Google Chrome, has recently become available for OSX, and we’ve spent some time taking it for a test drive.

The first thing you’ll notice is how fast Chrome opens and launches your homepage. It starts noticeably faster than Firefox or Safari. The address bar, is by default, a Google search box. You can type in what your looking for, and Google will start displaying results in the bar. The search also feels extremely snappy, and it’s a nice convenience to be able to search without having to open an additional tab.

Chrome supports tabbed browsing, and when you open a new tab you’ll be brought to a favorites page that displays your most visited sites and recently closed tabs.  The tabs can also be dragged visually to arrange them in any order, and you can pop them out to start a tab in an entirely new window. This seems to offer a nice combination of the way Safari and Firefox handle tabs.

In our completely unscientific tests, Google Chrome does seem to load nearly every page much more quickly than Firefox, and is about as fast as Safari. Plenty of people have done head to head browser tests for speed, and Safari seems to show up as slightly faster in technical tests. We found Chrome very fast overall.

The user experience with Chrome is fantastic. It’s clean, uncluttered and very easy to find and tweak the settings. There is no fluff in the user interface, and Chrome seems built for simplicity. Either choose a favorite site from your thumbnails, or type what you’re looking for into the search bar. It all happens in one place, so you don’t need to jump around.

The Preferences pane is the most well organized we’ve encountered. It has three tabs: Basics, Personal Stuff and Under the Hood. You can change every setting that matters right here, and each setting is clearly explained. The preference panel here is much more user friendly than Firefox or Safari, where you sometimes need to dig a bit to find the setting you’re looking to change, and the function of these settings can be somewhat confusing for inexperienced users. Google has done a solid job of highlighting the setting most users need to change, and eliminating some of the more confusing setting you find in other browsers.

There’s one feature we really love and have been getting a lot of mileage out of. You can set Chrome to open up a few sites in separate tabs whenever you start the browser.  When Chrome launches, Google Wave, Co-Tweet and some of the other web apps we use open automatically. Basically, you can pop open the browser and get ready to work.  This is especially helpful when you’re trying to get used to using a new app, like Wave.

There’s also some interesting technical stuff going on under the hood as well. Each tab in the browser is it’s own separate entity. What’s going on in one tab, doesn’t effect the others, which is an added layer of malware protection.  If you have the bad luck of opening up a data stealing site in one tab, and happen to be purchasing something or looking at your bank account in another, your personal information is safe. It’s a solid security feature that is built right into the design of the browser.

The one place where Chrome for OSX fails, at least for now, is with addons. Firefox and Safari have an enormous amount of plugins, addons and hacks available that can make your life much easier. Chrome doesn’t currently support any extensions, although this is set to change in the future. If you’re a power user, who has a suite of plugins you can’t live without, Chrome isn’t the browser for you. Yet. We’ll reserve our judgement in this area until Chrome starts adding extra functionality, but it will be difficult to replicate the large hacker community surrounding Firefox, that are always adding new functions.

However, there is a hacker build of Chrome, called Chromium that addresses some of these shortcomings. Chromium has a full suite of extensions available, features daily updates and removes the Google branding from the browser. Chromium is a good choice for tech savvy power users, and does a great job of showing the future potential of Chrome.

Chrome does offer some very cool themes to change the look of the browser, including ones by Jeff Koons, Karim Rashid and Anna Sui. These are wonderful looking, but just window dressing. Very cool attractive stuff, but they don’t add any functionality.

Overall, Chrome is a very light, solid and fast browser. Safari users may be tempted to jump ship, as it seems more stable and nearly as quick. Firefox users will enjoy the speed increase Chrome brings to the table, but without the plugins, Chrome won’t be the best choice for geeks who live inside their browser. Our feeling is that Chrome is a great choice for casual web users, especially those that aren’t very tech savvy.

Chrome is still in beta. When the community expands, plugins become available, and Google tightens things up, we imagine Chrome will become the number one browser on the web in the near future.

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