For quite a while now, people have been speculating that Google might bring the full version of Chrome to Android to replace and improve the default browser. While they did open source the stock browser last year, when Android 4.0 shipped with a newer version of the Android browser instead of full-on Chrome, many gave up hope in the rumored Chrome for Android.
However, it turns out the stock browser was only intended for temporary use, as today the Chrome team announced a limited availability beta of the full version of Chrome for Android. It only runs on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but luckily I had my Galaxy Nexus handy today, and was able to take it for a spin.
Join me past the break to see what Google's idea of mobile browser innovation looks like.
Before you actually get to use Chrome, you do have to accept the standard license agreement that comes with almost all software. You can also opt to send anonymous statistics to help improve the browser, and since that's kind of the point of beta software I went ahead and checked the box.
The first time you open Chrome, you will see the above homescreen, which helpfully explains most of the navigation options. Since I'm used to both Chrome and the Android browser, navigation seemed sensible enough to me, and even appeared to be simple enough for unfamiliar users to figure out.
Once you load a webpage, the top status bar actually remains in place, even when you are scrolling. The rest of the screen is used to display content, but the browser never hides the status bar as some HTC Sense users may be used to.
Instead of using the universal menu button, the options for Chrome can be accessed through a menu icon in the top right corner of the browser. I actually really liked this placement for the button, as the persistent status bar means that the menu is always one tap away. Not only that, the menu looks much better than the standard Android 2.3 menus, and the back/forward and bookmark buttons were very nice to have easily accessible.
One of my favorite features of Chrome for Android is the synchronization with both your Google account and desktop Chrome. As a heavy user of both of those services, the option to synchronize tabs from the desktop to mobile, as well as bookmarks and even frequent search history, was very helpful. It actually seems like a feature that would come standard in a Google-controlled device, and I am surprised it didn't come sooner.
As far as I can tell from my limited usage, even this beta version of Chrome runs as fast or faster than the stock Ice Cream Sandwich browser. The animations, like the one you see above for switching tabs, are both intuitive and beautiful, and the interface is overall very clean and usable.
Even though it does seem to indicate fragmentation even within Google's own projects, I am really happy with the Chrome browser on Android. It both loads pages fast and looks good doing it, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see this as the stock browser in the next version of Android.