Google's Chrome Browser Pretty, but Lacks Substance

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Google Inc.'s new Web browser, called Chrome, does much of what a browser needs to do these days: It presents a sleek appearance, groups pages into easy-to-manage "tabs" and offers several ways for people to control their Internet privacy settings.

Yet my initial tests reveal that this "beta," or preliminary release, falls short of Google's goals, and is outdone in an important measure by the latest version of Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer.

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Chrome is a challenge to Microsoft's browser, used by about three-quarters of Web surfers. But it could equally be called a challenge to Microsoft's Office software suite, because what Google really wants to do is to make the browser a stable and flexible platform that can do practically everything we want to do with a computer, from word processing and e-mail to photo editing.

To strengthen that effort, Chrome was designed to improve on the way other browsers handle JavaScript, one of the technologies used to make Web pages more interactive and more like desktop software applications.

Google's online word processing and spreadsheet programs use this technology, but it's also very widely deployed on Web pages to do less sophisticated things, like drop-down menus.

At first blush, Google's focus on JavaScript makes sense. JavaScript can eat up computer processor power, and if poorly used by a Web site, can bring down the browser.

One of the things Chrome promises is that if one browser tab crashes, it won't take down the whole program.

Chrome also has some cosmetic differences from Internet Explorer and Firefox, like putting the tabs at the very top of the window. That's a nice move, but it's the browser's performance that really matters to me. And this is where Chrome's attention to JavaScript might miss the point.

At work, I often have 40 or 50 tabs open in Firefox, grouped in different windows depending on which topic they pertain to. Frequently, Firefox would slow down all the other applications on my computer, then seize up completely.

At first I thought JavaScript was to blame, and blocked it from running. But that made many sites unusable, and it didn't help: The browser still froze.

It turns out the culprit is not JavaScript but another technology used to make Web pages more interactive: Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash plug-in.

It's the program-within-a-program that plays YouTube videos and those annoying "splash" pages that some sites employ to dazzle you with animations before letting you do anything useful on the site.

Flash is a tremendous resource hog in Firefox, eating up processor time to the point where there is nothing left for other programs.

It does this even if you're not actively doing anything. Merely having a YouTube page open on your screen will suck power from your computer's central processing unit, or CPU.

This is outrageous behavior for a browser. It's my CPU and I want it back.

Luckily, there's a small add-on program for Firefox called "Flash Killer" that lets the user prevent Flash files from running automatically when a page loads, and it turns Firefox into a stable, efficient browser.

What does this mean on Chrome? Well, it has the same problem.

It lets sites running Flash take over your computer's resources. It doesn't hog the CPU quite as badly as with Firefox, but in a way, it's more serious, because unlike with Firefox, there's no way to stop Flash from running. Chrome's controls are quite bare-bones, perhaps because it's still in "beta."

On the plus side, Chrome allows you to diagnose problems with runaway plug-ins easily, because it tells you exactly which pages are consuming which resources. Had I been able to do this with Firefox, it would have saved me from months of browser troubles.

So which one comes out smelling like roses? The beta of Internet Explorer 8, released just last week.

When playing a YouTube video, Firefox 3 took up 95 percent of the CPU time on a three-year old laptop running Windows XP.

Chrome came in at 60 percent — still too much. Especially since Google owns YouTube! You'd think it could make its browser work well with that site in particular.

Internet Explorer barely broke a sweat, taking up just a few percent.

When I told each browser to load eight pages, some of which were heavy with Flash and graphics, Firefox took 17 seconds and ended with a continuous CPU load of 50 percent. That means it took up half of my available processing power, even if I wasn't looking at any of the pages.

Chrome loaded them the fastest, at 12 seconds, and ended with a CPU load of about 40 percent.

Internet Explorer 8 took 13 seconds to load, but ended with no CPU load at all.

So while Chrome's performance is a little better than that of Firefox, in practical terms, it is far less useful, because it lacks the broad array of third-party add-ons programs like Flashblock that make Firefox so customizable.

With time, it might catch up, but in the meantime, I'd recommend giving the new Internet Explorer a spin.