The rumors have been running rampant for months indicating that Google would be porting a full-version of Chrome to Android. Yesterday, Google finally made good on the rumors and both announced and released the Chrome Beta for Android 4.0. This browser has a lot in common with the desktop version of Chrome, and can access all your Chrome data in the cloud. With a faster rendering engine, innovative tab management, and other desktop features, this might change the way you browse.
We've got Chrome Beta loaded on the Galaxy Nexus, and have been putting it through its paces. Read on as we run down everything good and bad about this new beta browser.
What is it, and where to get it
Google is releasing Chrome as a public beta on Android, but only a small number of phones and tablets will be able to run it. If you are not on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), you won’t have the necessary software features for the browser to work. For anyone rocking a Galaxy Nexus, Transformer Prime, or a device with an ICS ROM, Chrome Beta for Android is in the Market. It is filtered from other phones and tablets.
Google is essentially shrinking down Chrome and putting it on Android. It runs on WebKit like full Chrome and the stock browser do, but the WebKit version is closer to that of Chrome on the desktop. The many of the features you know and love from the desktop are there, and Google has taught Chrome for Android some new tricks to keep things interesting.
Google is using Chrome for Android to push their interconnected web experience. The Android app interacts with Google’s cloud in really useful ways, and it makes it hard to use any other browser. Let’s check out those features.
Speed and Rendering
Chrome for Android is fast, and we don’t mean just a little bit. It’s not fast in the way most browsers are “fast.” No, here we have a real noticeable difference in loading speed, as well as UI responsiveness. On the issue of page loads, we’re seeing average improvements of 30% on heavy web pages. Mobile sites are much faster to load, so the true difference in seconds in minuscule.
As for the speed of the UI, that is universally glorious. The scrolling in the stock browser is good, but it’s silky smooth and luxurious in Chrome. Still, this is explicitly a beta, and we are noticing some of those buggy bits in scrolling. Every now and then, there is a little stutter, but it doesn’t feel like regular browser lag because to isn't really connected to any particular activity. We assume Google will clean things like this up in due course. Something that will be refreshing to Android users is the robustness of the browser while pages are loading. Even on ICS, the browser can get pretty chunky if you try to scroll while a page was still loading. Not a problem with Chrome.
Page rendering is overall very good, and a fair bit better than with the stock browser, but the way text is handled is a little odd. Google has chosen to set the text size at “medium” which we think is a little too big. The text is very easy to read, even zoomed out, but it also breaks an occasional page elements, like buttons for instance. A quick trip to the settings, and a step down in text size makes everything look great. We do like that the browser is rendering text larger instead of requiring us to zoom in, and most pages render just fine even with the larger lettering.
The new tab management interface is one of the killer features in Chrome for Android. The icon in the Action Bar now shows a small number indicating how many tabs you have open. As for the Acton Bar itself, it is persistent at the top of the screen now; it won’t slide off like it does in the stock browser. We’re a little torn about this change, as it eats up pixels, but we like to see the tab count and have access to the menu button at a glance. Google has manged to minimize the space it takes up at least.
Hit the tab button, and you go to the new tab screen, which is laid out like a stack of cards. Our first thought was that it felt a little out of place in Android 4.0, but it’s really excellent once you start using it. Your open tabs are stacked on top of each other, and you can swipe up and down to pull the stack apart and see screenshots of each page peeking out. If you want a better look at a tab, you can use multitouch to spread the stack out a little more. Tabs can be closed by hitting the ‘X’ or by swiping them to the side, as is the ICS way.
Something that has not been reported on much is the addition of edge gestures in the Chrome beta. When you have more than one tab open, and you’re just browsing a site, you can swipe between the tabs without opening the card interface. Just start at the far left or right of the screen, and swipe across and the next tab in line will slide over in card form as the current tab slides out. We love this feature. There is a feature called Tilt Scrolling that lets you flick the phone to scroll through the stack. It seems buggy, and is not a good experience.
When you install Chrome for Android, it strongly suggests that you log in with your Gmail account. The Android 4.0 stock browser has integration with desktop Chrome when it comes to bookmarks and passwords, but Chrome for Android goes even further.
You can now get all your open tabs from Chrome in the mobile version. The new tab screen has a section for your other devices, and it lists everything you have open on the desktop in real time. Chrome lists the device name, and how long ago it was synced. We found that it updated in almost no time.
All your omnibox entries are also synced between devices providing better suggestions. This is another place where we feel like there is a little hesitation that shouldn’t be there. It’s not uncommon for the browser to just hang for a split second when generating suggestions as you type.
Of course there is also the excellent bookmark and password sync, and we much prefer the way Chrome displays bookmarks to the stock browser. The links in the bookmarks bar are listed as the Desktop Bookmarks in Chrome for Android. The “other bookmarks” folder (or whatever you’ve called it) will show up as a separate folder. This makes it easy to get to the most important stuff.
There are a few features missing in this first beta release of Chrome for Android. First off, there is no support for Adobe Flash, and there never will be. Yes, this is the end of the line for the venerable Flash plug-in. Adobe is not not doing any more development on Flash for mobile devices, and that means this new browser won’t ever get it. To be clear; this had nothing to do with Google, it's all Adobe. Instead, YouTube content is automatically shown as an embedded HTML5 video that you can play on the page.
Chrome for Android does have Incognito Mode, and there is a menu option to open an Incognito tab. A menu option that is missing is the fast useragent switching introduced in Android 4.0. This is used for requesting the desktop version of a site, and it can be quite useful. it seems like a strange omission, and we hope Google adds it later.
Chrome for Android has the ability to pre-load links just like the desktop browser does. This makes the wait shorter when you actually tap on a page to load it. It necessarily uses more bandwidth, so there is a menu option to make that happen only over Wi-Fi.
A new feature called Link Preview is on board, and it’s got some real potential. The idea is that if you’re pressing a link that’s crowded in with other links, Link Preview will magnify the area so you can make sure you’re pressing the right one. In practice, it’s still buggy and only seems to come up when it feels like it. Case in point, the popup appears under your finger, which likely is not transparent.
Chrome is going to be the official Android browser after it is out of beta, and it’s already quite good. The increased speed, accurate rendering, tab handling, and cloud features make this a winning app. The lack of Flash is a little sad, like the end of an era, but it’s probably best to move on. Chrome for Android is good enough right now that it can replace your stock browser on Android 4.0. If you’re not on ICS yet, Chrome is just another reason you should be yearning for an update.