Google is looking to plug the gaps in its cloud computing universe with its new browser, Chrome, which many believe could be a serious competitor to Microsoft's IE and Mozilla's Firefox.

The browser was made available overnight for free download, in beta form, and after a couple of hours' use, it looks to be a decent addition to the web arsenal - especially when it's in full-release form.

It is smooth, fast and has a few tasty features - for most web users, it's probably advanced enough in its current iteration for everyday use.

Installation into Windows XP was completely drama-free from an .exe file. A prompt asked for Firefox to be closed while it imported bookmarks, passwords and the like, and it was all go.

First impressions were that it loads pages faster than the current Firefox version; even embedded video on sites didn't do its usual glitchy dance. Google's seems to have made good on its claim that its new JavaScript Virtual Engine - dubbed V8 - would load Java content faster and cleaner than other browsers.

It did initially seem strange using an internet browser without the standard menu bar - this is eschewed in favour of a row of buttons to access options, add bookmarks or navigate, with an 'omnibar' set in the middle. This is an address field that doubles as a search window, tap in what you're after and it goes directly to Google, although you can decide to target your web searching elsewhere.

Its tab line-up runs across the top of the omnibar and buttons, and each tab is treated separately, so a dodgy webpage can be shut down without crashing the whole browser. When you open a new tab, there's a selection of thumbnails of recent pages visited, a list of bookmarks and a few current searches.

If you want to go stealth there's a 'porn mode' called Incognito, which launches a different-coloured window for easy identification, and won't save history, cookies or other information from sites visited.

There are a few niggles right off the bat - including the lack of extension capability, which regular Firefox users would certainly miss. It also misses out on RSS feed capability, but as it's a very fresh version, these are problems likely to be rectified in a full version.

After working and surfing the web with Chrome, it returned a fairly positive experience, although didn't manage to execute some commands in the content management system.

The tech blogosphere is very much divided on Chrome and its ability to put a serious dent into Microsoft's browser market share (particularly after its public beta release of IE8 last week).

Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg had a few brickbats for Chrome users after a week of testing it against IE8.

"Despite Google's claims that Chrome is fast, it was notably slower in my tests at the common task of launching Web pages than either Firefox or Safari," he said. "However, it proved faster than the latest version of IE also a beta version called IE8.

"Meanwhile, Microsoft hasn't been sitting still. The second beta version of IE8 is the best edition of Internet Explorer in years. It is packed with new features of its own, some of which are similar to those in Chrome, and some of which, in my view, top Chrome's features."

Techzilo were reasonably impressed: "If Google's promises of fast Javascript rendering, security, extensions etc. is delivered, Opera, Firefox and several other browsers could have one very interesting competitor to deal with. None of the other browsers have the backing of a company as large as Google (Microsoft and Apple do not count, as one suffers from lack of quality and the other suffers from lack of quantity). "

Techradar was quite complimentary, rating it's address autocompletion capabilities alongside Firefox 3's modestly-titled Awesome bar: "It autocompletes with a level of smarts that rivals (if not exceeds) Firefox's new Awesome bar picking out previously visited sites intelligently and extremely quickly.

"You want quick? You got it. Google Chrome feels nippier than Firefox all round, as well it should considering the demands it places on your computer. "

Gizmodo wasn't too flash on the tab set-up, and were less than complimentary about its look: "T he tabs in Chrome do have a couple of annoying little quirks that aren't in FF. For one, tabs remain the same size no matter how many are open rather than stretching to fill the window. That makes it difficult to tell what's in each tab due to how small they are. Making it more confusing is the fact that new tabs open between the tab you have open and the closest tab rather than putting new tabs at the end. This makes it easy to lose track of your tabs if you like to keep them orderly. Chrome needs to get some theme support in a bad way." blogged about the communication between Chrome and Google's own servers, but found nothing too invasive, saying: "I thought it would be better to write down all the communication that happens so that people wouldn't invent conspiracy theories."

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald -