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.

10 thoughts on “Will Chrome be the Best Browser in 2011? Probably Not . . .”

  1. I just described this post and how phantom tabs work to my wife, a regular Firefox user who typically doesn’t care about fancy features. But her reaction to phantom tabs was, “Wow that’s a really useful feature. Most of my open tabs are just visual bookmarks of sites I really want to get back to within a few days.”

  2. Last I checked, Chrome only works on Windows; there was no Mac version. Tell your wife that Safari has really come along and as far as I am concerned there is little that Firefox can do that Safari can’t do, at least on a Mac OS.

  3. Chrome has been available for Macs (and Linux) since May 25, 2010. Safari has indeed improved a great deal and the introduction of extensions makes it more competitive. When I wrote my comparison in June 2010, Chrome edged out the others by my criteria.

    Browsers are improving so fast that it’s hard to predict which will most suit your needs. If you’re happy with your current browser than there’s no reason to switch (though staying up to date with the most current version provides many benefits, including security patches).

  4. Nice article. I agree with you. I loved Chrome last year but the last version take a lot of memory on my computer. I used to have 50 tabs open when i browse on the net.

    So last week I switched to Firefox with the extension “Bartab”. And I love this extension so much now.
    It lets you unload every tab when you want or after a time that you setup.

    When you launch a session with several tabs, only one is loaded.

    I still love Chrome beacause with chrome I feel so secure I don’t know why but Chrome looks clean. This sandbox thing. Even the extensions look more secure.

    You talk about Roboform, me i use Lastpass (i have an account on Roboform too but i don’t use it anymore).

    So if someone does an extension like Bartab on Chrome. I will comeback on Chrome right now !!


  5. Four words Google Chrome Canary Build its 2 times faster then google chrome 8 and just all around epic

  6. All of your systems have 1 GB of RAM? Sounds like you shouldn’t be complaining about Chrome “memory leaks” when your hardware is what needs updating.

  7. Joshua – I agree that systems with more RAM will be able to handle Chrome without problems – or at least last a lot longer before they run out. Several other browsers don’t require upgrading hardware. Firefox is especially frugal – it can have a couple dozen tabs open on a system with 1GB of RAM.

    The irony of it is that Google is promoting the concept of thin clients – computers that require just minimal amounts of hardware to get access to the cloud. Yet Google Chrome requires more RAM than any other browser. Except for Google Chrome version 5 when used in conjunction with Phantom tabs.

  8. Using 1gb is VERY atypical for modern computer users. Almost nobody who has bought a computer in the last 5 years, minus netbooks or smartphones, is using such a meager amount of ram.

    I would almost say this renders your opinion obsolete except for a rather niche crowd who are using legacy hardware. Even netbooks dont have such meager specs anymore. Even PHONES are leaving your specs in the dust, though their lite weight operating systems can do more with what they have.

    I still like firefox because it has the best selection of addons, at this point in time. I like firefox 4 a lot. Its faster on Linux than firefox 3 that crashes a lot. More stable as well. The BETA of firefox 4 is more stable in Linux than the official release of 3.6

    I prefer Opera to Chrome personally. Its even faster and I like the apps that you can run as widgets with it…..Firefox is my ‘feature rich’ browser of choice though.

    I have 8gb of high speed, low latency, ddr2 ram. I dont worry about memory usage. I worry about features, usability, organization, and whether its fast enough that I dont feel a constant lag. As long as Im not starring at blank screens, I dont care if one is milliseconds faster than the other.

  9. Hi Nick,

    I love your comment as it gives me a chance to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the obsolescence of forced obsolescence. Before I do that, here’s a few points to demonstrate that legacy systems are more than just a niche:

    54% of systems world wide use Windows XP as of March 2011 (see OS Market Share)
    Though some Windows XP systems were sold in 2008, the vast majority of Windows XP systems are over 3 years old
    Microsoft stated in mid 2010 that Windows computers are on average 4.4 years old.

    I think we can infer from this data that users of legacy hardware (most which shipped with 1GB of RAM) are more than a small niche, though I can’t prove it as I haven’t been able to find direct stats on average or mean amount of RAM per system.

    But here’s the thing: Upgrading your computer every 3-5 years used to be a necessity, as the tech industry kept dropping support for older software and operating systems, and new hardware wasn’t powerful enough to run the latest software or OS. You needed these upgrades just to stand still. Thanks to the huge installed base and support for Windows XP, the many services moving into the cloud, and the ever increasing speed of browsers – an old Windows XP system runs just fine for typical office use. My main computer is a Windows XP 1GB RAM Dell purchased in 2004 which runs faster than ever as most of my work is done using a speedy browser, and the only software I use much besides that is Microsoft Word and Excel. It’s fine. Of course, you would point out that I’d benefit from upgrading from 1GB to 2GB of RAM, and you’d be right.

    But . . . anyone who has purchased a Windows XP computer (or Linux system) to use for typical office tasks has a choice. If they want, they can keep using the computer until it dies. And they don’t have to spend any time, money, or effort on hardware upgrades. That is, unless they want to try using many tabs and or web apps all day on Google Chrome. Even for those who prefer Chrome such as myself, you can simply close/open the browser once every few hours or use more elegant workarounds. Or you can just use memory efficient Firefox which runs fine on 1GB of RAM so long as their are no offending add-ons.

    My 2004 Windows XP 1GB RAM computer has not been forced to be obsolete, like all of my prior computers purchased before that. The forced obsolescence of computers is, in my opinion, obsolete. Well . . . unless you’re a Mac user . . . but that’s another story.

  10. i just switched from chrome to avant browser. So far so good. Avant is more stable but chrome is faster. I use a browser over 6 hours everyday. I choose avant browser, not chrome.

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