It was only a matter of time until Google decided to take over our Web browser. Not content with ruling the world with its omnipresent search engine, e-mail client, or mapping software (among a raft of others), the U.S.-based company now wants to take control of your clicks. Still in beta, Google Chrome promises to add value for users and, at the same time, help drive innovation on the Web. We shall see.

All of us pretty much spend most of our time working inside a browser. We search, chat, e-mail and collaborate in a browser. And in our spare time, we shop, bank, read news and keep in touch with friends – all using a browser. Because we spend so much time online, Google began seriously thinking about what kind of browser could exist if it started from scratch and built on the best elements out there. It realised that the Web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications and that it needed to completely rethink the browser. What it decided we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for Web pages and applications, and that’s what it set out to build.

On the surface, Google designed a browser window that is streamlined and simple. As a result it makes Web pages appear a lot bigger thanks to way that there are no menus bars, tool bars, and other such guff. To most people this should be great, as it isn’t the browser that matters, it’s only a tool to run the important stuff – the pages, sites and applications that make up the Web. Like the classic Google homepage, Google Chrome is clean and fast. But unlike the Google homepage, Google Chrome actually looks quite smart. By keeping each Web tab in an isolated ‘sandbox’, Google Chrome prevents one tab from crashing another and provides improved protection from rogue sites. Google has also improved speed and responsiveness across the board, building a more powerful JavaScript engine, V8, to power the next generation of Web applications. Google is hard at work on Mac and Linux versions too.

Chrome was assembled from 26 different code libraries from Google and others from third parties such as Netscape. Its interface is crisp, clean, and extremely fast – there is no full-scale menu bar and no title bar, so very few distractions. The main user interface includes back, forward, refresh, bookmark, go, and cancel options, and when the window is not maximised, the tab bar stylishly appears directly under the title bar. When maximised, the title bar disappears, and instead, the tab bar is shown at the very top of the window. Sadly, unlike other browsers such as Internet Explorer or Firefox, which also have a full-screen mode that hides the operating system’s interface completely, Chrome can only be maximised like a standard Windows application. Therefore, the Windows task bar, system tray, and start menu links still take space at all times unless they have been configured to hide.

A neat feature is that when a new tab is created with a New Tab Page, this shows thumbnails of the nine most visited Web sites along with the sites most often searched, recent bookmarks, and recently closed tabs. Weirdly, though, the lack of URL information can make it difficult to identify the specific Web page you’re going to. Chrome also lets you make local desktop shortcuts that open Web applications in the browser. The browser, when opened in this way, contains none of the regular interface except for the title bar, so as not to interrupt anything you are trying to do. This allows Web applications to run alongside local software (similar to Mozilla Prism and Fluid). Furthermore, by default, the status bar is hidden whenever it is not being used. However, it appears at the bottom left corner whenever a page is loading and when a hyperlink is hovered over.

Google Chrome is attractive, fast and has some impressive new features. But more importantly, Google Chrome will help strengthen the Web as the biggest application platform in the world – think of it as Google operating system. As pretty much everything Google touches turns to gold, Chrome is destined for greatness. It’s not there yet – no browser is ever complete upon initial launch – bit stick with it and it’ll only get better. At the moment it’s not reliable enough to totally replace your favourite browser, but give it a whirl and you’ll soon find that you are using it more frequently than you expected – especially as the first time you run it, it imports your bookmarks, passwords, and settings from Firefox or Internet Explorer. It even can grab username and password data. Scary! The biggest disappointment is that when Google crashes, it takes everything with it. In contrast, Firefox and Internet Explorer 8 automatically restore your previous session in the event of a crash.

Reviewed by Christian Harris