The version 8 beta release of Google's Web browser has several new and interesting features.
Most are still regarded to be in an experimental stage and, therefore, are not activated by default. These can be turned on by typing about:flags in the URL bar.
1. Instant Web page loading and keyword search
Start typing the address or name of a site into the URL bar, and the Instant feature will guess which site you mean to visit (either based on which sites are ranked as most popular, or which pages you have saved in your bookmarks or history) and automatically load it, usually before you're even finished entering it.
Type a word or term into the URL you want to search, and Instant will immediately load and display search results from Google.
This enhancement to Chrome's URL bar can be convenient, but of course having a fast broadband connection and running Chrome on a speedy computer help make the experience "instant." Otherwise, this background Web-page loading could slow things down, getting in the way of your surfing.
Instant is not enabled by default in Chrome and must be switched on under the about: flags tab.
2. Graphics hardware acceleration
Chrome 8 plugs in one of the latest must-have features of all major browsers: the ability to automatically off-load the processing of Web pages that are heavy on animated graphics and effects onto your computer's graphics processor unit (GPU) chipset. Doing this speeds up the load time and performance of such sites.
This hardware acceleration is listed as "GPU Accelerated Canvas 2D" under about:flags, and which you need to manually switch on. For now, this feature works with only 2D animations and effects using the HTML5 Canvas element.
3. Support for WebGL
This is one of the few new features of the Chrome 8 beta enabled by default. Along with graphics hardware acceleration, the Google Web browser now supports WebGL, a cross-platform standard for rendering 3D graphics on the Web.
Based on OpenGL ES 2.0, WebGL has yet to become widely adopted (for now, Firefox is the only other major browser to support it), but maybe its inclusion now in Chrome could spur further use of it by Web graphics developers.
4. Tabs on the left side
Have you noticed that the resolutions of notebook screens on most of the recent models have grown wider? The Google Chrome developers have, so they included this experimental option that sets the tabs along the left side of Chrome's interface.
"Side Tabs" functionality is not enabled by default in Chrome 8, so it must be turned on in the about:flags page. After you do this, you then must right-click on a tab and select "use side tabs." Your tabs will then be re-oriented to the left side.
Cosmetically, the side tabs right now don't look like "tabs" -- it's just a sidebar which lists the Web pages you have open. You can click on the name heading of opened Web pages and drag-and-drop them to reorder the descending order of this list.
In terms of practical usability over the default horizontal tab interface, we think it's debatable whether the side-tab approach is better (i.e. faster, more convenient to use). And activating it actually doesn't give your browser more vertical space to show Web pages -- the browser's top border bar, which is where the horizontal tabs are normally set, still remains.
We're guessing this side-tabs feature could come into more useful play in the upcoming Chrome OS when run on a tablet.
5. Passphrase encryption for syncing your browser data
If you like to take extra precautions with your personal Web browsing data that you've allowed Google to sync across multiple computers you use with Chrome, then this feature is for you.
It's listed under the Chrome Options window under the "Personal Stuff" tab. Click the "Customize..." button listed in the "Sync" category, choose the "Encryption" tab, and you'll then be able to enter a passphrase to encrypt your sync data (which includes your bookmarks, preferred browser settings, and extensions).
6. Browser settings in a tab
Google obviously wants to extend the tab interface motif to all aspects of the Chrome user interface, and this will include the way you adjust the browser's settings. Instead of popping out a separate window, future versions of Chrome will open a tab which will list all of the settings of the browser you can adjust. (Chrome's bookmark manager already sets itself off as a tab when you access it.)
We really like how this tabbed settings menu makes things easier and faster for you to doodle around with the back-end of Chrome. If you constantly tweak Chrome (as we do) and would like to keep the settings always open for convenience, turning on "Tabbed Settings" under about:flags is a must.
7. Printing to the cloud
The idea behind this feature is you'll be able to print your documents, Web pages or images from Chrome to a Web-enabled printer. For instance, if you're away from the office or home, you can remotely print a file from your notebook to your printer back in the office or home. Or, you can print to another person's printer that's accessible on the Web, which you have been granted permission to print to. (This summer, HP released a line of all-in-one printers that connect to the Web, and which will be compatible with Google Cloud Print.)
The Google Print service isn't active yet, but its underpinnings show up in Chrome 8. After you activate it by manually enabling "Cloud Print Proxy" under about:flags, you then sign in with your Google user account.
8. Apps and a Web store
This is the big one. Google is already a strong contender in the app store business when it comes to their Android smartphone OS. Soon enough you'll be able to download -- for free or for a price -- and use apps within Chrome.
There's evidence that Chrome 8 is ready for apps. Pull up the about:flags tab, and you'll see "Background WebApps" listed.
Current speculation/hope is Google may open the actual Web app store late this month. In mid-August at the Game Developers Conference Europe, Google discussed the store in relation to game apps, and showed off a Flash version of the popular app game, "Plants vs. Zombies."
Howard Wen reports on technology news, trends and products as a frequent contributor to Network World and Computerworld.
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