Will Chrome be the Best Browser in 2011? Probably Not . . .

What I care most about in a browser or any other computer tool is being able to focus on work without distraction. After all, that is what FilterJoe is all about.

In my best browsers post, Chrome 5 earned my “best browser 2010” award, thanks to speed, security, and an uncluttered interface. Since then, Chrome has released 3 more versions, with Chrome 8 released on December 2, 2010.

Is Chrome three versions’ worth of better? Or is it worse? Will Chrome be the best browser in 2011?

NOTE: In 2015 I posted a more current comparison of the latest browser versions, Best Browsers . . . In that post, all five major browsers are discussed in great detail.

The rest of this post focuses on two issues about Google Chrome that were handled elegantly in Chrome 5, but not since.

The Version Number Thing

Traditionally, when computer software gets a major new change, it gets a new major version number (Firefox 3.0, Internet Explorer 8, etc.). Starting with Chrome 6, Google has abandoned this tradition for Google Chrome. New versions of Chrome are released on a 6 week schedule, whether or not there are significant changes. So new versions now have major or minor changes—or changes that you don’t even notice. You won’t get hints from the version number.

That One Minor Change

Chrome has received a number of new features and changes since June of 2010. Most have been minor changes or under-the-hood changes that users won’t notice. Unfortunately, Google released version 6 of Chrome on September 2, 2010, with one change I really cared about. Phantom tabs were removed. This seemingly minor user interface change negatively impacted my ability to focus and get work done.

Why did phantom tabs matter so much? When I first tested Chrome 5, there were two things I found distracting:

  1. Open tabs that are pinned (Gmail, Google Reader, etc.) notify me visually when there is a new message or post. With Chrome 5 it was “throbbing” while more recently it is white clouds that pass from right to left on until you click on them. I like using pinned tabs but hate visual distraction in any form. You get these notifications whether you like them or not.
  2. Memory leaks occur with certain kinds of open tabs, which may require restarting the browser every few hours.

So far as I know there has only been one simple way to eliminate either of these distractions from Chrome: Phantom tabs. Close a pinned tab and it turns dim, ready to be quickly opened when needed. I describe how all this works in detail, here.

Combined with Phantom tabs, Chrome 5 was so fast, secure, reliable, and lacking in clutter that I was able to focus on my work better than with any other browser I’ve ever used or tested. But all that changed starting with the forced upgrade to Chrome 6. Since September 2, I get interrupted by notifications on pinned tabs, and I have to divert my attention to memory management as all of my systems have 1GB of RAM that get quickly overrun by Chrome’s memory leaks. Despite hundreds of user requests, there’s no indication of a possible return of the phantom tab.

Improvements to Chrome

To be fair, there have been many subtle Chrome improvements, especially with security. Google Chrome 8 is far more secure after a fresh install than other browsers, thanks to sandboxing techniques that have always been used for tabs and extensions, and which are now used for PDFs and Flash as well.

I really like the new capability in Chrome 8 to selectively turn on plug-ins. Try it. You’ll find that Chrome becomes lightning fast, and there may be a security benefit as well. Suppressing plug-ins on most sites also seems to moderate the impact of memory leaks, so I can sometimes make it through a whole work day without having to restart Chrome.

Here are the steps to enable “Click-to-play” plug-ins:

  • Type “about:flags” into the URL bar
  • Click on “Enable” next to “Click-to-Play”
  • Click on the wrench icon, and select options
  • Click on “Under the Hood” and then click “Content settings . . .”
  • Click on “Plug-ins” then click on “Click to play”

For now on, every time you open a tab, plugins will be disabled by default. If you see a puzzle piece surrounded by blank space, you can click on it to enable Flash to do its thing. For some types of plug-ins, the only visual feedback you’ll get is a puzzle piece with a red “X” on the right side of the address bar. Click on it and you’ll be given the option to enable all plug-ins this one time, or enable them always for the web site listed on the address bar.

The above procedure does slow down the rate of memory leaks. There is also now a way to “purge,” which reclaims a portion of leaked memory. Lifehacker explains how to set up and use the purge feature, here.

What About the Competition?

In my opinion, none of the recent improvements to Chrome make up for the Phantom tab setback. The “Click-to-play” plug-ins feature helps moderate the impact of memory leaks, and it is now possible to manually purge memory, but these methods are too complicated for the average user.

I am greatly looking forward to the next versions of Firefox and Opera. I left Firefox due to the interface but Firefox 4 promises a simpler, Chrome-like interface which includes pinned tabs. I haven’t used Opera much because my preferred password manager, RoboForm, didn’t support it. But Opera 11 includes an extensions framework, and the result is full integration with RoboForm. With neither Opera nor Firefox will I need to worry about memory management or interruptions.

UPDATE: There’s a Firefox extension with the equivalent of phantom tabs: Tab Utilities. The behavior of “pinned, unloaded tabs” appears to be identical to the behavior of pinned tabs in Chrome 5. For a more complete description of how pinned tabs work in Tab Utilities, read here.

PINNED TABS VISUAL NOTIFICATION UPDATE: There’s actually a simple thing you can do to make the visual notifications on pinned tabs much more subtle. Choose a theme for Google Chrome that is about the same color as moving-cloud visual notification— you will no longer able to notice notifications unless looking straight at the pinned tab.

Final Words

With Chrome 5, Google set the bar much higher for being able to work online without distraction—high enough that even Google has not been able to attain it since. If Google does not bring back the phantom tab, or provide some other means of preventing memory leaks and visual interruptions, I doubt I’ll be calling Chrome the best browser of 2011.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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