Google Chrome for Mac -- fast, slim, very beta

Google's browser is still missing many features, but it's interesting to test.

The just-released beta of Google Chrome for the Mac follows the same design principles that Google uses for its own site design -- the browser is stripped-down and fast, with few features to get in the way of the Web pages you browse. It is nearly identical to the PC version, but because it is in an earlier phase of development, it lacks some significant features.

The browser's name provides a hint as to what takes center stage here -- an application's user interface is sometimes referred to as its chrome, and as with the PC version, Google has reduced as much of the browser's "chrome" as possible. That leaves you with a browser that's all display. Those who prefer bare-bones browsing will be pleased; those who like a fuller feature set may stay away.

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Keep in mind that this first beta of Chrome for the Mac is still a very early work in progress. In fact, it feels more like an alpha release than a beta release -- even its bookmark manager doesn't work. You should not download it expecting to get work done.

Interface and features

The first thing you'll notice about the Chrome interface is that its tabs, unlike those in Safari and Firefox, sit above the address bar instead of underneath it. Google calls the address bar the Omnibox, and it's true to its name -- it does double-duty as a search bar.

Type in your search term and Chrome performs a search. It uses Google by default, but you can change the default to other search engines, including Bing and Yahoo. As with Safari and Firefox, when you type in an URL instead of a search term, it displays your bookmarks and Web pages from sites you've already visited as you type. It also makes its own suggestions based on the popularity of Web sites.

The Omnibox adds another nice touch: When you're on a site, the domain is highlighted so that you can easily see what domain you are currently visiting, even if your current page has a lengthy URL.

When you open a new tab in Chrome, a page appears with thumbnails of your nine most-visited Web pages, along with a recent bookmark list, and a search box for searching through the history of sites you've visited. It's not nearly as nifty-looking as a similar feature in Safari.

On the other hand, in Chrome, each tab is essentially its own browser, so if that tab crashes, the entire browser doesn't (or at least shouldn't) crash. You can also easily tear off tabs into their own browser windows, and recombine separate browser windows into a single window with multiple tabs.

As with other Mac applications, options and features are available on a separate menu, although if you want, you can display two icons -- a page icon and a tools icon -- at the upper right of the browser screen, which give you access to many Chrome features via menus. For example, you can set your overall Chrome options, clear your browsing history, import bookmarks, and so on.

Chrome, like Safari and Firefox, can generate a separate window for keeping your browsing session private; here it's called Incognito mode. There's also a pop-up blocker.

What's missing -- and a few bugs

When Google calls a service or a piece of software "beta" you never know what you're going to get -- sometimes you'll get an application that most companies would consider a final release, and other times you'll get a work in progress. With Chrome for the Mac, you get the work in progress.

In addition to the non-functional bookmarks manager -- it's grayed-out on the menu and doesn't work -- there's also no full-screen mode as of yet. Unfortunately, the Mac version also doesn't yet support extensions, which are now part of the PC and Linux versions.

The Mac version also lacks Chrome's geekiest feature -- the Task Manager. The Task Manager is a kind of techie's heaven. It displays every separate process in the browser, and shows the memory and CPU taken up by each. It also lets you free up RAM or CPU by ending a process, and there's more as well. Chrome for the Mac also doesn't support Google Gears, which is required if you want to use Google's Web-based applications in offline mode.

Also not available are what Google calls application shortcuts, which let you run Web-based applications from your desktop. On the PC version of Chrome, when you start an application shortcut, it runs in a browser window with no controls such as tabs, buttons, or the address bar. It's designed for a world in which you run many applications via the cloud rather than on your local computer. Given that application shortcuts are generally flaky on the PC, not having them available yet on the Mac is no great loss.

Mac-specific goodies

Chrome may be missing extensions and several other features available on the PC, but even in this beta version, it does offer Mac OS X-specific features. It supports multi-touch gestures, such as the three-fingered swipe for moving forward and back in a browsing section. And it integrates with the Mac OS X spelling and grammar checker, which is good news for bloggers and anyone else who writes online. It also ties into the sandboxing security technology built into Mac OS X.

The bottom line

Chrome for the Mac is still an early beta, so if you're looking for an everyday browser, this isn't it. It's missing so many features that it simply isn't ready for serious work. However, if you want a chance to see Google's vision of a browser for the Mac, it's well worth the download.

At this point, because the browser is still incomplete, it's hard to gauge how well it stacks up to Safari and Firefox. Safari is a blazingly fast browser, and Firefox offers an enormous ecosystem of add-ins. Chrome is built for speed and will eventually support its own extensions as well. So it's clearly trying to combine the best of Safari with the best of Firefox. We'll have to wait for a more polished version of the browser to see whether it succeeds.

This story, "Google Chrome for Mac -- fast, slim, very beta" was originally published by Computerworld .

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