Google's Chrome OK, not sparkling

NEW YORK — Google Inc.'s new Web browser, Chrome, does much of what a browser needs to do these days: It presents a sleek appearance, groups pages into easy-to-manage "tabs" and offers several ways for people to control their Internet privacy settings.

Yet my initial tests reveal that this "beta," or preliminary release, falls short of Google's goals, and is outdone in an important measure by the latest version of Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer.

Chrome is a challenge to Microsoft's browser, used by about three-quarters of Web surfers. But it could equally be called a challenge to Microsoft's Office software suite, because what Google really wants to do is to make the browser a stable and flexible platform that can do practically everything we want to do with a computer, from word processing and e-mail to photo editing.

Chrome also has some cosmetic differences from Internet Explorer and Firefox, such as putting the tabs at the top of the window. And one of the things Chrome promises is that if one browser tab crashes, it won't take down the whole program. That's a nice move, but it's the browser's performance that really matters.

So how does it stack up against Firefox 3 and the beta of Internet Explorer 8, released just last week?

When playing a YouTube video, Firefox 3 took up 95 percent of the CPU time on a 3-year old laptop running Windows XP. Chrome came in at 60 percent — still too much, especially since Google owns YouTube. Internet Explorer barely broke a sweat, taking up just a few percent.

When I told each browser to load eight pages, some of which were heavy with Flash and graphics, Firefox took 17 seconds and ended with a continuous CPU load of 50 percent. That means it took up half of my available processing power, even if I wasn't looking at any of the pages. Chrome loaded them the fastest, at 12 seconds, and ended with a CPU load of about 40 percent. Internet Explorer 8 took 13 seconds to load, but ended with no CPU load at all.

So while Chrome's performance is a little better than that of Firefox, in practical terms, it is far less useful, because it lacks the broad array of third-party add-on programs that make Firefox so customizable. With time, it might catch up, but in the meantime, I'd recommend giving the new Internet Explorer a spin.