Google Chrome 3.0 beta: Tested in-depth

Google's Chrome Web browser has hit version 3.0 in its beta phase, introducing some much-wanted functionality. We've tested and benchmarked it, and have an interesting fact to reveal

Google's Chrome Web browser has hit version 3.0, albeit it in beta. The update comes with some much-wanted functionality: themes and browser skinning, more control over the home screen and its 'speed dial' bookmarks, and even faster performance.

Speed is central to Chrome's manifesto. As more and more sites rely on large amounts of Ajax and Javascript programming -- Gmail, Facebook and Google Docs being just three examples -- browsers need to be able to process and render it faster than ever. This is an area Chrome has almost exclusively dominated since its inception last year, so we'll look at that first.

Incidentally, the core functionality of Chrome remains identical to previous versions. If this is your first experience with Chrome, have a butchers' at our reports on Chrome 1.0 and Chrome 2.0 .

The fastest browser on the planet

On a Windows 7 RC box, powered by an Intel Core 2 Duo 2GHz CPU and 2GB of RAM, the current version of Chrome -- version 2.0 -- scored 775ms on the SunSpider Javascript benchmark. That's exactly the same as Safari 4.0.2 for Windows scored under the same conditions.

But Chrome 3.0 reclaimed its space as 'world's fastest browser' moments later, thundering through the benchmarking process in 688ms, making it 11 per cent faster than the current version. Impressive, though not quite the 30 per cent speed increase Google claims it saw internally using the same benchmarking process.

To put this into context, Firefox 3.5 scored 1,351ms, Opera 10 beta 2 scored 3,687ms, Internet Explorer 8 scored 5,720ms and K-Meleon scored 11,556ms. Without a doubt, Chrome 3.0 is the speed leader by a large margin, and officially the fastest browser in the world.

Aesthetic evolution, no sign of revolution

Firefox has always welcomed being skinned with cheery different colours, themes and designs. From version 3.0, Google Chrome allows this too. Google has produced a few dozen usable examples, such as in the screenshot below.


They can be downloaded and applied from the Google Chrome theme homepage, but third-party skins from independent designers are a no-show for now. And, at least for us, no single skin has made us truly moist with excitement. They're well-designed for sure, but they purely change colours rather than 'physical' attributes of the browser, such as the shape of tabs or the design of the back, forward and refresh buttons. Fans of customisation will be left wanting more.

Moving homepage

Now a key feature of Chrome, Safari and Opera -- the latter being the originator of this feature, incidentally -- is the 'speed dial' homepage displayed when new tabs are opened. In previous versions of Chrome, the sites you visited most frequently were displayed as thumbnail screenshots, but you couldn't rearrange them. In Chrome 3.0, you can.

Click thumbnail, drag thumbnail, drop thumbnail. That's the meat of the deal. Drop a thumbnail to the position on the speed dial you want, and the thumbnail it replaces swiftly jumps to the position the one you're moving came from. It's smoothly animated, and while Safari's version is still more elegant and customisable, Chrome wins for simplicity and function.


But there's more. A box below these thumbnails contains text links to the most recent pages you visited (known as 'recent activities', not 'history'). And, curiously, an empty box sits next to that. Google doesn't even hide the fact that it's a useless box, asking, 'What will we put here?'

We don't know, Google. But may we suggest the option for recent Gmail or Google Docs items? Just an idea.

Conclusion

Chrome stole our hearts when it was released, and for this reporter it replaced Firefox for months. Then Safari got really good on the Mac, and it replaced Firefox there, too. But now Chrome has snapped back into pride of place on the Windows desktop, and hopefully the full OS X and Linux versions can squeeze themselves into something more than a buggy alpha release package soon.

It's an exciting, if only moderately evolutionary step for Google's browser. The extra speed its V8 Javascript engine delivers will, for the average user, make little noticeable difference, but on paper it smashes records, and it walks away as the best version of Chrome to date. Try it out here.

 

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