16 May 2011

Google Chrome experiments with compact navigation

Looks like version 13 will bring more innovations to Chrome than the ones I wrote about last week. After a new update of the Canary channel (now at 13.0.767.0 on Windows), a new command-line flag was added, “Compact Navigation”. This is part of an older UI experiment that explores several other options, like “sidetab navigation” – this was actually the first flag offered in , “Side Tabs” – and “touchscreen navigation”.

Compact Navigation
Adds a "Hide the toolbar" entry to the tabstrip's context menu. Use this to toggle between always displaying the toolbar (default) and only opening it as a drop down box as needed.

After enabling this experiment from about:flags and restarting the browser, the new interface can be toggled on or off from the tab context menu. As intended, the main strength is even more vertical space for the web pages, by hiding the Omnibox. Some of the controls – back & forward and the wrench menu – are still available on the tab bar. The Omnibox and the other buttons (stop/reload, bookmark and any extensions residing in the Omnibox) are hidden by default; they are visible only as long as the pages are loading or for a short time after you click on the active tab.

Google Chrome with compact navigation

Unfortunately, this setup has a number of draw-backs, which may or may not be solved in future versions.

  • First of all more buttons on the tab strip means less space for tabs, and that can become annoying for power-users – and Chrome was never particularly helpful with tab management.
  • The extra click every time you need to edit the URL or use the controls is inefficient, although some functions can be accessed through keyboard shortcuts. Clicking on an inactive tab doesn’t bring up the Omnibox, it only activates the tab, so that requires two clicks.
  • The extensions lose the place on the toolbar where most of them place their icons for quick access to their functions. Sure, they can still put icons inside the Omnibox or in the context menu, but they are not nearly as discoverable as on the toolbar.
  • Web apps benefit from the increased screen space and this helps blur the line between them and local apps; however the Omnibox has a annoying habit of popping up whenever the app loads something, for example when switching between folders in Gmail, which is distracting and spoils the illusion of local app.
  • The auto-hiding can lead to curious situations, when for example the bookmarking dialog is left floating above the page with no visible connection to the rest of the UI.
  • If you enable the bookmarks bar, the Omnibox will pop-up under it, which makes it harder to reach the bar and the buttons moved there.
  • This is probably just an unexpected side-effect, but Instant no longer works from the auto-hiding Omnibox. If you revert to the classic interface by unchecking ‘Hide the toolbar’, all comes back to normal.

Despite these small problems, I like this new look and I think I could get accustomed to it. Hopefully it will become more functional and efficient over time.