How the Google Chrome Browser Works

Learn what browser extensions are on one Web developer's must-have list.
Harvard Extension School's Computer Science E-1: Understand

In the browser game, software developers have constantly updated their products to include all the latest and greatest additions in the name of staying competitive. Brand loyalty and trust have also been influential in keeping Microsoft's Internet Explorer in the top two most popular browsers even while Mozilla's Firefox rose to popularity in the early 2000s. But Google is taking a different approach. Will it pay off?

In September 2008, Google began capitalizing on the brand it built in its first decade of business by releasing its own Web browser. Sharing the name of Google's Chrome operating system, the Chrome Browser is currently available for Windows XP, Vista and 7, Mac OS X, and Linux (both Gnome and KDE desktops). At the same time it released its first browser, Google launched the open source project Chromium to encourage community contributions that could enhance Chrome over time [sources: Goodger, Google, Kegal and Martin].

Statistics show interesting trends in Web browser use since Google released its first Google Chrome Browser [source: W3Schools]:

  • Though Firefox is the most popular browser today, the number of Firefox users has remained somewhat steady (varying between 42 and 47 percent) since 2008.
  • The number of Internet Explorer users has decreased steadily since 2008, dropping from over 50 percent down to 24.9 percent.
  • The number of Chrome users has increased steadily since 2008, reaching 25.9 percent to take the number two spot in May 2011.

These numbers suggest the possibility that Firefox holds No. 1 because half of Internet Explorer's users have migrated to Chrome. Was it a brand loyalty shift from Microsoft to Google? Firefox users are a fiercely loyal bunch, too, but only time will tell whether Google will eventually convince them to make the switch.

Google is quick to assure users that aside from sporting the Google brand, Chrome boasts a simple, fast and secure browsing experience. The browser is a standalone piece representing the larger Google Chrome OS project. Chrome OS is, in a sense, replacing your computer's entire operating system with just a Web browser. So, instead of using applications outside your browser, the browser becomes the portal to all your applications, both locally and on the Internet. For more on this OS side of Chrome, see our article How the Google Chrome OS Works.

This article covers some of the Chrome browser's advantages and challenges, and it takes a brief look at both the simple interface and the wealth of extensions and apps. Let's start by turning back the clock to the birth of Chrome and looking at its journey to distinction.

Google's New Approach to the Web

Google envisions everything you do on the computer being accomplished through Web applications like Google Docs running within a browser interface.
Google envisions everything you do on the computer being accomplished through Web applications like Google Docs running within a browser interface.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

When Google launched the Chrome browser in 2008, it was dramatically different from the big two of the time: Internet Explorer (IE) and Firefox. Both of these browser giants packed the tops of their windows with buttons and menus for searching subjects, reloading pages, managing bookmarks, printing pages and other actions you might want to take while you're on the Web. You could even add more features to these browsers to customize your browsing experience.

With the Chrome browser, Google took a completely different approach to the browsing experience. Google's vision for Chrome has been to turn the Web browser from a passive means of viewing and listening to information to an interactive portal optimized for Web apps. To accomplish that, Google needed to make Chrome more streamlined, with less emphasis on the browser itself and more emphasis on the power of the Web [source: Chrome].

Web users were already familiar with the simplicity of Google's home page: a big white page with the Google logo, a simple text box for entering search terms and a couple of buttons to launch the search. The Chrome browser reflects that same simplicity. Chrome has a window with the Web page itself and two toolbars: an address bar with the four most commonly used control buttons (back, forward, reload, and home) and a bookmarks bar for managing links to the sites you visit most. Chrome's only built-in menus are its settings menu, accessible using the small wrench icon on the far right, and an "Other bookmarks" menu for bookmarks not shown on your toolbar.

As of this writing, nearly three years following the first Chrome release, Chrome has maintained its simplicity. It also prompted IE and Firefox to simplify their own interfaces. As with IE and Firefox, you can add more features to the Chrome browser by installing extensions. We'll take a closer look at extensions later alongside a more unique Chrome feature: apps from the Chrome Web Store. You can install and use these apps in your Chrome browser the same way you might install apps on your iPhone, iPad or Android mobile device.

Now that you know Chrome's primary goal, let's look at how you can integrate the browser into your user experience.

Chrome Browser Basics

When you first open the Google Chrome browser, you'll have little more than an address bar and a few links to get you started. If you're already comfortable with Web browsing, you'll probably just enter a Web address and go from there. As you continue using Chrome, though, you'll want to be familiar with these other functions:

  • Navigation buttons -- By clicking the icons to the left of the address bar, you can go back to a previous page, forward to a page you backed up from, refresh a page and go to your browser's home page.
  • Bookmark star -- If you want to bookmark a page in Chrome, click the star on the far right of the address bar. The star changes from white to yellow to symbolize your choice, and a small dialog box appears to confirm your choice and let you change the name and bookmark folder.
  • Bookmarks bar -- This is one of two places you can save bookmarks. The bar provides fast, one-click browsing to your favorite sites. Add bookmarks here by choosing "Bookmarks bar" from the list of folders when you save the bookmark. For each bookmark in the bar, Chrome displays the favorites icon associated with the Web page and the title you set for your bookmark (the Web page title, by default).
  • Other bookmarks -- This is your other option for saving bookmarks in Chrome. If you bookmark a page that you don't need on the bookmarks bar, you can add it to this menu instead.
  • New tab button -- Tabbed browsing is a standard feature of most Web browsers today. Even with only one page open, Chrome has a tab at the top with the favorite icon and title of the page. You can open a new tab by clicking the new tab button, with a plus sign ("+"), to the right of your open tabs. Click the tabs to switch between them, or toggle between tabs by holding down your Shift key and pressing the Page Up and Page Down keys.
  • Settings menu -- Click the wrench icon on the far right of the address bar to access additional built-in features. We'll look at each of these more later.

Like other browsers, Chrome has a bookmark manager. To access it, click the Settings menu and select "Bookmark manager." Chrome opens its bookmark manager in a separate browser tab as if it were a Web page. Besides editing and deleting bookmarks there, you can also add folders and drag and drop both bookmarks and folders to organize them into a hierarchy. Chrome saves your changes as you make them, so just close the browser tab when you're finished.

When your bookmarks bar fills up, Chrome displays a double-arrow icon on the right. Click that icon to show the bookmarks that don't fit in the available space. Here's a useful tip to save space: Add folders to your bookmarks bar. Folders under your bookmarks bar become drop-down menus of related bookmarks. This keeps your bookmarks easy to access without filling up your bookmarks bar.

Those are the basics for Chrome! Google has truly kept the interface simple with a focus on getting you from page to page efficiently. But what if you want more from your browser than just managing bookmarks? Chances are Chrome has what you need either built in or as an add-on feature. Let's look at the built-in features hiding in that Settings menu.

Other Useful Features in the Chrome Browser

Look for this character lurking next to your browser tabs to confirm you're using an incognito window in Chrome.
Look for this character lurking next to your browser tabs to confirm you're using an incognito window in Chrome.
Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks.com

Chrome's simple interface doesn't mean it's lacking in features. To see what else the Chrome browser has to offer, let's start with some of the things you'll find in the Settings menu:

  • New tab/New window -- These are options you'd also see in other browsers. In Chrome, you can also turn an existing tab into a new window just by dragging the tab outside the current browser window.
  • New incognito window -- If you want to prevent pages you're browsing from setting cookies or being stored in your browsing history, open them in an incognito window. The incognito window looks just like the main Chrome browser except that it has a silhouette icon of someone in a trench coat and fedora to the left of the row of tabs. Chrome also disables extensions in incognito windows.
  • Zoom and Full Screen -- You can adjust the size of the content in your Web browser by zooming in ("+") and out ("-"), and you can return the page to its normal size by selecting "100%" between them. You can also zoom in and out by holding down Control and pressing the =/+ and - keys. Use the block to the right of this zoom bar to go into full screen mode, and press F11 to exit full screen.
  • Bookmarks manager/History -- These are options you'd also see in other browsers. Be sure to remember some of the tips that you read about earlier when managing bookmarks.
  • Downloads -- Chrome has a built-in download manager. For each new download, you can monitor the progress in a bar that appears at the bottom of the browser. When the download is complete, you can close this progress bar using the X at the far right. To view a complete record of downloads, use this "Downloads" menu option or use the link when the progress bar appears to "Show all downloads." You can use the "Clear all" link to clear the list, but note that anything saved to your computer will still be taking up space in your default downloads folder.
  • Options/Preferences -- The name of this selection is different depending on which operating system you're using to run Chrome. It opens a browser tab with a menu on the left and a set of adjustable browser preferences on the right for each menu item. Most of these preferences are similar to what you'd find in other browsers, but later we'll take a closer look at a couple of preferences which are unique to Chrome.
  • View background pages -- When you have Web pages open in your browser, each page may be running a series of processes even when you're not actively viewing that page. Use this option to open a small window where you can monitor how much of your RAM and CPU is being used by the background processes associated with the browser and each tab you have open.

In addition to these options, you'll also see a few unique items in the "Tools" submenu. The "Task Manager" is equivalent to the "View background pages" option, and "Clear browsing data" and "View source" are common to most Web browsers. The remaining choices relate to things we're about to cover on the next page: extensions, applications and developer tools.

Chrome Browser Extensions and Apps

This is the New Tab Page. The user is accessing the options menu for one of the installed Google Chrome apps.
This is the New Tab Page. The user is accessing the options menu for one of the installed Google Chrome apps.
Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks.com

An extension is an extra feature designed to plug in to your Web browser and function as if it was a native part of the browser software. The top three browsers vary in how they use terminology around extensions:

  • Firefox calls them extensions or plug-ins based on their role within the browser.
  • Internet Explorer calls them add-ons, which they separate into five add-on types: toolbars, extensions, search providers, accelerators and tracking protection.
  • Chrome just calls them extensions, with themes and apps categorized separately.

In Chrome, as in other browsers, extensions work alongside the browser's built-in features to enhance your Web experience. Since each extension has a specific purpose, you may be performing a specific task in the browser before you see the extension in action. For example, if you're using the Shopping Assistant extension, the price comparison bar, which searches other Web sites for the same product, won't appear at the bottom of the browser window unless you're shopping for a product at a competitor's site.

While extensions are often comparable across browsers, Chrome has a unique option that other browsers have yet to replicate: apps. Earlier, we talked about one of Google's primary goals for Chrome: Optimize the browser for running Web applications. With Chrome apps, Google takes that goal a step further. Today, Chrome runs its own virtual computing environment for Web apps, and Chrome apps take advantage of that processing power. Chrome apps install and run in Chrome as if you were installing the software on your computer or smartphone.

To access Chrome apps, just open a new browser tab. On each New Tab page, Chrome displays shortcuts to all the apps you have installed. Click the icon for one of these apps to get started. If you need to pause from using the app to do something else, you have the option of leaving the tab open where you can click back to it at any time. If you need to adjust an app's settings or remove it altogether, move your mouse over the app to highlight it and click the wrench icon that appears in the upper right of that highlight block.

So where do Chrome apps and extensions come from? Extend your reading to the next page to find out.

Chrome Web Store and Developer Dashboard

Google provides the Android Market, where you can download and install apps for Android smartphones and tablets. The Chrome Web Store is the Android Market equivalent for Chrome apps. Visit the Chrome Web Store (chrome.google.com/webstore) to search and download Chrome extensions, apps and themes. Note that you'll need to be signed on to your Google account to use the Chrome Web Store, even if you only download free content.

Besides extensions and apps, you can also find Chrome themes at the Chrome Web Store. Like desktop themes for your computer, Chrome themes change the appearance of the interface. Most Chrome themes feature a background image which is mostly hidden unless you're viewing the New Tab Page. If you ever need to reset your browser to its default theme, go to Settings, select Options, click Personal Stuff, and use the "Reset to default theme" button.

Google has opened extension and app development to the public through its Chrome Developer Dashboard (chrome.google.com/webstore/developer/dashboard). To become a developer, sign in with your Google account and use the instructions and links at the Developer Dashboard to add developer account information. As a Chrome developer, you can create and publish extensions, apps and themes to the Chrome Web Store.

Though Google strives to make the Chrome browser itself stable and reliable, user feedback is the primary means of evaluating the community-contributed contents of the Chrome Web Store. When you shop there, read the reviews before you click the download button so you know what to expect. Also, consider contributing your own review after you've had a chance to download and use the new content.

If your Chrome browser crashes, hangs or otherwise misbehaves, consider the extensions, apps and themes you're using and whether those may be to blame. Don't hesitate to disable or remove any content that isn't working. If you want to help the developers make improvements, let them know about your experiences. Many developers welcome this direct feedback by adding an app support link on the content's main page in the Chrome Web Store.

At this point, you've read about all of Chrome's major features and advantages, including the wealth of additional content available from the Chrome Web Store. Next, let's switch directions and look at Chrome's speed.

How Chrome Changed the Speed of Browsing

Google's marketing campaign for Chrome in 2010 featured a series of speed tests using some eye-catching homemade contraptions.
Google's marketing campaign for Chrome in 2010 featured a series of speed tests using some eye-catching homemade contraptions.
Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

Beyond its simplicity and extensibility, Chrome browser's most acclaimed advantage is its speed. The browser can't make your Internet connection faster, but it can make faster work of loading the Web pages you access. In an advertising campaign in 2010, Google demonstrated this using some creative homemade contraptions, comparing the browser's speed to the speed of sound waves, lightning and a potato gun. In each case, the browser was just as fast (or faster) at loading the page as the contraption was at performing its split-second task.

The big speed boost for Chrome comes from its V8 JavaScript Engine. JavaScript (not to be confused with the Java programming language) is a scripting language added to a page's code that allows that Web page make use of your browser's processing power. For example, a Web page can use JavaScript to show a certain menu when you move your mouse over a picture, or to submit the data you've entered in a form. JavaScript is so widely used on the Web today that nearly every browser includes some kind of JavaScript engine to run the code.

The JavaScript associated with a Web page is loaded when you load the page. Thus, if the browser wants to load pages quickly, it needs a fast JavaScript engine working behind the scenes. The V8 JavaScript Engine is reportedly the fastest JavaScript engine available in any Web browser. V8 is an open source engine written in C++ for use in Chrome. In a video about V8, Google engineer Lars Bak describes what makes V8 faster than other JavaScript engines from the programmer's point of view [source: Google]:

  • Rather than treating each JavaScript object as having its own separate class, V8 adds a hidden class that identifies common properties between those objects.
  • V8 translates the JavaScript code into machine code. You computer's processor can read machine code directly. Without this step, your browser would have to translate each piece of JavaScript into machine code every time you run a script on a Web page.
  • V8 has better garbage collection, which means that when it finishes using memory for one task, it can better reclaim that memory for another task.

If you're skeptical about Google's claims about V8's speed, or if you just want to see the speed boost in action, you can test it yourself just by visiting http://v8.googlecode.com/svn/data/benchmarks/current/run.html. As soon as you open the Web page, your browser runs a series of tasks simulating the background processes that happen when you're using Web pages. Chrome developers published these tests, known as the V8 Benchmark Suite, so that you could compare the speed of JavaScript engine between browsers. To make the side-by-side comparison, open the V8 Benchmark Suite in Chrome and in one or more other Web browsers (Firefox, IE, Safari, and so on), and compare the numerical results when the scripts finish running [sources: Google, Shankland].

Now that you know what makes Chrome so fast, what other advantages does Chrome have to offer? Next, let's see what Chrome can do to keep you safe while you're online.

Chrome Browser Security

If you're browsing the great unknown of the Web, one good feature to have in your Web browser is security. You probably don't want the browser to share your personal information without your permission. You also might want the browser to protect you if you stumble upon a malicious Web site.

Google has leveraged its power as a search engine to create its Safe Browsing technology. Safe Browsing will automatically warn you if Chrome detects that a site you're visiting contains malware or phishing. Other Web browsers offer similar safeguards, but they don't have the immense, constantly updated database of Web pages and their contents that Google does. For more on Web dangers, see our articles How to Avoid Spyware and How Phishing Works.

Another Chrome security feature is sandboxing. Sandboxing is a technical term meaning to separate processes out into independent spaces to see how they function individually. Chrome handles its workload as a series of multiple processes rather than as part of one large browser process. Each time you open a Web page, Chrome launches one or more new processes to run the scripts on that page. Also, each Chrome extension and app runs in its own process. Chrome implements sandboxing through its multi-process architecture. You can see a list of each process Chrome is running by clicking Settings, Tools and then Task Manager.

The security advantage in sandboxing comes from how Chrome implements this feature in Windows. Chrome controls the access token for each process in Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. On these operating systems, an access token for a process allows that process access to important information about your system, like its files and registry keys. Chrome intercepts each access token from the processes launched from the browser, and it modifies that token to limit its access to that information.

So, in Windows, Chrome's sandboxing helps block Web pages that try to install malware, capture your personal information or obtain data from your hard drive. It also prevents a page that's open in one browser tab from affecting what happens in other tabs. The drawback of sandboxing, though, is that it can't catch everything. A sandboxed process might still be able to access less secure file systems. It's also likely to miss protecting registry keys and files managed by third party software, like a game or chat program that isn't native to Windows [source: Sylvain].

In addition to these active security features, Chrome's auto-updates ensure that the browser checks for its own security updates at regular intervals. Security updates ensure that browsers are not vulnerable to Web sites that could exploit any known bugs in the software. Unlike IE and Firefox, which prompt you to install the latest updates when they're available, Chrome updates itself automatically with no interaction necessary.

So far, you've read about Chrome's advantages in speed and security and Google's goal to optimize the browser for Web applications. Next, let's zoom in on the Chrome basics to see just how simple this browser really is.

Chrome Browser Milestones and Challenges

The variety of apps and extensions available in the Chrome Web Store might be just enough to push the Chrome into the top spot among popular browsers.
The variety of apps and extensions available in the Chrome Web Store might be just enough to push the Chrome into the top spot among popular browsers.
Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks.com

Most reviews of Chrome since its first 2008 release have raved about its speed, simplicity and readiness for a Web-centric world of cloud computing. With so many positive features going for it, does Chrome have any shortcomings?

Even the hottest thing since sliced bread won't necessarily make a better sandwich. Chrome does face a few challenges. One of its most prevalent issues is getting Web site developers and Web application programmers to test for compatibility of their sites with Chrome. Leaving Chrome out of compatibility tests made sense back in 2009 when the browser was still new and had a much smaller share of Web users. Now that Chrome has over a fourth of the market, though, developers are gradually starting to make Chrome a priority. As of this writing, there are still many sites that will not render properly, will warn you about browser compatibility, or will even refuse to load at all if you're using Chrome rather than another browser.

While Chrome developers are quick to address any vulnerabilities, the browser is still coming into its own with features and functions. For example, Chrome only recently finished phasing out its homegrown project Gears as its underlying programming interface (favoring the more widely recognized HTML5 standard instead). Also, Chrome apps and the Chrome Web Store are still new with no way to predict their success or their role in boosting Chrome to the top spot in browser popularity.

Finally, Chrome's simplicity could be a double-edge sword for some users. Simplicity is an advantage for users who want a clean, clutter-free interface for browsing. It's not so great, though, for the less tech-savvy who are used to having certain toolbars and buttons in predictable locations in the interface. Though this does seem like a possible shortcoming for Chrome, the fact that IE and Firefox have followed the trend toward a simpler interface suggests it's not an important concern for most users.

Throughout this article, we've looked at the innovative features of the Chrome browser, its advantages over other Web browsers and the challenges it faces. With Chrome, Google has become a trendsetter for browser design and set a high bar for browsing performance. If you're as ready as we are to see where Chrome goes from here, browse on to the next page for lots more information about the Google Chrome browser.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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