Chrome for Android Beta: Has potential but needs work.

Two days ago Google announced Chrome for Android, which is available in beta on Ice Cream Sandwich phones and tablets (depending on country) and which is expected to become the standard browser on all Android devices in the future. I must say, I like the stock browser on the Galaxy Nexus, and many tech blogs called it the best mobile browser ever just a few months ago. So for that reason, I was surprised to see Google release a Chrome browser that is aimed at replacing the stock Android browser, even though this was rumored for some time. But Google’s business plan is based on people using their services so that Google can sell ads, so it makes sense that they would want to create another reason for people with Android phones to use Google Chrome as their browser on their computers and vice versa, because the final result will be more Google searches, more gmail messages sent, more +1’s, and so forth.

As I said, I like the stock browser. It looks nice, works well, has a nice “request desktop site” feature, has tabs, provides a two-way sync of bookmarks between my phone and any Chrome browser that I am signed into, and does a great job of redirecting pages to their appropriate app (so a link to a YouTube video will open in the YouTube app, and a link to a map will open in the Google Maps app). But I am always happy to try new programs and applications, and this one received rave reviews, so I gave it a shot. Here’s what I think:

Good:

Speed: I haven’t timed page rendering, but Chrome seems just as fast if not faster than the stock browser. Google attributes this to preloading the top search results before the full search term is even entered. The stock browser has a similar function, but Chrome does a good job with it too.

Syncing: Syncing between different Chrome-using devices is probably Chrome for Android’s biggest selling point. Bookmarks between all devices are synchronized, and windows and tabs open on one device can be accessed by all devices. There is a feature that lets a user send a page from their desktop browser to their phone, and Chrome can preload that page immediately. Search results are also synced, so that if I typically search “New York Rangers” on my desktop browser, “New York Rangers” will appear as soon as I start typing the first few letters. There are plans to synchronize all stored passwords too, but that is not available yet. While synchronization of bookmarks already existed in the stock browser, Chrome for Android does it better and with more options.

Tabs: Chrome for Android has a really attractive tab layout that lets the user look through open tabs sort of like a deck of cards, and to switch tabs with a flick of the finger. Also, while the 16 tab limit on the stock browser has never been an issue for me, Chrome for Android has unlimited tabs.

Bad:

No Flash support: Adobe discontinued mobile Flash a few months ago and will not support it on Chrome for Android. However, the stock browser as well as many third-party browsers still support it, and some, although a dwindling number, of websites still use Flash. So that means that there will be some content on some websites that Chrome will not be able to display. In the quest to bring the desktop browsing experience to mobile devices, the absence of Flash in Chrome for Android is disappointing. Not necessarily a dealbreaker, but a big minus.

Appearance: Ice Cream Sandwich – at least the stock version on the Galaxy Nexus – has sort of a dark appearance. The stock browser fits in nicely, with a black search/address, bookmarks, and settings bar. Chrome for Android has a fixed grey bar at the top housing the omnibox, bookmarks, and settings menu, and that grey bar just does not look natural next to the pitch black status bar at the top of the phone. It’s minor, but details matter.

No “Request Desktop Site” feature: Not a big deal but is a nice feature that has come in handy for me in the past.

Ugly:

Interaction with other apps: I reset all my defaults to go to Chrome for Android, but this issue was a dealbreaker for me and made me go back to the stock browser. I tried and tried to figure out a way to fix this, but it did not work. Say you find a website that has embedded YouTube videos, like this blog entry. In the stock browser, videos can be played in the browser or using the YouTube app. When it’s in the YouTube app the navigation controls disappear and the video takes up the entire 4.65″ display, in HD, and looks beautiful. In Chrome for Android, the video sometimes can not play at all on the webpage, sometimes expands to varied degrees but never full-screen like in the app, and sometimes opens in the mobile YouTube site. It never opens a video using the YouTube app.

This also happens when searching for YouTube videos on Google. To test this, I searched for Samsung’s Galaxy Note Super Bowl commercial by searching Google for “Samsung Super Bowl youtube”. I then followed the links to the official Samsung video in each browser. The stock browser opened the video in HD in the YouTube app and Chrome for Android opened it on the mobile YouTube site. I then took screenshots in roughly the same place in the video, and the difference really is amazing:

The video using the YouTube app (top photo), which I have set to automatically open from the stock browser, takes up the entire screen, including the navigation menu, and is a much higher resolution than the video that opened using Chrome for Android. And when you’re done watching the video in the YouTube app, you can hit the back button and it’ll take you right back to the browser. Simple. I’ve had similar results with other apps – the stock browser can open maps and Google+ pages using the respective apps, while Chrome for Android only takes you to the mobile version of the respective sites. And these are all apps made by Google that I am testing!

I don’t mean to be hard on Google, as I appreciate their trying new things and releasing beta versions, and I am mindful that this is, in fact, a beta version. But the problem I am describing really hurts the browsing experience to the point that it outweighs the benefits of Chrome for Android. While I may be alone in finding this to be a problem (I have searched all over for similar complaints with no success), I really hope that Google addresses this with the next update.

All in all, Chrome for Android has potential. Once Google fixes a few things, I think that it definitely has what it takes to be the new Android browser. But until then, I’m sticking with the stock browser that came with my phone.

For other perspectives, check out The Verge, Engadget, Droid-Life, and TechCrunch.

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