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Google lets 100 artists paint on Chrome canvas

Themes from Wes Craven, fashion houses, and many artists add some color to Chrome--if you can find some empty pixels in the browser to show them off.

Mariah Carey gets her own Google Chrome theme.
Mariah Carey gets her own Google Chrome theme. Stephen Shankland/CNET

I'm a little confused. Is Chrome supposed to be a minimally intrusive window to the Web or a splashy showcase for your favorite graphical style?

If you're in the latter camp, the type of person who picks desktop wallpaper carefully and reskins every software that can be reskinned, you'll be pleased with Google's unveiling Monday of artist themes for its Chrome browser. If you're the more utilitarian sort, avoid clicking on the Themes Gallery page.

These two possible attitudes aren't mutually exclusive, but they do live awkwardly together in Chrome. For an artistic canvas, Google's browser has only a minimal menu bar across the top, and it's often obscured by tabs. The best opportunity to show off some graphical pizzazz is the new-tab page, which perhaps someday will become some all-purpose Google portal page but for now is just a means to getting to some other Web page as fast as possible.

But Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search and user experience, enjoys any opportunity to promote her fondness for fashion and art. Who else could have been behind the Oscar de la Renta, Chloe, Kate Spade, and Dolce & Gabbana themes?

A total of 100 new themes are now an option alongside the less eye-catching themes that Google already offered on its own. Mayer's status as patron of the arts only goes so far, though: several artists declined the opportunity to give their work to Google for free, according to The New York Times.

Themes are just eye candy, though perhaps HTML5's built-in audio support will add another dimension some day. Nevertheless, plenty of people care passionately about themes as a way to lighten up their computing experience or display loyalty to some cause. (Any Porsche fans out there?) One feature in Firefox 3.6, code-named Namoroka and about to enter beta testing, is the advancement of the Personas visual customization tool from plug-in to built-in.

I ran into a few snags. The menu-bar text of Mariah Carey's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel theme was only visible on a very wide monitor, with Chrome not maximized and few tabs showing. With the Takora Kimiyoshi Futori theme, I couldn't read status bar pop-up text such as a Web address I hovered over with my mouse. And switching from one theme to another changed the menu bar but not an already visible new-tab page, producing an even more jarring opportunity for visual cacophony.

I generally don't use themes, but I have to say I'm glad they exist. They enable a certain whimsy and help add a bit of spice to a computing experience that can be very impersonal.

Sixteen of the hundred themes now available for Chrome.
Sixteen of the hundred themes now available for Chrome. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET