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Chrome for iOS: A quick hands-on look at Google's mobile browser

Many iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users know of only one browser -- Apple's Mobile Safari. But the recent introduction of Google Chrome for iOS (free) brings a new and powerful web browser to the platform that provides some compelling functionality not found in Safari. Let's take a look.

Chrome is a 12.8 MB universal app that runs on any device running iOS 4.3 or later. Once loaded, you'll be asked to log into your Google account to synchronize Chrome between your desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. You don't have to do this, but when you do, the synchronization feature not only makes sure that your bookmarks are synced between devices, but also your open browser tabs, passwords, and "omnibus data."

Synchronization is very powerful! When it's set up by logging into a Google account from all of your devices, an "Other Devices" button appears at the bottom of the Mac OS X and Windows browsers. With a click, you see all of the open tabs on all of your other devices, and if you wish to pick up browsing on one device that you started on another, it's just a click or tap away.

A perfect example of this was when I was doing some research for a book yesterday. I had three open tabs in Chrome on my iMac; when I went outside to eat dinner, I brought along my iPad. Tapping the new tab button at the top of the screen, I was greeted by a window showing the most visited websites in Chrome on the iPad, my bookmarks (which are the same between devices), and a list of other devices. With a tap I was able bring up the tabs from the iMac on the iPad and continue reading.

One of the features I like the most on the iOS app is the ability to search by voice. Chrome, of course, doesn't have a separate search bar -- you simply type your search terms into the "omnibox" of the browser, and the results appear. The iOS version of the app has a small microphone icon -- with a tap, you are prompted to speak your search term and results appear in seconds. While voice search isn't perfect (i.e., a search for Canadian hockey legend Guy Lafleur camera returned "keep looking or"), it's surprisingly accurate.

I didn't find Chrome to be any faster in terms of response, not surprising since both are built on the iOS WebKit. Jacqui Cheng over at Ars Technica noted that Safari is "almost four times faster than Chrome in JavaScript," mainly due to the fact that Safari uses its own Nitro JavaScript engine which isn't available to outside apps.

I did see a few bugs in this first version of iOS Chrome. For example, one of Chrome's new features is "Incognito*" mode. This is Google's implementation of private browsing, where pages viewed don't appear in your browser or search history and don't leave cookies. When I opened a new Incognito* tab on the iPad, the browser locked up. This was a repeatable error, although it didn't happen every time I used Incognito* mode. You're reminded, by the way, that you're in Incognito mode by a little "spy" icon that appears in the upper left corner of the browser window.

I like the way that Chrome handles tabs on the mobile devices. On the iPhone, tapping a "tab" icon shows all open tabs stacked vertically. To delete one, you can either tap the close box or swipe the tab in either direction. Tapping on any of of the tabs brings that window to the front for viewing.

On the iPad, tabs are added by pressing a small parallelogram button, and they appear across the top of the browser as they would on an OS X machine. On both devices, tapping a small icon emblazoned with three lines brings up a quick way to add a bookmark, reload a page, create a new tab (or Incognito tab), look at bookmarks, see what tabs were last opened on your other devices, email a URL to a page, find something on a page, request a desktop site (rather than a mobile site), change settings, or pull up a Chrome help site.

I find myself using Chrome on my Macs more and more often. Some web pages simply won't run properly in Safari, a bank site that I frequent being the most annoying example. It works perfectly in Chrome, on any of the devices. That's not only surprising, but what I expect to see with a mobile browser.

Chrome for iOS is just in its infancy, but so far I'm impressed with what Google has managed to develop. If you've loaded and used the new browser, let us know what your impressions have been so far by leaving a comment.



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Software iOS

Google Chrome for iOS brings a new and powerful web browser to the platform that provides some compelling functionality not found in Safari