01 June 2010

Updated tab handling in Google Chrome 5

As expected, after the work began on the 6th development version of Chromium, the stable channel was also updated for all users and now all supported operating systems can enjoy a stable version of . Besides the usual speed improvements and a number of new features, this version also brings some changes to the interface and especially tab handling.

Chrome phantom tabThe biggest change and a innovation in this area are the new ‘phantom tabs’: closing a pinned tab (via keyboard shortcut, menu command or middle-click) no longer removes it; instead the browser kills the process behind it and releases the memory, but the tab stays on the tab bar with a slightly changed look. If you left-click on this semi-transparent tab the page is reloaded and you can get back to reading it. It works like a temporary bookmark and could prove useful if you regularly open a lot of web-pages and want to free up some memory, while keeping the tabs around. It’s certainly quicker than searching for them through the history. But unfortunately the browsing history is not stored with the phantom tab, so you will not be able to navigate back after you restore that page.

Personally, I find this feature rather annoying and I couldn’t find a way to turn it of. When I close a pinned tab - any tab for that matter - I expect it to disappear; instead Chrome transforms it into a phantom tab and I need to close it again in order to get rid of it or remember to always unpin tabs before closing them. Another problem with phantom tabs is that the browser doesn’t regard them as normal tabs, although visually they are nearly identical. For example, when you have one normal and one phantom tab in a window and you close the normal tab, the entire browser window gets closed! There is no indication in the interface of what happened and users could easily get confused and frustrated by this unintuitive behavior. I think it would be better to have a separate context menu entry for phantom tabs, like there is for pinning.

Chrome drag pinned tab Another thing I noticed after switching to version 5 is that you can no longer pin and unpin tabs by dragging them across the tab bar. Previously, a normal tab dragged to the far left would become pinned and vice versa. It’s a small thing, but it was a nice way to visually organize tabs. Now, no matter how far you drag a pinned tab to the right, it just snaps back after you release it.

Chrome pinned tabs in incognito modeThe third change is also related to pinned tabs: when you close a window with pinned tabs and open Chrome in incognito mode after that, the pinned tabs are loaded in the incognito window! The same happens with phantom tabs. I’m not sure if this is a feature or a bug, since incognito is supposed to be separated from regular browsing to keep things private. On the other hand the active logins are cleared, as before, when the tabs are loaded in the incognito window and the trick doesn’t work if you start with an incognito window. It could provide an easier way to switch to a private browsing session, by pinning all the tabs you need and restarting the browser, although you can always open links in incognito windows from the right-click menu.

Chrome Windows 7 progressWith version 5, Chrome also improved the Windows 7 integration. By default, the browser now displays a progress bar in the Windows taskbar for file downloads, so you can track lengthy downloads even if you switch to other applications. Support for aero peek tabs is also present, although not on by default: like many other Chrome options, it can be enabled with a command line flag. I hope this stays this way: I don’t like dozens of thumbnails filling my screen; I can switch tabs more efficiently inside the browser, so I have turned this off in most other browsers I use.

Update: A thread from the Chromium-dev forum discusses some of the motivations for these changes and the concept behind pinned, phantom and the upcoming app tabs. (via Alex Chitu from Google Operating System)

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