Google Chrome for iPad and iPhone review

2012-06-29-13

Google Chrome for iPad and iPhone review

It’s been a long wait for a valid alternative to Safari on the iPad and iPhone, but one finally arrived this week, and it’s a big one: Google Chrome. Now, before you get too excited, Google hasn’t been able to bring the full Chrome experience to iOS, for reasons we’ll go into later, but much of what has made Chrome so popular on the desktop is in place. Google’s approach is to create a unified experience across all devices, from your PC right down to your iPhone.

The iPad version of the app, as shown in the screenshot at the top of this post, looks very similar to the desktop Chrome. Tabs look the same, with the navigation buttons and the address bar beneath, but in the top-right corner the usual settings spanner is replaced by a menu button, and Google has put the voice search icon in the address bar for easy access. To open a new tab just tap the stub as normal, and it will give you the familiar grid of recently visited sites.

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On the iPhone it’s a little more cramped, preferring Safari’s approach of a tabs icon in the top corner that tells you how many you have open. Unlike Safari’s sideways scrolling row of open tabs, tapping Chrome’s icon gives you a more stylish (although arguably less clear) stacked pile of tabs, which you can tap to open or swipe sideways to close.

Both versions of the app include Incognito mode, for those times when you don’t want to leave tracks on the device for others to see, and loading desktop versions of mobile sites is a matter of a couple of taps. Plus, there’s a privacy option to always preload pages or only when connected via Wi-Fi.

But the appeal of Chrome on the iPhone and iPad is arguably less about the design and more about the ecosystem, and here’s where things get really useful. First, the app lets you sync with your Chrome account – not just across iOS devices but with laptops and PCs too. So the first time you log in, not only do you get your full set of bookmarks, but also your search and address history, saved passwords, and even open tabs.

Yes, you can finally leave the office with five tabs open, carry on with those same tabs on your iPad on the train, then switch on your PC at home and do the same. The sites appear in list form rather than as automatically opened tabs, and it requires push notifications to be enabled, but once it’s set up it works brilliantly. It’s as close as a browser can come to having a killer feature.

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Except there are a few important caveats. First, Apple may have allowed Google into its walled garden, but it’s not giving it a set of keys just yet. The App Store restricts Google to building Chrome on Webkit, but without access to an optimised JavaScript engine that Apple keeps exclusively for Safari. Thus, with the wrong kind of web page Chrome can be slow.

How slow? We ran the SunSpider 0.9.1 JavaScript benchmark – the same test we run on all tablets and smartphones – on the iPad versions of both Chrome and Safari. While Apple’s browser completed the test in a quick 1,805ms, Chrome took 7,225ms – four times as long. In real-world use the browser isn’t anything like four times slower, and in many cases Chrome loads pages every bit as quickly as Safari – the BBC homepage took just 2.4 seconds in Chrome to Safari’s 2.3 seconds, for example – but there’s no doubt it can feel a bit unresponsive at times. That’s particularly true on an iPhone.

Then there’s the issue of interaction with other apps: Apple won’t let you set Chrome as the default browser, which means links in other apps (including Google’s own) will still open in Safari.

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But if you drag Chrome down to sit permanently in the dock, it isn’t a great chore to put up with having to use Safari on occasion – iOS users will be comfortable enough with it by now even if they have been hoping for an alternative. And Chrome is very much that alternative. The fact that so many users will already be using it on the desktop means there’s little to no learning curve, and it adds so much more than just shared bookmarks.

We’d like it to run a bit more smoothly, and in our experience it’s easier to get the most out of its cross-platform features on the iPad version than the more cramped iPhone version, but Google Chrome for iOS is a well-designed browser that will immediately be a better option than Safari for an awful lot of people. Besides, it’s free so you lose nothing by having both installed.

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