Toybox: Google Chrome reignites browser wars

Chrome vs. IE8

They're back! Just when you thought the browser wars were over, with the two camps — Microsoft and Mozilla — settling in for a kind of intransigent détente, along comes Google to stir things up all over again.

Google has designed an almost completely new web browser. In fact, other than the core rendering engine — which is based on the open-source WebKit standard of Safari fame — everything in Google Chrome constitutes a rethinking of how you engineer a browser application. For example, with the current versions of Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, individual web page tabs are hosted in a single process — a model that is efficient (in terms of memory and resource consumption) but also prone to catastrophic failures. A single crashed tab can easily take down the entire browser application.

Chrome seeks to eliminate this problem by isolating each tab within its own application process. It then leverages the built-in memory protection capabilities of modern multitasking operating systems to keep the code and data in a failing tab from stomping all over your other processes. So now, when that buggy Flash applet on your favourite humour site goes belly up, it won't necessarily take down the entire browser — the processes running in other tabs will still keep chugging along.

Like Chrome, IE 8 uses multiple, discrete processes to isolate and protect each tab's contents. However, while Chrome takes a purist approach, and literally launches a new process with each opened tab, IE 8 uses more of a hybrid model. It creates multiple instances of the iexplore.exe process but doesn't specifically assign each tab to its own instance. Thus, a look at Task Manager under Windows will show an equal or greater number of Chrome instances than running tabs, whereas IE 8 will generate a fewer number of instances — for example, six copies of iexplore.exe to support 10 discrete tabs — and share them among the running tabs.

Both Chrome and IE 8 stretch the limits of current PC hardware, by gobbling up enormous amounts of RAM while saturating the system with lots of concurrent execution threads.

I was shocked by how bloated IE 8 had become, consuming 332MB of RAM to render a simple 10-site/10-tab browsing scenario. Then I evaluated Google's Chrome and my expectations were reset yet again. Not only did the "fresh start" Chrome use nearly as much RAM (324MB) as the legacy-burdened IE 8 during peak browsing loads, it actually "out-bloated" IE 8 over the duration of the test, consuming an average of 267MB versus IE 8's 211MB.

Clearly, these are products targeted at the next generation of PC hardware. With nearly 20% of a 2GB PC's memory consumed by web browsing, and with IE 8 spinning more than 170 execution threads on Vista to complete the same aforementioned 10-site scenario (Chrome spins a much more conservative 48 threads), we'll need to rethink our ideas of acceptable minimum system requirements.

To be fair, I must mention that both IE 8 and Google Chrome are still in the beta stages of development.

In addition to carrying forward the legacy of Microsoft's much-maligned ActiveX architecture, IE8 adds a host of new capabilities, including Web Slices, which are sections of a web page that are isolated and reproduced in a separate, updatable mini-window. There are also Accelerators, which are basically context menu options that activate common web services such as dictionary look-up or translation, and InPrivate Browsing, aka "porn mode", which lets you surf without leaving behind a browser or search history, cookies or temporary files, or other evidence of where you've been.

Google Chrome definitely comes from the "less is more" school. The browser's UI is spartan compared to IE 8's and has no dedicated search box. Instead, it combines search and auto-complete suggestions as part of a single, unified address superbox. New tabs open to reveal thumbnail views of frequently visits — IE 8 offers a similar view but focuses on recently closed tabs. These can be dragged into, out of and between Chrome windows, allowing you to isolate, combine and reorganise tabs on the fly. And, in a sign of the times, Chrome features its own take on "porn mode" (dubbed Incognito), where cookies and history data are deleted as soon as the tab is closed.

Overall, both IE 8 beta 2 and the Chrome beta look like compelling options. Each pushes the boundaries of web application robustness, while consuming gobs of resources and generally ignoring legacy hardware. Chrome will no doubt receive most of the attention, if for no other reason than it's from Google and thus “newer" and "cooler" than IE. However, I wouldn't count Microsoft out quite yet. The company still has the upper hand when it comes to overall browser share and, if nothing else, IE 8 is designed to appeal to Microsoft's user base by extending and enhancing what they already know.

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