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Google Chrome 4.0 graduates to beta status

There's no Mac OS X or Linux version yet, and extensions are disabled, but a significant new version of Chrome is heading to a broader audience.

More people will get a chance to try out bookmark synchronization with Monday's release of a beta version of Google Chrome for Windows.

Google introduced the bookmark sync feature for the developer-preview version in August, but now it's also in the better-tested beta version, Chrome However, there's still no Chrome beta for Mac OS X or Linux.

In a video explanation, Google's Anthony LaForge somewhat breathlessly describes how the sync feature can keep bookmarks the same on multiple machines. That's a fair point, but let's be realistic here--bookmark sync in Chrome is more catch-up than paradigm shift. Indeed, with the popular Xmarks extension--in the works for Chrome, people can synchronize bookmarks among multiple browsers, not merely multiple computers.

And Chrome's clever message-based sync technology notwithstanding, Chrome bookmarks would be a lot more magical if they synchronized with the Google bookmarks service, which is linked with iGoogle and the Google Toolbar.

Speaking of extensions, one of the 4.x series' biggest features is the ability to accommodate extensions, but because Google is shifting the extensions interface, the feature isn't enabled in the beta version. Chrome is released in three versions: the roughest, fastest moving developer preview, the more stable beta, and the stable edition for the broadest audience.

The 4.x series has other significant features, too, though it's not clear whether they'll arrive in the beta or stable versions. One is Google's Native Client, which lets JavaScript applications take more direct advantage of a PC processor's horsepower through a careful security mechanism. Another is WebGL, a 3D interface that does the same with hardware-accelerated graphics.

Together, the features have the potential to dramatically improve the power and sophistication of Web-based applications. That's particularly interesting given that Google is building Chrome OS, a browser-based operating system.

The Mac version isn't in beta yet, but it's a priority.

"Our goal for this Friday is to be able to count our Mac P1 M4 release blocker bugs on one hand (we're in the 20s now)," said Chrome programmer Mike Pinkerton in a Chrome edged up to 3.6 percent of browser usage for October, its highest showing so far in Net Applications' statistics since the browser's first public release 14 months ago. That's within striking distance of third-place Safari at 4.2 percent, but still well short of second-place Firefox at 24.1 percent and dominant Internet Explorer at 64.6 percent.

Chrome has helped fan the browser war flames even without becoming dominant, though. In particular, it's helped increase the emphasis on performance such as the speed to load the software, load Web pages, and run Web-based JavaScript applications. Here, more than with bookmark sync, Google's chest-thumping has some merit:

"As with every release, this new beta comes with many speed improvements. In particular, as Web applications we use every day become increasingly dynamic, browsers like Google Chrome need to be able to construct and change elements on web pages as fast as possible," said programmers Idan Avraham and Anton Muhin in a blog post. "We've improved performance scores on Google Chrome by 30 percent since our current stable release, as measured by Mozilla's Dromeao DOM Core Tests, and by 400 percent since our first stable release."

There has been some slowdown with the arrival of Chrome extensions, though, so Google will have some more optimization work to do to keep the browser in fighting trim.

Updated 9:57 p.m. PST with further details on the Mac OS X beta priority.