10 days of Google Chrome

I’ve been using Google Chrome for a ten days or so, and it’s become my primary browser. It’s just so fast. It opens in half a second, renders at lightspeed, and I’ve never even noticed it struggle. It’s basically like Opera, but without the occasional weirdness and with a Google-compatible rendering engine. That’s a compliment, as I tried for a long, long time to adopt Opera, butt the extra functionality of Firefox eventually won me over. Chrome is a decent mixture of the two.

Firefox, for all its power, is ugly as hell, while the Chrome GUI is so unobstrusive as to be barely noticeable. The fading status bar, combined search/address bar, and top-row tab layout are tidy and maximize browsing-space without my having to spend ages customising things. But it also has the extra features you’d expect from a modern browser. It’s the little details I like: ‘paste and go’ in the address bar, the back arrow that lists all pages when right-clicked, tabs that can be dragged out into their own window, and the search button that highlights all found terms, rather than going through them one-by-one. I keep finding these nice touches.

Like Opera, Chrome is just smooth. The tabs neatly rearrange their sizes when one is closed; new tabs fold open; pages glide into place. It’s somehow less…jarring than Firefox. Obviously this isn’t and shouldn’t be a major thing, but it makes the program that much more pleasant to use.

Rendering is almost flawless, too. Facebook had issues for a few days, but I assume they fixed that themselves. The only site I’ve struggled with is Google Docs, of all things, which stalls/jumps on my enormous bookselling spreadsheet. This happens in Firefox too, but only with Gears enabled. In Chrome it happens all the time. I expect Docs compatibility is a high priority for them, though, so hopefully this won’t last. Other than that, I haven’t had any problems.

Chrome has also been ridiculously stable, for a beta. I’ve had one crash, which – as promised – took out only one tab. It was, and this will come as a shock, caused by the flash plugin.

The only bug I found was with the ‘application’ mode. I’ve taken to opening Gmail in its own, almost GUI-less window. When I open links, Chrome cleverly switches to my main tabbed window, which keeps things tidy. But if I open a link before I have a tabbed window, Chrome opens a fresh one and forgets to bring back all the tabs from my last session. That’s happened once, and I’ll make sure to have the main window open from now on. Given that it opens almost instantly – unlike Firefox where I’m regularly waiting for up to a minute – this isn’t a big issue.

I tend to have Firefox open too, mainly for the delicious integration and for Google Docs. But it feels sluggish and old next to Chrome, and I’m much happier once I’ve switched back. Of the 24 Firefox plugins, I only miss a couple. If Chrome were being developed especially for me, I’d request the following:

  • delicious integration. I use delicious as my primary bookmark manager, and this is the only firefox plugin I miss daily.
  • printing options – I can’t see a way to remove the page title / url atm.
  • multiple rows of tabs, as they get quite small quite quickly.
  • a right-click ‘undo close tab’.
  • I’d like to be able to shrink tabs to just their favicons. This is hardly a major priority, though.

It’s interesting that I’m happy to drop functionality for speed and a generally pleasing demeanour. I’m not sure what that says. But, nevertheless: I like. Firefox has some catching up to do.

View satellites in Google Earth

A new Google Earth plugin lets you view all the orbiting satellites currently tracked by the US military. Doesn’t sound very exciting, right? It’s more interesting than you’d think – mainly because the sheer number is almost unbelievable. It’s like a Cylon armada. Clicking on them displays their use and status, and lots are inactive. You can track their orbits, too. If nothing appears, it’s geostationary1, but most have far more complex tracks than you’d think – particularly those further out. Astronomy Cast explaned the reasons behind the strange paths in ‘Getting around the solar system‘, although I’ve apparently forgotten most of it already (I hate that).

  1. apart from the Ryman satellite, which is geostationery []

Easy ‘Life Posters’ with Picasa 3 beta

I like Life Posters. They look good on the wall, and make great presents. But before today they were irritating to make.

A couple of years ago I put one together for Dad’s birthday. It wasn’t a fun process. I wanted a seamless grid of non-cropped images, and I couldn’t find anything to generate it for me. I didn’t have Photoshop at the time, so I needed cheap/free options. Picasa 2 could build collages, but only by cropping each photo to a square. Everything else could generate contact sheets, but with ugly gaps between the images, particularly when I mixed portrait and landscape shots. I also struggled with spatial concepts – if the final output has a ratio of 3:2, would a 9×6 grid of 3:2-ratio photos fit properly? This confused the hell out of me, and I kept getting it wrong. In the end I only used landscape images, and managed a seamless grid after a lot of trial and error with the XnView contact sheet generator. If I did it again, I’d just build it manually in Photoshop.

Except now I don’t have to, because the new Picasa 3 beta has extra collage options that make life much, much easier. Its ‘mosaic’ collage will arrange any photos into a fixed ratio, without gaps or cropping. That’s pretty clever. I’d love to see the algorithms figuring that out. I made this in two minutes, using images from my enormous ‘To Flickr’ folder:

I think that makes for a much more interesting poster. It has both portrait and landscape images, and all neatly arranged without whitespace. Picasa also handled the different aspect ratios: there are some square images in there, and even a 5-image panorama (it’s above DJ monkey). The layout isn’t fixed, either – you can hit ‘shuffle photos’ to produce a different design.

But Picasa has another trick up its sleeve. It lets you choose various aspect ratios for the collage, but it always produces images with a long-side length of 5120px. So there’s a lot of leeway for large prints.

For example, a portrait A4 mosaic is 3621x5120px (with a default setting of 72dpi). If you print this on A4 you’ll get 451dpi, which is very, very high (300dpi is magazine quality). In fact, you could easily use it for A3, where it comes out at ~300dpi. So A3 isn’t officially supported, but works anyway. And this obviously applies for all the other ratios.

Dad’s life poster was made into a 30″x20″ canvas print, for which I had to supply a 200dpi jpeg. Picasa’s 3:2 export produces a file that’s 170dpi at 30″x20″, and imho you could get away with resampling for the final 30dpi. And if you want anything larger than 30″x20″, you’re probably not using Picasa.

Sadly you can’t specify a custom size (although see the last bullet point for a potential way around this), but there’s a fair range of ratios built in:

  • 5×8
  • 9×13
  • 10×15 (so, 2:3)
  • 13×18
  • 20×25 (4:5)
  • A4
  • Square
  • 4:3
  • 16:10
  • 16:9
  • 5:3
  • Desktop resolution (which, interestingly, also exports to a long-edge of 5120, so you could conceivably fudge this to get any ratio you want. Unless this is a bug.)

I think this will be very useful. I’m impressed with the mosaic collage anyway – the maths behind that must be pretty daunting – but defaulting to a large export is a very nice feature. Thanks, Google.

Google Chrome announced

Yesterday Google announced Chrome, their open-source web browser. At first I was a little nonplussed. It’s tough to imagine even Google going up against Firefox – I’m sure they could produce a popular browser, but Firefox is just too customisable. I’m currently running 24 extensions (yeah, startup is slow), all of which are genuinely useful. How could Google compete with that? Then I read their introductory comic1 and though ‘oooooh’. Highlights:

  • every tab runs in its own process. A broken process kills the tab, not the browser…
  • …and each process runs in the lower permission levels, so malware can’t get into anything important
  • its javascript engine was written – from scratch – to be fast, with modern applications in mind
  • the rendering engine is automatically(!) tested against google’s index, with more popular pages given priority
  • its plugin architecture tries to keep plugins from breaking the world, although they acknowledge this isn’t always possible
  • there’s a firefox-like ‘awesomebar’…
  • …and a revamped UI, with tabs at the top. Each can be dragged into its own window, and the address bar removed so it’s a stand-alone application (ie. gmail).
  • it will automatically download Google’s (open) phishing database
  • it’s fully open-source.

It all sounds pretty impressive, anyway. The beta will be released today, and should be available from here. Should stir things up…

  1. drawn by Scott McCloud, no less []

Close call with Google Docs

I just came so very close to losing my afternoon’s work. I started a new Google Document at around 1500, and it’s been open ever since. I noticed at around 1800 that the ‘saving’ message was there continually, but I couldn’t say when it had appeared. I left it for an hour, came back and there was no change. ‘Save and Close’ didn’t work, so I closed the tab. I refreshed Google Docs to be informed the document hadn’t changed since 1507. I opened the document and saw a blank screen. Oh, crap.

Thankfully, a little stab of paranoia had saved the day. When I originally went to close the tab the ‘you have unsaved changes’ message popped up. It always does, but for once I paid attention. I select-all/copied the entire document as a last ditch backup, and thankfully this was still in the clipboard a few moments later1. I lost the page breaks, but that’s no big deal.

That’s the first time I can recall Google completely killing a document. That would have been bad. So, if in doubt, reload Google Docs in another tab and check the modified time.

  1. actually I had another backup layer, as I run the security-nightmare but oh-so-very-useful Ditto []

Fix for Google Notebook resizing images

I’ve recently been using Google Notebook to collate research images for an upcoming project, but there’s an annoying problem: the images all get weirdly stretched for GN’s interface. It keeps the correct height, but sets their width to 245 pixels. I’m not sure what the rationale is, but it’s pretty irritating.

I’ve found what seems to be a permanent fix, though: ‘pop-out’ the notebook, and in each individual note select the picture then click the ‘remove formatting’ button at the top of the window.

Now if only I could talk Google Docs into exporting said notes without timing out…

My Location beta

I don’t use Google Maps for Mobile often, but when I do it’s a godsend. It’s slow, though. Trying to pin down the current position takes most of the time – invariably I’ll type in road names / an area and after a 20 second delay it’ll come back with ‘location unknown’, or lots of possibilities, most in Scotland. It probably won’t be long before all phones have GPS built-in, but for now Google have launched ‘My Location‘, which uses phone-mast signals to trace you to a circle with roughly 1km radius. Mine is 1.7km, centred roughly on Stratford. I can then search the local map for a street name, and I’m sorted. It’s possible to search for local businesses too – this would have been handy a couple of weeks ago when I was trying to locate a particular restaurant in the centre of London.

Testing out Google Presentations

I’ve never understood all the attention paid to Powerpoint, and the fuss over Google’s new online presentations tool was baffling. Who uses presentations? Well, apparently everybody but me and, it turns out, I’ll be using them a lot during my degree. I had to figure out how they work in order to talk for 10mins about Philippe Halsman last Friday.

I used Google Presentations for its convenience – I shuffle between a few places in the week, and it’s handy to edit from wherever I happen to be – but was very impressed overall. The interface is snappy and fairly free of annoyances. New slides are created quickly, and always appear after the currently selected slide – handy when you’ve over 30. They can also be drag-and-dropped into the correct order, rather than having to mess about with ‘move up/down’ buttons. The template system is initially a little confusing: when you create a new slide you’re given five basic layouts, which seems limiting. Actually all of these are completely editable, and are nothing more than a starting point. I used many images of different sizes, and GP was clever enough to resize them appropriately for online storage – I didn’t need to download 700k pictures during the presentation itself, but I couldn’t detect any drop in quality.

Actually presenting it worked ok – I used Firefox on a Mac, and there was no difference from my tests at home (although I didn’t know how to go full screen, unfortunately). All pages are pre-loaded, so there was no delay in moving to the next slide. GP automatically loaded the chat window for use with online presentations – people could connect and view remotely if they wanted – but thankfully it was easy to close. The only slight disadvantage is having to log into Google Docs and having your recent documents projected for all to see (I couldn’t care less, but I imagine this would bother some), although I realised afterwards that you can get around this by publishing the presentation and typing the URL directly. Alternatively it’s possible to export from GP into an HTML slideshow, and I had one of these on a USB stick in case the laptop had no internet connection – the only issue with this is the local javascript throwing security errors (IE7 whines).

I think it’s a decent system, but there were a few annoyances. It could do with an align option for blocks, as centering images on the page by eye is difficult. It’s also not currently possible to export in powerpoint format (.ppt files – but not .pptx – can only be imported), although this wasn’t a problem for me. The Printable view could do with some love, as my printer was happy to spread a single image across two pages – I think there should be a way to separate pages in CSS? My only other issue was being unable to check the order of slides from my mobile – I’d planned to write out my script on the train, but stupidly neglected to print out everything. Apparently there’s a mobile interface if you have an iPhone, but nothing for us plebs yet.

Most other people used Powerpoint and dropped the file onto a USB drive, which also worked well. I don’t have Powerpoint so can’t compare the two applications directly, but I didn’t find myself wishing for more features online, although admittedly I don’t know what I’m missing. Overall I’d recommend GP: it’s intuitive and, unlike other online office products, as fast as a desktop app. The convenience of being able to edit anywhere is, as ever, a killer feature.

New gmail code improves performance

New gmail code is being rolled out at the moment, and it just hit my account. There are no major UI changes, but behind-the-scenes it’s apparently changed substantially. Differences I’ve spotted:

  • Emails are pre-loaded, so there’s no delay when an individual message is opened
  • The contact manager has been revamped and is much easier to use. I’m hoping there’s now an API, so we can finally sync gmail contacts with phones/outlook/whatever
  • Searches are now bookmarkable, for example: http://mail.google.com/mail/#search/chickens
  • There’s an ‘add event invitation’ option on new emails, linking directly into google calendar
  • ‘More actions’ now contains ‘mute’, previously only available as a keyboard shortcut – this automatically archives email threads that are of no interest
  • ‘More actions’ also contains ‘filter messages like this’, which sets up a filter with the appropriate fields already filled
  • What was orange is now yellow

You’ll need your language set to ‘US English’ if you want to receive the new version (major difference – ‘deleted items’ becomes ‘trash’). It certainly feels snappier to use, although that yellow is pretty sickly. Google Operating System also reports:

  • Individual emails are now bookmarkable
  • The back button works (although I thought it did before)
  • The pop-up ‘contact card’ that appears when you hover over a contact name is easier to use (good – damn thing always used to disappear half a second before I’d copied the address)

There’s apparently a new user-interface in the works, too, although there are no hints when this will be released. Unfortunately most greasemonkey scripts are now broken due to the code changes, but an upcoming API should prevent this problem reoccurring.