Eventually Google’s Chrome Web browser had to come to Android. In my heart of hearts, I knew it would happen, but I never thought it would take so long. Senior Googlers have been quoted as far back as 2008, hinting that Chrome would come to Android. Today, it finally made the jump. This morning, Google released the first beta of Chrome for Android on all devices running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Since I happen to own just about the only Android 4.0 device on the market, the Galaxy Nexus, I downloaded the beta app from the Android Market and gave it a whirl. If you happen to have a device running ICS, you should be able to find Chrome Beta in the Market as well.
My hands-on impressions of the new browser are below.
Layout and tabbed browsing
Though most mobile browsers are trying really hard to get rid of any menus or items on the screen, the Chrome ‘omnibox’ combined Search and Address bar does not leave the screen at any time. It has a search box in it, a Refresh button, a tabs button, and that familiar elipsis button that indicates there are more options. In that menu, you can open new tabs, get to Bookmarks, and toy around with Settings. The new layout works pretty well. Oddly, the mobile browser that looks most like Chrome is Dolphin HD. The Dolphin team loved Chrome for PC so much that it completely copied almost everything about its appearance, right down to the way tabs look.
Tabs in Chrome Beta are a bit different from the PC. Moving between open tabs is one of the best parts about the new UI. You can swipe from the side of any page to auto-move to the next open tab (this is a useful feature commonly found in WebOS and the BlackBerry PlayBook). Hitting the tabs button brings up a full menu of open pages. These are displayed in a stacked view that you can push up or down, as if grabbing pieces of paper inside a folder. If you swipe a page to the left or right, it is discarded off the screen. New tabs also have recently visited pages and links to Bookmarks and synced tabs from your PC (this feature did not work for me).
Incognito windows are here from the PC as well. These are private tabs that don’t save cookies or your search history. They’re pretty great if you’re looking up embarrassing stuff, though please keep in mind that even if Google isn’t recording your searches and browsing history your service provider is, whether that’s a phone company or cable company or whomever. Like Patrick Stewart, your ISP has seen it all; it’s seen everything. There is no true privacy unless you go to extremes.
In any case, Incognito tabs are still useful and can be opened just as easily as a regular tab. To access them, you go to the tabs page and swipe from the right. The Incognito tabs are colored dark blue and bundled together, but slightly separated from standard tabs so that you don’t flip through them unless you would like to do so.
The first thing I noticed about the new Chrome browser was it’s speed. While it could be my imagination, the browser seems to open faster and render pages much speedier than any other mobile browser, and today I’ve tested most of them: Dolphin, Firefox, Skyfire, Opera Mobile, and the default Android browser. Though it’s only in beta, Chrome already breezes past most of the competition. It starts up quicker and loads pages much faster.
Page rendering improved
Attempting to browse the Web on a phone has never been easy because it was originally designed for much larger screens. Each of the major Android mobile browsers attempt to help mobile users read text better on full Websites. Some of them load pages already zoomed in (Skyfire), while others attempt to wrap text so that it’s easier to read when you zoom in on a Web page. Chrome does modify text, but does so in a more elegant manner than most, simply upping the size of the text in every view, making it easier to read articles on a Web page from a zoomed out point of view and much easier once you zoom in with a double tap or pinch-to-zoom gesture. Zooming has a much smoother animation and flow to it as well. Did we mention that you can also search within a page to find a specific word or phrase? If you’re a journalist or blogger, you’ll love this feature — if you don’t already know about it. Try hitting CTRL+F in your PC browser. It’s awesome.
Signing in with your Google account
Privacy worriers, you don’t have to log in with your Google account, but you now have the option. Doing so will let you sync your bookmarks and even active tabs between your PC and mobile phone or tablet. I couldn’t get the phone to sync up my open tabs, but I did immediately see a benefit from logging in to my account. The mobile Chrome now knows all of my autofill data, my saved passwords, and my search history, allowing it to know that when I start typing “Digital,” I’m probably going to finish that with “Trends.”
Better all around
After using the Chrome Beta for just a couple hours, I don’t think I’ll be switching to any other browser anytime soon. There are some good alternatives for Android, but the Chrome team has spent a lot of time optimizing this new browser for Android 4.0 and it shows. It allows me to easily multitask, it connects up to my PC browser, and it loads pages quickly and accurately. This browser may be in beta, but it’s already more polished than most of its competitors.
Below is a video run through of the new browser.