06 July 2011

The experimental new tab page(s) in Google Chrome

The “new tab page” was a feature of ever since the launch nearly three years ago. Even though the concept was pioneered by , Chrome managed to make it more popular and slightly modified versions have since appeared in Safari and Internet Explorer. Mozilla is also finally considering it’s own concepts for a more interactive new-tab page, while at the same time running a study on user interaction with the new tabs and offering an experimental extension that suggest where the user might want to go after opening a tab. From Opera we recently saw the introduction of extensions for the Speed Dial, enabling mini-applications to run in the tiles instead of just static links.

Chrome itself is experimenting with an updated design of its own, though not as ambitious as the concept from Mozilla. As with many experimental features, it can be enabled from the internal page about:flags. The main difference compared to the standard new-tab page is that the content is split into several ‘home screens’: one for the most visited sites, another for apps and another two ‘dummy’ tabs: Foo and Bar. The recently closed pages have been moved to a menu in the bottom left corner of the browser window, visible on every home screen. The redesign is clearly focused on smaller screens and mobile devices; there’s more space on each screen for links or apps compared to the classic design, where they shared the same window. And you can drag the mouse to navigate to the next screen, a gesture more natural on a touchscreen. Unfortunately the bookmarks bar is no longer visible when you open a tab and you can’t rearrange the apps with drag-and-drop in this newer version.

The cool thing about using the Canary build is seeing how such experiments evolve without waiting for the official release. The new-tab page has matured in version 14 and it’s very likely it will change even more before the launch. There’s no more drag/swipe to switch screens and no keyboard shortcut, as far as I can tell. Instead, the ability to rearrange apps is not only restored, but taken to a different level: now you can drag apps and sites between home screens and also create new ones! Even if the small strip at the bottom only lists two screens, dragging an app or page thumbnail to the bottom of the window and onto an empty spot will create a new screen; release it there and you start a new collection. Also new in this version: you can rename any home screen by double-clicking on its name. Between these two features, the new-tab page becomes the equivalent of multiple desktops in conventional operating systems, where each user can group the apps to fit their needs. I fully expect to see it become the default for ChromeOS users.

Some old limitations – you can’t have more than 8 pages on the new-tab page – are left unaddressed, while new ones appear – the lack of one-click-access to the top bookmarks. For now, extensions still offer more functionality and flexibility, so I’ll be sticking with Speeddial 2, which I presented a couple of weeks back.

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