The designers of high-end sports cars often strip their cars of every inessential component, just to coax the greatest power and speed from their creations. Google's Chrome reminds me of those speed demons: It lacks the fit and finish of Apple's Safari ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ), but man, does it ever burn (virtual) rubber.
Built for speed
I'm not sure which is faster: Chrome itself, or the browser's development cycle. To watch the version numbers blur by, you'd expect big changes in the browser's look and feel. But on startup, Chrome 21 looks a lot like last year's Chrome 8, right down to the annoyingly persistent rough edges on its interface.
You still can't open all the bookmarks in a given folder without awkwardly right-clicking, selecting a command from a contextual menu, and clicking OK in a nagging dialogue box. You can't switch into privacy-protecting Incognito mode on the fly, but instead must open an entire new window. When you navigate back and forth, pages don't so much slide as simply appear. These are minor details, for certain, but their absence suggests that Google's coders care more about the technical side of their browser than the way it interacts with humans.
Chrome 21 contains one definite and laudable exception to that theory, though: its support for Apple's VoiceOver, which makes browsing easier for the visually impaired. Last year, Google promised to improve its then-lackluster integration in future versions, and it's since delivered. VoiceOver support still isn't perfect; I could only get it to recognize the first link in any of the folders on the Bookmarks Bar, but I could accurately and easily navigate pages in Chrome via keyboard or mouse, with my Mac speaking each section aloud. Kudos to Google for this considerate, useful improvement.
Indeed, most of Chrome's notable additions have been made under the hood. The browser fully supports Lion's Full Screen mode--which coexists somewhat awkwardly with Chrome's own, functionally identical Presentation Mode. Also, despite Google's stated intention last year to ditch H.264 video support in favor of its own WebM codec, Chrome still appears to play both types of HTML5 video.
Rather than worry too much about their browser's chassis, Google's team seems to have focused almost entirely on its engine, with impressive results.
Hot rod browser
And Chrome downright embarrassed the competition in HTML5Test.com's check of standards compliance. Its score of 431 (plus 13 bonus points) out of 500 exceeded its nearest rival, Opera 12, by 41 points, with the rest of the pack trailing considerably farther behind.
However, when it came to actual HTML horsepower, Chrome fell surprisingly short. Its score in an HTML5 vector graphics test beat Firefox's handily, but still totaled less than half Safari's mark. It ran about 19 percent slower than the leading scores in HTML5 bitmap graphics, and placed fourth after Safari, Opera, and Firefox in HTML5 text handling--albeit by a narrower gap.
In regular use, Chrome felt generally fast, responsive, and fun to use, on par with its latest competitors.
Nathan Alderman is a writer, editor, and occasional Top Gear viewer in Alexandria, Va.