Three reasons Google Chrome could be the netbook browser of choice

Googlechromelogo_2I finally got a chance to read through the great comic book explanation of  Chrome, the new browser from Google. The beta browser is scheduled to hit today for Windows devices, although the team is working on a version for Mac and Linux users as well. I highly recommend reading through the browser description: it’s as fun presentation as it is informative. As I read through it, I saw that James was wondering aloud how well Chrome will run on a netbook. I began to make an early judgment which coincides with a scheduled delivery of my newest netbook tomorrow: Google Chrome could easily be the netbook browser of choice for many.

While it’s definitely not my place to assume what browser you should or would use, I wanted to share some thoughts on why I plan to get this browser installed on my MSI Wind as soon as I can. I can think of at least three reasons that are getting me excited.

Better memory management – Today I tend to use Firefox 3 as my daily browser. In earlier versions, I experienced memory leaks that caused the browser, and eventually my whole computer, to get bogged down. On occasion, just killing the firefox.exe process wasn’t enough to reclaim memory; a full reboot was in order. The latest version is vastly superior in this regard, but it’s still not perfect.

Chrome is built to allow each tab to run as its own process, which should help address memory management. In fact, Google Chrome will come with a Task Manager to help you manage the Chrome processes should the need arise. That’s good, because I’m sure it will, especially early on. Additionally, each Javascript thread is limited: if a script gets hosed or just keeps running on a single tab, it won’t trash the entire browser.

Chromeprocessmanager

This optimized memory management will have a great impact on machines with less RAM, i.e.: netbooks, among other devices. Most netbooks on the market are available with 512 MB or perhaps 1 GB of memory, which varies from traditional notebooks to a point. In fact, many netbooks are either difficult to upgrade with more memory or are capped at 1.5 GB. Sounds like a bunch, but if you’re running an application that hogs up and then doesn’t effectively release memory, it’s going to be used up really quickly.

It’s worth noting that the new Internet Explorer 8 beta follows the same path here: in the new browser, each tab will be a separate memory process, which should offer the same benefits.

Plug-in support – If Internet Explorer offered the array of plug-ins and extensions that the Firefox framework did, I just might have stuck with it. Since it doesn’t and I do most of my work in the browser, the Firefox extensions are a key selling point for me. Google Chrome will offer the ability to use plug-ins, although it will surely take time for developers to create a large library of them. Plug-ins will appear as separate processes within the Chrome Task Manager, just like tabs and Javascript threads.

So plug-ins will extend the browser, just as they do in Firefox today. Why does this matter from a netbook standpoint? Plug-ins tend to offer large chunks of functionality in small packages and if you’ve got a netbook with a limited amount of storage capacity, say an 8 GB flash memory module, you’ll appreciate big functionality in a small footprint. When I did my 60-day web-only challenge with Firefox and no client apps, it constantly amazed me how small some of the extensions were when compared to the functionality they offered me.

Smart home page – Google looks to be taking a cue from the Opera Speed Dial function with the new home tab in Chrome. Like Opera’s browser, the tab displays thumbnails of up to nine web pages. That makes it easy to nav to the one you want. But in Opera, you manually set these pages; in Google Chrome, the browser learns your preferences and sets the pages. Given the smaller keyboards on netbooks, the more the browser can predict my needs and therefore the less I have to type, the better.

Chromehomepage

The nine sites are the ones you visit the most, so I expect that they’ll dynamically change as web surfing history is built. Firefox currently offers a "Most visited sites" shortcut, so there’s nothing new here in terms of the concept; it’s the combination of the "Most visited sites" and the speed dial function that makes this a compelling feature.

These are just three of many Chrome features that I expect will help on a netbook; of course, they can help with full-featured notebooks and desktops too, but I see real benefit on the small-sized, mobile computers. Perhaps even more interesting will be how Chrome develops: will it become a web-based operating system? If so (and I expect it will to a degree), could it be the light OS we’ve been looking for on mobile devices? Depending on how well Chrome works and what kind of plug-ins become available, I could see myself living in a browser again on a low-powered computer.

The caveat – One of the biggest strengths for Chrome could also be its biggest weakness: memory management. Today I can run Firefox with bunches of tabs on a netbook and it takes up one large memory footprint. Chrome’s approach to have each tab, Javascript thread and plug-in running as independent processes could actually offer worse performance, depending on how efficient these processes are… or aren’t as the case may be.

It will come down to this: if I open up five tabs in Chrome, for example, what is the aggregate memory footprint of all associated processes? What would the footprint be for the same five tabs in Firefox 3? While it’s exceptional that you can control each individual process in Chrome, if the amount of memory used to view the same items is more than the memory used in Firefox, a netbook with meager memory may buckle. Yes, there’s the advantage of reclaiming more memory with Chrome, but this will be interesting to look at in greater detail once we see the browser become available.

James also wonders how an in-order CPU like the Intel Atom, prevalent in today’s netbooks, will handle all of those processes. My gut says that the Atom won’t choke on Chrome, in part helped by the Hyper Threading function of the Atom.

Since today’s release of Chrome will be an early beta, I won’t want to draw too many conclusions from an overall memory footprint or CPU utilization rate, but I’ll be researching it for sure. The expectation is that future builds will become more efficient, not less, so let’s see what the benchmark is and go from there.

Again, I recommend the comic book explanation of Chrome while we wait to see and install it. There’s bound to be other reasons it will, or won’t, be a great netbook browser so chime in with your thoughts.

 

 

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