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Google Chrome for iPhone Review

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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google chrome for iphone

Chrome for iPhone in action

Chrome copyright Google Inc.

Aug. 1, 2012

The Good

  • Support for Chrome features across devices
  • Tight integration with Google services
  • Web search from the address bar
  • Performance on par with Safari

The Bad

  • Not really a new browser--just Safari with a new interface
  • Can’t be your default browser

The Price
Free

Download at iTunes

Here’s an app riddle for you: When is Google’s Chrome web browser not really Chrome? Answer: When it’s on the iOS.

When Google released a version of its popular Chrome browser for the iOS, it was big news--a major desktop browser coming to compete with Safari. But, thanks to Apple rules that restrict what kind of software can be used to build web browser apps, this version of Chrome isn’t the Chrome you know from your desktop or laptop. But does that make it bad? I say no, and that Chrome is the first browser app that could truly replace Safari on the iPhone.

Under Chrome's Hood: Safari

Safari and Chrome share a lot, even on the desktop. That’s because Chrome is built on Apple’s WebKit HTML rendering engine. Apple developed WebKit when it built Safari and then open-sourced it, allowing any other company to use the technology to build their own browsers for free. Google did that when they created Chrome.

While both browsers use the same HTML rendering engine, on the desktop, there’s a major difference: their JavaScript engines. The speed at which a browser interprets and runs JavaScript, a language used on millions of websites to add functionality and user interface flourishes, can greatly impact its browsing speed. Safari uses Apple’s software; Chrome uses Google’s V8 JavaScript Engine. So, while their foundations (WebKit) are the same, the buildings on top are pretty different.

Not so on the iOS. Apple’s rules for app development require that web browser apps use both WebKit and its UIWebView JavaScript engine, while Safari uses Apple's faster Nitro JavaScript engine. As a result, the iOS version of Chrome is essentially the Safari app that comes with all iPhones and iPod touches wrapped in a Google-designed interface.

Because of that, it’s not a big surprise to discover that the browsers are about even in speed. As I do with all browsers apps, I compared the speeds of the two apps loading the desktop versions of the same five websites. The speed is in seconds, with Safari listed first:

  • Apple.com: 3 vs. 4
  • CNN.com: 6 vs. 7
  • ESPN.com: 6 vs. 5
  • Hoopshype.com/rumors.html: 6 vs. 7
  • iPod.about.com: 4 vs. 3

As you can see, the browsers’ performance isn’t identical on each site, but on average it’s so close as to be roughly indistinguishable.

What Sets Chrome Apart?

If they’re basically the same apps at their core, then what’s the point of having and using Chrome? The interface and integration with Google technologies and services.

The Chrome app supports your existing Google account, so if you sign into that, you’re able to import Chrome bookmarks from your desktop or laptop. This is a nice touch if you’re already a Chrome user. I’m not, and would have loved a way to import my Safari bookmarks into Chrome on the iPhone (though that could be done on the desktop and then brought to the app).

Google’s presence plays an even bigger role when it comes to search. Unlike in Safari, you won’t find a dedicated search box. Instead, search is integrated into the address bar. Begin typing there and you’ll get suggestions, sites from your bookmarks, and the ability to search at Google for what you’re typing. Don’t like Siri? You can use Google Voice Search to search the web instead of typing.

Another major way that Chrome’s interface is different from Safari’s is the presence of features and settings in the app, rather than in the iOS' Settings app. This makes accessing and using those features much easier. For instance, you can turn on private browsing (called Incognito here) from the menu, making it much more usable than Safari’s, which requires a trip to Settings and back.

This feature, and many others (the ability to request the desktop version of a site being another useful one) are contained in Chrome’s one menu. This menu is also where you bookmark sites, reload them, create new tabs, email pages, and more. While I like not having to go to Settings to turn on some of these features, putting them all in a single menu makes for a crowded space that requires a lot of tapping.

No Default Choice

One other drawback of Chrome that isn’t Google’s fault, but should be mentioned, is that you can’t make Chrome your default browser app. That’s because Apple doesn’t let you change your default apps on the iOS. This means that even if you use Chrome 99% of the time on your device, tapping a link in an email, tweet, or Facebook post will take you to Safari, not Chrome.

As I mentioned, this drawback can’t be laid at Google’s feet--and it’s a policy Apple really ought to change; the argument in favor of it (a unified and consistent user experience) isn’t strong enough--but it will affect your use of Chrome on iOS.

The Bottom Line

If you like Safari, you’re going to like Chrome. That’s axiomatic for a pair of apps that share so much DNA. In day-to-day use, you’re not likely to find much performance difference between them. The argument in favor of Chrome really comes down to your preference for its interface versus Safari’s and how many of Google’s other services you use. If you’re a heavy user of Google services, you’ll find things to like here.

It’s important and exciting to have a major alternative to Safari on iOS. It would be even better if Google could include some of its own technology (like its JavaScript rendering engine) to create some real competition.

Download at iTunes

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