28 May 2013

What’s new in Chrome 28

As many other ‘even’ releases, 28 doesn’t add many features – at least nothing immediately apparent in day-to-day browsing. I get the impression the development is currently focused on Chrome OS – a lost cause in my opinion that is just trying to implement features ‘real’ operating systems have had for ages – and on the migration to the new rendering engine Blink. This should first translate into faster page loads thanks to a new threaded HTML parser.

The main officially announced feature are the new rich notifications, now enabled by default on Windows and Linux – the Mac port is still being worked on. While they look better and display more information, including action buttons to quickly reply to notifications, they are part of a worrying trend at to move away from standards to proprietary APIs. Also I haven’t seen them implemented anywhere outside Gmail, for example TweetDeck doesn’t use them. That could well change as the feature graduates to the stable channel in a couple of weeks, but the fact that it’s no longer a standard means website owners will have to do extra work to implement them for a marginal benefit.

A very cool feature, available behind the flag ‘Enable Offline Cache Mode’, enables Chrome to work offline by loading the cached version of visited pages. It works surprisingly well in some cases – I was able to load the Flickr homepage looking almost like the live page – while in others it just shows a stripped down version without fancy styling, but enough to read the text. On a related note the network error pages shown when the browser cannot connect to a site or to the Internet in general were refreshed with new icons and descriptions. Google Chrome 28 network error icon

While users might hate (or just ignore) ads, they are Google’s main source of cash, so sooner or later they will show up in Chrome. One step towards this is a custom HTML tag called <adview> that will enable Chrome Apps developers to embed ads in their apps while maintaining some separation from the main code. For now it’s only an experiment hidden behind command line flags but personally I don’t like the idea – and the people commenting on the Google+ thread don’t seem that keen on it either.

Starting with this version, Chrome extension URLs (the local address where the extension is installed) will appear in the omnibox, as you can see in the image below in TweetDeck.Google Chrome 28 extension URL in omnibox

In another move to increase browsing speed, Chrome will start supporting the TCP Fast Open protocol, currently available after enabling the flag ‘Enable TCP Fast Open’.

The full history sync introduced in version 25 will now be enabled by default. To go along with this, the ‘History’ page now has a visual indicator in the dropdown menu next to an entry showing that particular page was visited on another device. Google Chrome 28 history from other devices

Another flag, ‘Enable 'image/webp' accept header’, allows the browser to broadcast support for the Google-built webp image format. Since it offers better compression then png and better quality that jpeg, some major sites like already began using it. Unfortunately no local software can open these images yet so users who download them are left with unusable files. Chrome can help with that somewhat by registering itself in the OS as a handler for .webp files, but I wonder how many people know how to do that on their PCs…

The new-style New Tab page received some updates following user feedback: the number of recently visited pages has been increased from four to eight and the list of recently closed tabs has been added to the Chrome menu (for Windows users at least). This doesn’t address all the problems but at least the devs are acknowledging there are problems with this new design. A newly introduced idea is a grid menu for Google services in the top right corner, replacing the Google+ sharing button. Google Chrome 28 new tab page

A final note for Canary users only, version 28 introduces a new tool for finding memory problems in the browser called SyzyASAN. As far as I understood this, there are special Canary builds released once a week using the tool – as you can see in the About page next to the version number. Unfortunately the performance is severely affected, the browser running noticeably slower with a higher memory consumption. That’s actually how I discovered these custom test builds, checking to see why the browser was eating up so much RAM. That made me switch from the Canary channel back to stable for the first time in probably two years. I think making the test build so slow is actually defeating the purpose of discovering bugs and memory leaks, since people will use it less.

Update: Chrome 28 also includes a number of new development tools, as described in this rather long article: Chrome DevTools Revolutions 2013.

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