versions of IE look off-kilter in this version -- a side effect of earlier IE editions' weaker support for Web standards.
Google's Chrome shares some features with IE 8 and Firefox, such as smart address auto-completion and find-as-you-type searching. But it's far simpler than either, tossing aside many browser traditions.
Chrome dispenses with the usual lineup of address bar and search bar; here, you type either a site's address or words to describe the site you want, and Chrome's smart enough to know the difference. The program then condenses the standard lineup of menus to two small drop-down items and retires the bookmarks menu in favor of a new-tab start page that presents your bookmarks and thumbnail images of recently visited pages.
This absence of clutter could make Chrome the perfect starter browser -- if only it came pre-installed on a new computer.
Chrome matches Safari's private browsing and IE 8's InPrivate option with a similar mode, "incognito." But it leaves out such common features as support for the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) updates offered by many sites and the add-ons and extensions you can use to customize IE and Firefox.
Chrome also showed its beta status in such glitches as text that briefly vanished as I typed it into an online form and Flash videos that randomly stopped playing after a couple of seconds.
But the biggest issue with this browser is the brand name. Google does some great work, but do you want it providing all of your Internet experiences? Would you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same restaurant?
In that light, the best feature of Chrome may not be its simplicity but its open-source code, free for anybody to inspect and, if they wish, improve. (Credit where it's due: A chunk of this code comes from the WebKit open-source core of Apple's Safari, which itself dates to an earlier project, KHTML.)
Both IE 8 and Chrome attempt to cure a common ailment of Web browsing by running separate pages in separate blocks of code so that when one page crashes, you can keep viewing any other pages you have up. That technique eats a fair amount of memory, but as memory gets cheaper, this tradeoff may not seem so bad.
I wouldn't dump Firefox for either of these just yet, but I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what the Firefox (and Safari and Opera) developers do to top these releases. The browser market can only get more interesting from here on out.