I have switched primary browsers many times over the years for various reasons on my Macs, mostly due to speed of use and customisation via plugins offered. I started with IE in then changed to Netscape (going back now!) to Safari, Safari to Firefox, then back to Safari and then onto Chrome, where I have been sitting comfortably for over 5 years now. For testing here at Every Interaction we use every browser out there on every platform/device for testing, especially responsive layouts. But for everyday browser usage at the office and at home the browser decision has become less and less important in terms of stability, support and features offered. So much so it mostly comes down to personal preference today. I settled on Chrome because it had features others did not at the time and I like its UI, I stuck as there was no reason to change. Also switching primary browsers is a pain in terms of setup, passwords, cookies and UI muscle memory so you need a good reason to do so.
In steps iOS8 & OS X 10.10 Yosemite. Apple have introduced a potential reason to switch back to Safari; Continuity & Handoff. Having played with it at length now it’s a truly amazing feature for mail and messages, and I want the same great features from my browser, as emailing myself links is clearly not ideal. I found myself for the first time in years considering a browser switch, this time Safari vs Chrome, but I cannot bring myself to switch because I dislike the desktop Apple Safari UI so much.
It’s not that anything in particular disgusts me about it, Safari is just a browser with a pretty standard utilitarian UI as you’d expect. It’s more that the Chrome UI is so much better. Chrome offers me something that at a glance seems so trivial but makes a world of difference to my efficiency – it’s tabs.
Tabs in Safari appear as they always have; below the address bar (with exception of a beta release of Safari 4 when they appeared above, then fell back below for the official release). Chrome has its tabs above the address bar. I find above much more usable and also logical from a windows/controls what’s inside that window perspective. Let me explain why top trumps it for me…
If I’m clicking something in my browser UI it’s always a tab. I refresh and open/close tabs with the keyboard and hardly ever click the address bar (opening new tabs places cursor here to type as a default, or I shift-tab back into it from the page). I find switching tabs easier to do with the cursor as my immediate next action is usually to click something in the page and selecting a single tab amongst many is faster than keyboard switching numerous times in either direction to arrive at the desired tab.
However, Safari having tabs above the address bar wouldn’t be enough on it’s own to make me switch. Chromes other killer feature, and perhaps its most important for my efficiency is as simple as having the favicon in the tab. This genius feature allows me to scan my tabs and without reading the tab title, I am able to pinpoint my target tab amongst all that are open (usually quite a lot) and click it with greater ease than in any other browser. I have tried a plugin that allows this on Safari but it’s a poor imitation and the Safari chrome just isn’t designed to handle it efficiently in the current form making the results less easy to distinguish. Without tabs on the top there’s too much Chrome around the tabs to make the icons scannable in the same way. Just look at the two examples below with the same tabs open and decide which you think is easier to scan?
The same tabs open in Safari & Chrome – which is easier to find the tab you want? Even with a crowded tool bar of extensions installed cluttering up the UI, Chrome trumps Safari.
Combine this with the ability to ‘pin’ tabs in Chrome (which I do for the core apps I use every day), Chromes UI wins hands down. The Pinned tabs with icons act like little app switchers – allow me to switch between my web apps I use daily, open permanently on a dedicated secondary monitor. This minor feature makes such a difference to my productivity I can’t justify a switch back to Safari just to gain handoff functionality. It remains more efficient to use Chrome and to keep mailing myself links.
Also I can’t just wait for Chrome to implement handoff as I think Chrome on iOS is perhaps the worst user interface Google have ever created. It stinks and I could write thousands of words going into that subject alone, so we’ll leave it there for now. Plus I can’t move to Chrome permanently on my phone as there no default browser setting on iOS.
I’m not holding my breath on Apple copying Chrome’s design either (imagine the tech news circus if they did) so I guess I’m just going to not use handoff for browsers. And that makes me sad.
The only light in my tunnel is if someone creates a handoff translator app – a tool that fools the OS into making my phone think my desktop Chrome is in fact Safari and passing URLs between them. First developer that does this has a customer right here. Happy to help with the UI/UX if any developers are keen?
Update 20th January 2015
Following feedback from reader Nathan, I have tested and confirmed that Chrome Canary (Version 42.0.2281.0 & above) does support hand-off between Chrome on the Mac and Safari on iOS, meaning it hopefully won’t be long until this is in Chrome. Either this is actually an open standard for all browsers to use, defaulting to the (only) default browser on iOS – Safari, or just a temporary situation until Google finally make Chrome on iOS 64 bit and enable this feature for themselves causing Chrome on iOS to launch instead, at which point I will uninstall Chrome on iOS to ensure my links always pass through to the my preferred iOS Safari… Best info from Apple I can find is still a little vague.
Update 24th April 2015
Handoff in Chrome as now moved out of beta and into the main Chrome app Version 42.0. As long as bluetooth is behaving, this seems to work pretty flawlessly. Using Chrome on Desktop and sending currently selected tab URLs to the phone and back. Wish fulfilled. Thanks Apple for playing nice and Google for updating your browser.