by Tom McNamara / November 16, 2017
Since its release in 2008, Google Chrome has gradually come to dominate the web browser market, even on platforms with pre-installed competition. The reasons for that are complex, but one of them is that Google constantly iterates to make Chrome better. At the same time, Mozilla has changed the landscape with its Firefox Quantum overhaul. Let's see if Chrome is still the king of the hill.
Media-heavy pages load and scroll smoothly: Compared to Mozilla Firefox, Chrome has always fared better when it comes to streaming HD video or just loading a lot of images at once. Microsoft's Edge browser has stolen some thunder here lately, but Edge isn't available for Windows 7 (and it's only available on Android and iOS in beta testing form), which puts a serious dent in its audience reach, and its add-on library is relatively tiny. Firefox Quantum has narrowed the gap, but Chrome remains better for video above 1080p and faster than 30 frames per second, unless your PC has recent internal components that can take the load off your central processor -- a system called hardware acceleration. If you have that, then Firefox and Chrome are pretty even in our real-world usage testing.
Google cloud services are tightly integrated: The browser itself has a Google account log-in dialog. When you log in, not only can you sync your bookmarks, browsing history and settings from other devices that you run this browser on, but you'll also get logged into Docs, Maps, Gmail, and other Google services. At the same time, you can opt not to sign in to Chrome and just log in to those services on their respective websites. You can sync with Firefox and Safari, but doing so doesn't connect you to anything that resembles Google's cornucopia of cloud services.
Privacy settings could be enhanced: While Google constantly works on Chrome's security, its privacy settings could use better organization. Take Firefox's permissions settings, for example. These are located right off the intuitively labeled "Privacy & Security" section of the settings tab. You can isolate specific websites that are asking for webcam and microphone access, location data, and the ability to send you in-browser notifications. In each of these four categories, you can delete specific sites, delete all sites in one click, and toggle "Block" or "Allow" for each site. Firefox's system is straightforward.
In Chrome's settings, you must scroll down to the bottom, click on "Advanced," scroll down to the ambiguously labeled "Content Settings," click on that, then click on the permissions category that you want to adjust. While Firefox has a prominent Settings button next to each permission category to help guide the user, Chrome's breadcrumb is a tiny arrow.
When you enter Chrome's notifications permissions section, you'll see websites listed in sections labeled "Block" and "Allow." To move a site from one section to the other, you have to click on the three little dots to the right to open a menu that contains a "Block" option. In Firefox, you get a list of sites that you can sort alphabetically or by block/allow status, the ability to search for a site within this section, and a submenu labeled "Block" or "Allow" that you can clearly click on to toggle your preference. Firefox's dialog is also in a compact but expandable window, while Chrome's dialog is in a new browser tab with a lot of wasted space.
Elsewhere in Firefox's privacy settings, you can toggle whether or not you want the browser to use your history to generate search suggestions as you type. You can make Firefox dump your browser history every time you close it, independently from browsing in its version of incognito mode. You can put your browser notifications in a "do not disturb" mode if you want to stream a movie, for example.
Overall, Firefox organizes your browser settings in a much friendlier and more granular way.
Search engine settings could be expanded: By default, the address bar uses Google Search when you type a few words and hit the Enter key. You can choose from a list of alternatives in your settings, but manually adding an additional engine is tedious. In the Search Engine section of your settings menu, you'll have to click on "Manage Search Engines" and click on the word "Add." This word doesn't look like a button because it has no border or colored background, and its positioning is ambiguous enough that you can tell if it's related to the list of defaults above, or the "Other Search Engines" section below.
When you click on Add, you get three entry fields to fill in. The most important one, where you tell Chrome the actual Internet address of the search engine, is labeled "URL with %s in place of query." Not intuitive phrasing for most people. In our testing, we had to enter the full URL of the search engine, then add "%s" (without the quotes) to the end.
And unlike Firefox, there is no function to restore the default list of search engines, so if you accidentally delete one, you'll have to go through this process to get it back. Plus, if your default is Google, for example, but you want to do a specific search on Wikipedia from the address bar, there is no quick way to do so. In Firefox, you can just start typing and click on the Wikipedia icon at the bottom of your search suggestions. If you want to remove a default search engine, you have to switch to another one for the removal option to show up.
Chrome's search engine management settings feel downright clunky compared to what Firefox offers.
The more we dug into Chrome's settings, the more impressed we were with Mozilla Firefox. And if your computer has hardware acceleration for HD video, then Chrome's historical performance advantage with media handling is more or less eliminated. Chrome's remaining major feature advantage, at least on the desktop, is a single sign-on for its cloud services. If Mozilla's imminent overhaul to the mobile version of Firefox is as comprehensive as what they've done with the desktop version, then Google may find itself playing catch-up like it did nearly a decade ago.
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