10 July 2012

What’s new in Chrome 21

As I noticed before, the odd version numbers in Chrome tend to bring more changes – at least visible changes – than the even versions. In Chrome 21 the first thing that I noticed – and got slightly annoyed at – was the inclusion of Google Docs as a default extension, along with Search, YouTube and Gmail. I promptly removed it, as I use Docs less and less – it’s a very poor replacement for a desktop editor. But moving on…

The biggest potential improvement in this version is a new way to build extensions, announced a couple of weeks ago on the Chromium blog. “Event pages” should help reduce the memory consumption by loading and running extensions only on specific events instead of having them loaded all the time in the background. This would make extensions act more like native browser functions instead of separate processes. Looking at my (rather short) list of extensions, most of them would benefit from being converted to extension pages: ad-blocking could run only on page load, LastPass only when it detects a login form, the couple of extensions I use to open new tabs in the background could kick in only when they detect the creation of a new tab. Even something more complex like SpeedDial 2 could be optimized to run only when the user opens a new tab, since it doesn’t do anything otherwise.

Google Chrome 21 New incognito spy iconThere are a number of visual changes in this version as well. The ‘spy’-icon in incognito mode has been slightly redesigned and extensions no longer have buttons by default on the toolbar; if you want buttons there you need to go to the ‘Extensions’ page and re-enable them. And speaking of extensions, someone was mentioning on Twitter that it’s no longer possible to install extensions from non-Google sites – probably to restrict this to the Chrome Webstore. I didn’t test this, but as far as I understand from this discussion on the chromium forum the mechanism is similar to what Firefox is doing with its own extension system, meaning you can install third-party extensions, but the process is a little bit more complicated. You need to first download the file and then install it manually – most likely via drag-and-drop. As a clarification here, as mentioned in the comments, you can install extensions from third-party sites in Chrome, but the developer will have to host the extesnion in the Chrome Web Store and present it on his site using Inline Installation for security reasons.

Other interface changes are more experimental and hidden behind flags in this version:

  • The most interesting is ‘Stacked Tabs’ (Windows only) aiming to solve one of the oldest complaints about tab handling in Chrome: if you open many tabs, they quickly shrink to unusable sizes. With Stacked Tabs on, tabs never shrink, instead they stack on top of each other when there is not enough space. Pinned tabs are unaffected; they sit on the left side of the tab bar, always visible. This has the advantage that the active tab remains bigger and is more readable, but many other tabs are hidden and there’s no way to tell which is which without hovering with the mouse over a very small strip to display the title in a tooltip. The rules deciding which tabs are stacked also seem a little arbitrary. The idea is nice, but needs a lot of tweaking to become more usable.
  • Script badges’ will add icons for the running scripts – including scripts installed as extensions – in the location bar. Personally I didn’t find any use for it, in only clutters the Omnibox. Maybe the option it designed primarily for developers and debugging.
  • Action box’ is another experimental UI, this time for the toolbar. It basically replaces the star used for bookmarking with a + - probably a placeholder for a new menu. Right now it’s very buggy in my experience: clicking on the +-sign has no effect and it frequently crashes the browser.
Google Chrome 21 Stacked Tabs and Script Badges

The settings for the Web Inspector are now divided on multiple tabs to more clearly support all available settings. Speaking of developer features, Chrome 21 added support for a number of features – again many of them available in other browsers for some time, like the tab-size CSS property, animations and transitions for :first-element pseudo-elements and color profiles for images (If you’re not sure what color profiles do, this article has a good overview, as well as some nice test images to see if the browser supports color profiles). Google Chrome 21 Developer Tools Experiments

As miscellaneous changes I noticed a new internal page, chrome://cache, listing all the files cached by the browser. Contrarily to what I expected, clicking on these links doesn’t show the actual file or webpage (that would have been very useful), but a page with some cryptic file details.

Following the inclusion of Web Intents into Chrome in version 19, there is now (finally!) a native way to interact with RSS feeds in Chrome: when the user clicks on a feed link, the browser pops up a dialog suggesting to view the items in Google Reader or to install an extension from the Webstore. Google Chrome 21 Web Intents feed viewer

As mentioned in a recent blog post, this Chrome version starts allowing web-apps access to local camera and microphone to enable apps to include communication features. Accompanying this update there is a new privacy setting under ‘Content setting’ (‘Ask me when a site requires access to my camera and microphone’) where users can manage which pages have access to these input devices or can disable the feature completely.

Update: Another feature available starting with Chrome 21 is the ability to drag-and-drop entire folders (not just files) into the browser. That will come in very handy for Google Drive users, I’m sure (not one of them). On the other hand, the web-apps have to be updated to handle this new functionality; I have tried it recently on the Google+ photo upload page and it doesn’t do anything there. But other companies already put the new feature to use:

Version 21 of Chrome also includes a number of security improvements regarding mixed scripting vulnerabilities and the bundled Flash plugin architecture.

Beyond the security benefits, PPAPI has allowed us to move plug-ins forward in numerous other ways. By eliminating the complexity and legacy code associated with NPAPI, we’ve reduced Flash crashes by about 20%. We can also composite Flash content on the GPU, allowing faster rendering and smooth scrolling (with more improvements to come). And because PPAPI doesn’t let the OS bleed through, it’s the only way to use all Flash features on any site in Windows 8 Metro mode. Justin Schuh


  1. You will still be able to install extensions from third-party websites, but only if they are hosted in the Chrome Web Store(CRS). Then you can use the Chrome web store inline installation process (https://developers.google.com/chrome/web-store/docs/inline_installation). Extensions not hosted in the CRS will have to be installed manually (as you described above).

    1. Ah, I see, for the end user it's mostly the same experience. The extension just has to be hosted on the Web Store to be checked for security, but the installation can be made from anywhere. Thanks for the clarification!