Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First Thoughts about Google's Chrome Browser

I haven't tried Google's new Chrome browser yet. (Mac version if you please!)

But that doesn't stop me from having opinions. :-) For me, the most interesting aspect is the architecture behind the tabs. This whole issue has been driving me crazy for some time now. All the tabbed browsers have one shortcoming or another. Let's see if Chrome can fix some things.

For example, have you noticed that the best way to quit Firefox is to run 'kill -9 ' from the command line? That's fast. Using the real Quit menu item takes forever. When I want to reboot my Mac, OS X asks Firefox nicely to do its Quit action; but it takes so long that the reboot process times out, every time. Killing the operating system process is instantaneous. It's all the same in the end, all the memory gets released. Yet I trust 'kill' to be more thorough about releasing memory, given all the leaks and fragmentation while Firefox is running. Also, Firefox is more reliable about offering to restore all the closed tabs upon restart, if it was killed rather than Quit. Usually I get 2 offers to restore the tabs, from Firefox and from SessionSaver. It's a complicated dance to know which one to accept. Skip the first one, maybe the second one won't happen this time because a Firefox upgrade has made certain extensions incompatible, or because you don't get the same offer after a Quit. So for me it's kill kill kill.

I'm typically restoring ~100 tabs whenever I restart Firefox (or Safari for that matter). What does that mean? No performance or responsiveness until they're pretty much all loaded. Is it too much to ask to devote more attention to the frontmost tab in each window, and particularly the active window that I'm reading? Page down, right click, hello...? Safari tries to do this a little, for example when it defers loading things like Flash until you actually switch to that tab. The worst is when a tab has some auto-play movie or ad with audio; you hear it but you can't find the right tab to stop it. Sometimes half a dozen tabs try to play audio at once, producing complete babble.

So, it makes sense to favor some tabs over others. But which ones? Like I say, usually the frontmost tab deserves the most CPU. But just because a tab is deselected doesn't mean it shouldn't run. I want this background tab to keep running because it's playing a teaser ad before a video clip, and I'm reading something else until the ad is finished. I want that tab to get little to no CPU, because it's just playing ads with animated GIFs and sending AJAX requests for more ads in an endless loop. I'm hoping that Chrome comes with the equivalent of "Task Manager for tabs", where I can freeze certain ones, maybe blacklist sites so their tabs always freeze when backgrounded, see which tabs have gone nuts with memory and CPU, maybe clamp an upper limit on memory use for some tabs.

The question is, will Chrome simplify or complicate my browsing equation, which currently goes like this:

- Playing a Flash-based game on Facebook? Use Safari because Flash in Firefox tends to stall for a few seconds every now and then. No good for 3-minute rounds of Scramble on Facebook.

- Reading Slashdot? Use Firefox, because Safari has a Javascript bug that causes crashes sometimes when closing or even just leaving a page on that site. It's unpredictable which page, but happens consistently for the same page. Because I occasionally slip up, I usually have half a dozen old Slashdot tabs that I have to leave open until I'm done with every other single tab and can let the browser crash without consequence. Since Chrome uses the same Webkit renderer as Safari, that's something for their team to take note.

- Using Windows? Stay away from Firefox once it starts to get slow; switch to Safari or Opera instead. When doing Ctrl-click to open links in new tabs, sometimes there's a wait of 30 seconds or more between clicking the link and when the click is recognized. In the meantime, you have to sit there like a fool with your finger on the Ctrl key; otherwise, when the click is finally processed, the browser will forget it was Ctrl-click and will replace the current window. I don't know if this sluggishness in registering meta keys is something inherent to Windows event processing, a problem in Firefox coding, or a combination (since I don't see the same effect on OS X).

- Doing research opening several related sites in adjacent tabs? Use Firefox because it has better tools for bookmarking a group of tabs at once. I hear there's a plugin for Safari that offers the same feature, but I'm keeping Safari plugin-free to avoid performance issues. Also, that particular plugin appears to be several years old.

- Using some business application like for net meetings, that only runs on IE? Well, guess I have to run IE. Using Remote Desktop connection to a Windows machine. Not exactly the most efficient use of network bandwidth to have animation and audio streamed to a remote computer and then streamed again to a local one, but hey.

- Firefox grinds to a halt because its virtual memory size exceeds the amount of RAM on my computer? Start up Safari. One browser can apparently be in its death throes, while the machine still has plenty of CPU and real memory to run a different one at full speed.

- Debugging some web code? Run Firefox for the Firebug debugger. Curse various sites that load up the error log with tons of Javascript warnings and errors from background tabs. Often, I can't tell which background tabs are causing the continuous stream of errors. Even if I can recognize which site is misbehaving, I can't necessarily find the relevant tab to shut it down. (That would be a nice addition to Firebug.)

- Reading ad-heavy sites? Use Firefox for its combination of ad-blocking and Flash-blocking plugins.

- Reading certain other sites, like the Dilbert comic strip? Use Safari. Sometimes all the ad- and Flash-blocking prevents the desired content from showing up. Even with whitelisting and the ability to selectively load Flash, I can't read the Flash-based Dilbert strips anymore in Firefox.

- Switching a lot between computers? Use Safari. Its bare-bones bookmarking features mean I don't even bother with bookmarks for it, preferring instead. I will use Firefox to bookmark groups of tabs, but it's too much bother to try and synchronize them between machines. Also, I find that the Firefox auto-update system and compatibility checking for plugins means that at any one time, several machines that from my perspective should all be on the same level of Firefox, have different combinations of disabled plugins that I can never predict. One machine will check for plugin updates and re-enable something, while a different machine will report no compatible plugins found. (Might be a Mac vs. PC thing, but why would that make a difference for Firefox plugins?)

1 comment:

Brian Tkatch said...

Firefox does have some issues. Synchronizing bookmarks is a problem slowly going away. It would be nice is there was a plugin i could trust to do that for me. Though, not all bookmarks should be synchronized. Some must stay at the office, some at home. Like a local and share bookmarks. Or even groups.

FF is definitely coming along though. There are so many plugins for tabs, it is a wonder what FF4 will have in mind.

If it wasn't for Google's notorious collection of user's data, i'd probably try out their browser too.