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I mostly talk about video games and the world wide web

Sep42008

A Browser Named Chrome

So, Google Chrome is out. Google's shot at making their very own browser. It's an interesting take on a browser. I'm actually using it right now on my laptop which is a 1.73GHz Celeron M with 1GB of memory because it's a bit faster than Firefox 3 and seems to, on average, use less memory.

As a browser it's surprisingly minimalist. It takes the Safari route by not using the OS look and feel for the application. When I first checked out Safari for Windows I was annoyed by that, but I've since softened. My favorite media player is still Winamp, and generally any other media player has its own skin. In fact I strangely prefer it when they do; media players such as Foobar or VLC look like ass. So thinking about why a browser would annoy me but a media player does not... I don't know. Maybe years of using Steam have taken their toll, but Chrome's non-standard look has entirely failed to bother me.

Anyway aside from being a magical blue thing that sort of reminds me of XP's horrible default theme the UI is amazingly minimalistic. There's the usual minimize, maximize and close buttons in the upper right, but there's no title bar or brazen display of the application name. Indeed only a very tiny 'Google' appears next to the buttons on the right when the window is not maximized. When maximized the browser makes maximum use of space, with only tabs and the address bar filling up non- web site real estate. No border and no title bar at all.

The options are few. You can view history and downloads only in their own tabs (as opposed to the sidebar most browsers use), and there are some minor settings you can change, but nothing is really customizable. It's the essence of a browser, really. There's no extra stuff. No insane security settings, no extensions, no custom buttons or adjusting the size or order of the interface elements. Even the status bar at the bottom only shows up when it needs to and takes up the least amount of space necessary before quickly fading back away.

Another argument entirely is if or not this is a good thing. There are arguments for both sides, obviously, but regardless of that Google was successful in building something that's purely web browser and nothing more.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Chrome, however (at least to web developers such as myself) is the new Javascript engine, V8. The thing is incredibly fast. It's sort of hard to figure out how fast it is first-hand since most web sites have their Javascript fairly optimized. I came across this Javascript test which essentially just runs a bunch of fairly common JS functions 1 million times each. While by no means any sort of official benchmark, it's a pretty good gauge of how quickly browsers run JS. At work I have a bunch of browsers installed so I ran it through each one with these results:

Chrome: 37ms
Firefox 3: 223ms
Firefox 2: 587ms
Opera: 261ms
Safari: 254ms
IE6: 705m

I don't have IE7 installed on my work machine, but I would think it as well as IE8 would put up similarly sad numbers to IE6. IE also limits runaway scripts by the number of times a loop iterates rather than execution time of the script (or actually what seems like a combination), which causes a large number of errors to display when you try and execute those scripts. While there's a marked improvement from Firefox 2 to Firefox 3, Chrome clearly blows everything else out of the water. In fact Chrome is able to execute 1 million parseInt functions (probably the most intensive Javascript function) in less time than the average of all those functions in any other browser.

As if this wasn't exciting enough news, Firefox 3.1 (due out sometime later this year) will have its very own Javascript engine rewrite called 'TraceMonkey' (a name I find hilarious). Not only that but developer benchmark comparisons show TraceMonkey is up to 1.28 times faster than V8. Now of course this is only a couple of milliseconds we're talking about (29ms compared to 37ms, for example), but it's still impressive. Not only that but both of these engines are (or will be) open source, meaning other browsers can pick them up. I don't expect Internet Explorer to start using TraceMonkey or V8 any time soon, but Opera and Safari picking up one or the other certainly couldn't hurt.

I guess, really, what this comes down to, is that the browser market is finally moving somewhere again. There was a huge stagnation period where nothing was really better than IE6. Mozilla was the only real competition, but most people felt that was too bloated. Firefox (or Phoenix as it was called back then) aimed to change that by removing all excess stuff from Mozilla and eventually it paid off. During the period of Firefox's rise there wasn't really any actual competition and it consisted entirely of Firefox chipping away at IE6's market share. Slowly. Very slowly.

And then recently (within the last two years or so) there was a resurgence. Opera stopped charging for their browser, Microsoft finally released a new version of IE (though IE7 is sort of the WindowsME of Internet Explorers) and has another one in the pipeline. Safari was released for Windows, and now Google, champions of the entire internet, have their own browser. It's about as exciting as browsers can get. There's competition in the browser market again, and that's never a bad thing for anyone.
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Note that the tracemonkey benchmark only shows the two tests (of many) where tracemonkey beat V8... I think V8 blew it out of the water on a few tests, most notably ones involving recursion.

The tracemonkey people seem a bit sore with the coverage V8 has got. I'm interested in how that little battle develops.

Sep. 4, 2008 (3:42pm EST)

#2 - Mike Reply
Yeah they seem sort of weirdly defensive about it... should be pretty interesting to see what comes of all this.

Sep. 4, 2008 (7:04pm EST)