WHEN IN CHROME... OUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF CHROME FOR ANDROID
By seaempty. Wednesday, February 8, 2012 6:56:25 PM
As we posted yesterday, Google have released a mobile version of their Chrome browser. It’s currently a beta version, and only available for devices running Android 4.0, but I’ve spent a bit of time with it, and here are my thoughts.
First, a bit of background… Before Chrome, I had three browsers installed on my phone: the stock Android browser, Opera Mini, and Opera Mobile. None are perfect, hence the need for having three. The stock Android browser is the best at integrating with Android, so links for things like YouTube and the Android Market open in the relevant app. It’s terrible at rendering pages, however, and is not overly fast.
Opera Mini is great for browsing when I have poor signal strength, but doesn’t offer a fully fledged browsing experience. Opera Mobile is probably the closest to perfection for mobile browsing; it’s fast, smooth, and feature-rich. It doesn’t, however, integrate that well with Android (Market links take you to the desktop version, for example), and I had to fiddle about with the Custom User Agent settings to get web pages to appear as I liked. I hoped that the Turbo feature of Opera Mobile meant that I could dispense with the need for Opera Mini, but this strangely seems to slow down browsing when not on Wi-Fi. Not sure why this is.
So now we get to Chrome. It’s important to bear in mind that this is only a beta version, and it does have a few bugs. But it also has a few neat features.
Accelerated page loading, scrolling, and zooming
It’s hard not to improve on the stock Android’s browsing experience, and Chrome beta does just that. It’s certainly fast, and renders pages much better (there are no blank areas or blurry text), but it’s not particularly smooth.
There doesn’t appear to be any text reflow either, so the text size remains constant when you zoom in and out. In fact, the browser adopts a rather large font size when viewing web pages. It’s handy in as much as you don’t have to zoom in to read tiny details, but it looks a bit odd to me.
To counter this, there is a pop-up box that zooms in on fiddly hyper-links. It actually works quite well, and means you can view and navigate full web pages with ease.
Search and navigate directly from the omnibox
The omnibox isn’t a particularly new feature, and it’s been present in the stock browser for a while. I tend to use the physical search button to open up a search in the browser, so it’s not of great use for me.
That said, Google are trying to phase out physical keys, so you may be using this more and more in the future.
Open and switch between unlimited tabs in an easy-to-view stack
Again, tabs are nothing new, but being able to have unlimited tabs open is fairly impressive. I’m not sure if it’s particularly useful to be able to be such a tab slut, and it does come at a price.
Chrome appears to be a bit resource hungry, and all those tabs take their toll. The animation for scrolling between the tabs is lovely though, and it’s very satisfying to close them with a swiping gesture.
Sign in to Chrome to sync your bookmarks and view tabs you have open on your computer
Syncing bookmarks is a great feature, and I use Opera Link to sync between my phone, tablet, and PC. Chrome goes that step further, and allows you to view the tabs you have open on your PC on your phone. It’s great if you have to dash out, and want to continue reading. It’s like Chrome to Phone in reverse.
It’s a bit fiddly to set up, however, and you have to activate the feature on the PC though the chrome://flags menu. It’s not at all clear, unless I’ve missed something obvious.
Send pages from desktop Chrome to your smartphone or tablet with one click and read them on the go, even if you’re offline
There is a new Chrome extension called Chrome to Mobile Beta, which acts in the same way to Chrome to Phone. It has the advantage of being able to send full copies of web pages so that they can be viewed offline.
Browse privately in Incognito mode
The stock Android browser has an incognito, and it’s a nice addition. You know, for when you want to use your phone to buy your wife a birthday present, and make sure that she doesn’t find out what it is. And for no other reason, no sir.
In a matter of hours after the release of Chrome Beta, Adobe announced that it is unlikely that it will ever have Flash support. It’s a definite step back, although I’m probably missing the bigger picture.
It’s just always been nice to have Flash support as a feather in Android’s cap over iOS. Time will tell if you will miss it all that much. Some embedded YouTube videos still play, however, and people smarter than I am will have to explain why.
Poor integration with Android
The biggest surprise for me is how badly Chrome Beta integrates with Android. Android Market links take you to the desktop version of the Market, and not the app, and YouTube links take you to the mobile version of the site.
It seems to defeat the point of having dedicated apps, if you can’t use them to view their content. Having worked so well with the stock Android browser, it was a shock to not see the same level of integration with Chrome.
No customisable user agent
For some people, being able to view the desktop version of websites on their phone is a real necessity. For me, I’m quite happy to look at mobile sites, as most offer the same content in an easier to view format. It is nice to have the choice, however, and Chrome doesn’t give you this.
So there you have it - a brief look at the Chrome Beta browser. I'll be sticking with it for a while, to see how it fairs with longer use, but there is certainly room for improvement. If you have a device running Android 4.0, the browser can be downloaded from the Market here.