updated 01:40 pm EST, Tue February 7, 2012
Chrome beta for Android gets our early test
Google answered one of the longstanding calls among Android users by putting out a beta version of Chrome for mobile (Android Market) that we've had an opportunity to test. The app borrows the extra tricks of the desktop browser to run faster than the stock Android browser as well as simplifying its use. When on Wi-Fi, it can pre-cache pages in the search results to load them faster, and the engine itself was visibly faster on a Galaxy Nexus in our own testing, not to mention somewhat more responsive to scrolling and multi-touch zooming.
HTML5 video and other content does play, although we've noticed that it's still lagging somewhat behind the desktop browser or Apple's mobile Safari for what it recognizes. Apple's page wouldn't work, for example, while (unsurprisingly) YouTube would. We also noticed that it wouldn't turn off the mobile version of our own pages, which we might chalk up to the beta status.
The interface itself keeps the minimalism of the desktop with an all-in-one address and search bar and most features, here including the back and forward buttons, tucked into buttons. Its approach to tabs is relatively unique for a mobile browser: open tabs are stacked into overlapping 'cards' that show the whole page, and they even respond to tilting motions to let users get a better look by angling the phone to 'slide' a card to the front.
A "find in page" feature has a convenient visual map of where results appear in the body and is a definite step forward for on-page search in the browser.
By far the most requested feature for many is built-in sync with Chrome on the desktop. Those who sign into Chrome 16 on a computer and into the Android version can not only sync their bookmarks but, the autocomplete suggestions and, optionally, the tabs as well. We were synced within a few seconds, and it worked across all areas quickly.
Our complaints about the app so far are few. Apart from the HTML5 issue, we're slightly annoyed by having to open a menu to step back a page. Bookmarks also aren't very visual and usually include a tiny thumbnail of the favicon set amidst color-themed text, which isn't as useful as showing a larger icon or the page itself. Still, as a whole it's a very polished app that fits in with the Chrome name.
The primary obstacle for most will be the OS requirements. Chrome for Android is the first non-stock app to require Android 4.0 at a minimum, which limits it officially to the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and upgraded tablets like the Transformer Prime. We hope Google can either expand it to include Android 2 or 3 devices, but if not it may have to wait on those Android manufacturers promising Android 4 upgrades to catch up before more can use Chrome in practice.