16 October 2014

What’s new in Chrome 39

After the numerous developer updates and APIs introduced in Chrome 38, this version focuses more on JavaScript, with ES6 Generators, improved animation controls and a new standard for defining mobile web apps, the Web Application Manifest. Of course, at some point adding features will lead to older ones being deprecated, and now it’s time for the chrome.pushMessaging API to be replaced by the newer Google Cloud Messaging service. Another change that should be live in this version is that people can install free Chrome apps without being signed in to the Web Store. Since I haven’t installed an app in a while I can’t verify this – I’m also almost constantly logged in to Chrome.

Security-wise, 39 marks the first step in the process of gradually phasing out support for the SHA-1 cryptographic hash algorithm, used in HTTPS certificate signatures, as detailed in the official announcement. SHA-1 is old and weak, and unfortunately widely used, so moving to the improved SHA-2 is scheduled to take at least a couple of years. Other big technology companies have similar plans, starting with Microsoft and most recently Mozilla.

On Windows 7, Chrome 39 adds an experimental ‘immersive modeaccessible through the wrench menu. It’s sort of a hybrid between the Windows 8 ‘Metro’ mode and Chrome OS, as it’s supposed to run in full-screen, with a dedicated Chrome taskbar and apps. I sort of like the grey solid look of the browser window, as opposed to the Aero transparency in Windows 7; but the good parts end here! In the default setup with the Windows taskbar docked at the bottom, ‘immersive’ Chrome looks awkward, adding an extra, semi-transparent taskbar, with it’s own clock and Start button. Personally I have a wide screen and have moved the taskbar to the left side; in this setup Chrome fails to recognize the boundary defined by the taskbar and a portion of the new browser window is hidden under it, while the height is smaller than the desktop, as if Chrome assumes the taskbar is always located at the bottom. If you un-maximize the window, the space left behind is a big chunk of dark grey where the Chrome OS desktop is supposed to be. It could be a nice addition to Chrome at some point, but for the moment it just looks unfinished and far from ready to be launched.

  • Chrome 39 Immersive mode on Windows 7
    Chrome immersive mode (maximized) on Windows 7, OS taskbar on left
  • Chrome 39 Immersive mode on Windows 7
    Chrome immersive mode on Windows 7, OS taskbar on left
  • Chrome 39 Immersive mode on Windows 7
    Chrome immersive mode on Windows 7, OS taskbar on bottom (default)

For Mac users, version 39 marks the full switch to 64-bit; unlike Windows, where the 32-bit and 64-bit versions continue to exist side-by-side, on Mac there will be a single, 64-bit browser. As a result, 32-bit NPAPI plugins will stop working in Chrome for Mac after the stable release.

Chrome 39 new Print Preview optionsA small improvement has been made to the ‘Print preview’ dialog, where some settings that used to take up a lot of vertical space in the left column have been consolidated under a ‘More options’ link at the bottom. Other controls have been changed from radio buttons to drop-down lists, further improving the layout.

This version adds the option to edit saved passwords and even to add new sites directly in the browser. Personally I use LastPass as cross-browser password manager, which automatically updates passwords as you change them on the respective site; I can only assume doesn’t have this advanced feature and people need to manually manage the process…

As usual, the browser introduces a number of experimental feature, that may or may not make it to the stable channel at some point in the future:

  • The ‘New Tab’ page is being slowly redesigned to match Material Design. So slowly, that I for one can’t see a discernable difference between the original and the experiment…
  • By enabling the flag ‘Show settings in a window’, users can now have ‘Settings’ launch in a separate window instead of a tab – not particularly useful, if you ask me, but some people probably prefer it that way.
  • Another flag called ‘Enable extension toolbar redesignchanges the behavior of the extensions buttons: when people resize the toolbar area, the buttons are shown inside the wrench menu at the top, instead of being hidden next to the omnibox.
    Chrome 39 new extensions toolbar overflow
  • When visiting secured sites with invalid certificates, users have the option to ignore the warning and proceed to the site, but this choice normally expires at the end of the session. A new flag in Chrome 39 (‘Remember decisions to proceed through SSL errors for a specified length of time’) changes this default to remember the users’ override for a fixed number of days. I could certainly use this option at work, where I regularly visit a couple of intranet pages with outdated certificates and have to click through security warnings every time.
    Chrome 39 remember SSL error override
  • The browser added new keyboard shortcuts: on the Downloads tab, Alt+C clears all downloads and two other can rotate PDF files, counterclockwise with Ctrl+[ and clockwise with Ctrl+].

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