Why I Can't Quit Chrome

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Google Chrome was released to the world 10 years ago today. I’ve been using the browser since it launched on OS X in 2009, and let me tell you what, I feel trapped now. This power-hogging, data-gobbling piece of software is where I spend most of my days, although not necessarily because I want it this way. As hard as I’ve tried, I just can’t quit Chrome.

This probably says a lot about me as a human—more on that in a minute. But it also speaks volumes about how Chrome has transformed the way we browse the web. In the beginning, Chrome set itself apart with one big feature: speed. I use that term broadly.

Early benchmark tests showed that Chrome significantly outperformed other browsers, like Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer. It simply loaded webpages faster, and you could tell. Chrome was also more stable.

There are a lot of reasons why Chrome felt snappier and more efficient than legacy browsers, including but not limited to its multiprocess architecture. I won’t go into the details of how this works, but it was refreshing to see Chrome tabs turn sad, when the pages crashed.

Then, when everything felt super slow, I could close tabs I wasn’t using and see my computer’s memory liberate itself. While I’d missed out on the earlier Windows release, my initial impressions after using Chrome on a Mac made it seem like this new Google browser was making the web into this wait-free experience I always wanted it to be. And on top of that, it never seemed to crash. Hooray!

Speed took on a great meaning as I got used to the innovative yet dead-basic utility of Chrome’s new address bar. Google calls it the Omnibox, because it isn’t just a place to type in hard-to-remember URLs. You can also perform searches and access settings from the same place. No more installing a search field add-on into Firefox or going to Google.com in Safari. The Chrome Omnibox does it all.

In the beginning, having a fast browser that was easy to use and that seldom crashed felt like a revelation. It was cool to use Chrome, too. I have these weird memories of being in meetings with coworkers who were fumbling through Firefox and feeling almost smug to be like, “You should try Chrome. It’s new.” What a time to be a nerd in America.

What I didn’t realise then was that Chrome would also wall me into Google’s fiefdom in a new way. It wasn’t like I was new to Google. By the time I started using Chrome, I’d had a Gmail account since 2004 and used the search engine every day. Signing in to Chrome with my Google account was a new level of connection with the Mountain View company, one that I’m still not sure I understand.

Sure, there were upsides to signing in to Chrome. It was easier than ever to access my bookmarks and extensions from any computer. My Chrome browser looked the same wherever I went, and it’s handy as hell that Chrome will save my passwords and credit card info for when I buy stuff online. It doesn’t matter which device. If I’m logged in to Chrome, that stuff is always there.

But I’ve never been completely clear on how much of my browsing data gets funneled back into Google’s ad servers. Chrome sends usage statistics back to Google by default. The “Do Not Track” option is off by default. At the very least, I now Google is tracking my searches in the blessed Omnibox, and I know Google knows it’s me, because I stay signed in to Chrome.

This fear of tracking is actually a minor complaint, coming from me. I still do all of my mobile browsing through Safari on my iPhone, and I don’t own a Chromebook. Chrome is the default browser on Android, and Chrome is the dang operating system on the Chromebook. So Google could be gobbling up a lot more of my online data. The fact that I spend so much of my laptop life in Chrome tabs does make me feel a bit exposed, though. Yet, I still use Chrome everyday. I use it a lot. I’ve tried to quit. I can’t.

Quitting Chrome should be a no-brainer. The technological innovations that made early versions of Chrome seem so incredible have long since replicated if not utterly improved upon by other browsers. Recent tests show that the new Firefox Quantum browser is faster than Chrome, and the upcoming version of Safari in macOS Mojave promises to protect you against browser fingerprinting, a type of tracking that lets websites follow your activity even when you’re using Chrome’s Incognito mode.

Meanwhile, somewhat ironically, Chrome is now known an incredibly resource-hungry browser. That’s right. The browser that promised to be more efficient in how it used memory is a total RAM hog now.

Here I am still using Chrome, though. I’m writing this blog post in Chrome. Got about 40 tabs open in various windows, too. Is it the fastest web experience I could be enjoying? Probably not. Is it the most secure? Nah. Is it familiar, and does it appeal to my habit-driven lifestyle? Unfortunately, yes.

Like my father, who still uses Yahoo Mail, I guess I’m resistant to change. This isn’t just true about my computer habits. I keep buying the same pair of shoes over and over again. Same with pants and T-shirts. Perhaps those clothing essentials serve as the most obvious counterpart to the web browser in my digital life.

Chrome is the application I use the most and, perhaps in deference to convenience, Chrome’s flaws seem easier to deal with than its absence. Every time I try to switch back to Safari or Firefox, I get annoyed that things look and feel a little bit different, so it’s back to Chrome and my extensions and my easy access to Google Docs.

I don’t think I’m the only one who does this. That’s part of why I think Google’s decision to build a browser that could be much more than a browser was so shrewd and prescient. In 2008, it was less obvious that our entire digital lives could exist inside of a web browser.

The invention of Chrome, along with its quirks, seems genius now that we’re moving from device-to-device and longing for a consistent experience across all of them. We’ve also shown Google (and Facebook) that we’re willing to trade privacy for free, convenient services.

Maybe I’ll try switching to Safari soon, when Apple releases macOS Mojave. It might be faster, and maybe it will protect my privacy better. I could use it Dark Mode, so the browser window would match the black theme that I’ve had on my Chrome windows for years.

But I’ll probably give up after a few days. I’ll get annoyed that my credit card information isn’t as convenient to access, and passwords to obscure websites aren’t saved. So I’ll go back to Chrome where web pages may load more slowly. I’ll give Google a deeper glimpse into my online life, and I’ll be annoyed about that from time to time. But I’ll be spending my days in Chrome again, and it will feel like home.


Comments

    I really wish people understood the memory models used in browsers better, particularly that less is not usually better. There's a reason Chrome's memory model changed over the years and bloat/laziness isn't it.

      Can you alaborate on this? My assumption was that every tab/extension/etc. was an individual process to avoid the entire application crashing if something went wrong with just a single item?

        That's pretty much it - tabs, extensions get split up to improve browser stability, keeping us away from the old days when a shitty Flash element could bring down the entire browser.

        The other part is that free RAM that doesn't get used is useless. If you've got 16GB of RAM and Chrome is using 700MB - so what? What different does that make? RAM usage might be important on low-end devices, but on most modern computers it really doesn't matter that much unless you're running an obscene number of tabs and extensions. Having a browser limit its RAM usage just so it can say "We use less RAM than Chrome!" isn't a selling point if you've got RAM to spare. There'll be a reason it's using less RAM.

        RAM is fast and is supposed to be used.

        There are three major memory models used in web browsers today, although one has diminished significantly.

        1. The entire browser and all tabs runs in a single process. This uses the least amount of memory and is arguably the fastest, but is also the most unstable. If any tab or any internal function (like GPU processing) causes a freeze, the whole application freezes. If it causes a crash, the whole application crashes. This is rarely used any more.

        2. The browser is partitioned up into a fixed number of processes and tasks are distributed between those processes. If you have 20 tabs, five each might go into four processes, which are also shared with GPU, the browser core, etc. This is more stable and more secure than the first model, but uses more memory and a crash or freeze of a process still takes out multiple tabs. This has been Firefox's memory model for some time although I can't for the life of me remember what the internal name they used for it is.

        3. Process per task - each tab, as well as GPU etc. get their own process. This offers maximum stability - a freeze or crash will only affect that tab - and it's extremely difficult for tabs to communicate with each other at all, which significantly improves security. Some shared memory is used, but not as much as other models. This uses the most memory and has been Chrome's memory model for some time.

        Complicating this are shared memory pages. A shared memory page can be attached to more than one process, but how it's accounted for (eg. in Task Manager) is not well defined. Some tools report it as part of the memory usage of each process that includes it, but that ends up misleading because it only actually exists once, not once-per-process.

        And even that all aside, the core principle of RAM is that unused memory is wasted memory. Modern operating systems are quite good at managing and reallocating memory, so keeping memory free doesn't noticeably speed up new page allocation or anything, nor does it use less power. It's literally sitting there wanting to be used but isn't. It's better for applications to use as much memory as they like and be willing to free it if actual committed physical memory usage becomes high than to leave it sitting there unused.

    But what about the constant "Why Firefox is better" articles on Lifehacker? /s

    Chrome is a pretty good browser, it's hard to get out of that Google ecosystem.

    Why haven't I changed? Because chrome achieves what I want from it. I literally have no reason to switch to another browser. Chrome does the job in the way I want. I have no reason to switch to Firefox or internet explorer 2.0

      I'm the same way about Firefox. It works well enough for how I use it and Edge and Chrome don't do any of it particularly better.

    If webpages had less superfluous crap and autoplaying ads on them I'm sure that'd help too. Hint hint.

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