Google Chrome: How to make it faster, smarter and better than before

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If you aren't using Google Chrome yet, you should be. When it comes to browser speed—and especially JavaScript performance—Mozilla and Microsoft can't compete with Google. But Chrome can go even faster if you're willing to make some adjustments under the hood.

To help with that effort, we've gathered for your consideration a few of our favorite free Google Chrome extensions and tweaks. Experience the power enhancements they provide, and in a few days you'll wonder how you ever survived online with a bare-bones browser.

If you're a more-advanced power user, you can dig into Chrome's experimental options that use your CPU and GPU to optimize your Web browsing. Those options are buried in an obscure Chrome menu to prevent casual surfers from accidentally borking their browsers, but we'll describe where the options are and how they work. Speed freaks unite!

Power extensions

If you don't already have the latest version of Google Chrome installed and running properly on your system, take those preliminary steps now. Afterward, open the Chrome Web Store, and you'll see an overwhelming array of Chrome apps for augmenting your browser with games, music players, and social networks. The extensions we'll focus on here are designed to make Chrome leaner, meaner and more efficient.

FastestChrome: As its name would lead you to expect, FastestChrome adds a few useful time-saving tools to your Chrome browser. Its features consist mainly of surface-level stuff, such as displaying a pop-up bubble with an explanation of a word whenever you highlight one, and providing the option to look up that word on any of four different search engines (Wikipedia, DuckDuckGo, Surf Canyon, and of course Google.)

FastestChrome automatically loads the next page of a website and shares the definition of any word you highlight in Chrome.

The extension also lets you choose to automatically transform written URL text into clickable links (which makes reading email messages from less tech-savvy friends a lot easier), and its Endless Pages feature automatically loads the next page of a website (think Google search results or an eight-page Vanity Fair article) so you won't waste precious seconds clicking Next and waiting for the page to load.

Google Quick Scroll: This extension whisks you straight to the search terms you're looking for on any given website. With Google Quick Scroll installed in Google Chrome, every time you click through a search link, a tiny box containing a preview of the text highlighted in your search result will pop up in the bottom-right corner of your browser. Click that box, and Chrome will take you there without further ado.

Chrome Toolbox: Install the Chrome Toolbox to open multiple bookmarks in a single click, to cache unsubmitted form data so you can avoid retyping it each time you create a new profile, to magnify images and video right from within your browser, and in general to make Chrome twice as useful as it already is.

Experiment at your own risk

To reach Google Chrome's hidden experimental options, first launch Chrome; then type chrome://flags/ in the address field, and press Enter. You'll jump to a page containing an array of experimental options, a few of which directly affect browser performance. To see other hidden Chrome menus that you can access via the address field, type chrome://chrome-urls/ in the address bar and then press Enter. The 'flags' page is where Chrome parks all of the hidden and experimental options, so that's where we're headed.

The hidden 'flags' menu in Google Chrome is home to various experimental options that can influence the browser’s performance.

At this is point, we'd normally offer a disclaimer about messing around with experimental features in an application—but Google has handled that task quite well on its own. The first thing you'll see when you reach Chrome's flags options is a huge warning that reads as follows:

"Careful, these experiments may bite! WARNING These experimental features may change, break, or disappear at any time. We make absolutely no guarantees about what may happen if you turn one of these experiments on, and your browser may even spontaneously combust. Jokes aside, your browser may delete all your data, or your security and privacy could be compromised in unexpected ways. Any experiments you enable will be enabled for all users of this browser. Please proceed with caution."

Though the stuff we'll discuss doing in this article is more likely to cause simple rendering errors or to adversely affect performance than to wreak any major havoc, caution is appropriate.

Flipping switches

Google Chrome's flags menu presents a long list of experimental options, only a few of which focus on performance. They include the following seven options.

Override software rendering list Mac, Windows, Linux, Chrome OS: This option overrides Chrome's built-in software rendering list and permits GPU acceleration on unsupported system configurations. If you're running experimental GPU drivers, switching this flag on will probably shorten loading times for games and videos.

GPU compositing on all pages Mac, Windows, Linux: This option will force GPU-accelerated compositing on all webpages, not just those with GPU-accelerated layers. Enabling this option will probably give you a minor speed boost across the board.

This unassuming, hidden 'flags' page is where Chrome's experimental options reside.

Threaded compositing Mac, Windows, Linux, Chrome OS: Threaded compositing will launch a secondary thread on multicore systems dedicated to webpage compositing. Enabling this option may result in smoother scrolling, even if the main thread is busy with other processing duties.

Disable accelerated 2D canvas Mac, Windows, Linux, Chrome OS: Disabling this option prevents the GPU from performing 2D canvas rendering and causes it instead to use the hot CPU for software rendering.

Disable accelerated CSS animations Mac, Windows, Linux, Chrome OS: When threaded compositing is active, accelerated CSS animations run on the compositing thread. However, running accelerated CSS animations, even without the compositor thread, may yield performance gains.

GPU Accelerated SVG Filters Mac, Windows, Linux, Chrome OS: This option taps your GPU to accelerate the rendering of scalable vector graphics filters, which could speed up the loading process on websites that use a lot of heavy drop shadows or other visual filter effects.

Disable GPU VSync Mac, Windows, Linux, and Chrome OS: If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably heard of vertical sync, aka Vsync. Shutting off Vsync disables synchronization with your monitor’s vertical refresh rate. If your monitor has a refresh rate of 60Hz, for example, disabling Vsync allows the GPU to output at a rate faster than 60Hz—or 60 frames per second—when possible.

The 'flags' menu is available on virtually any device that supports Chrome, including Windows 8. Each setting lists the versions of Chrome that it affects.

Depending on your system's configuration and on your version of Chrome, some of these options may or may not be enabled by default. And depending on the graphics drivers and OS updates you've installed, some of them may not have any effect on performance at all. Nevertheless, it's worth experimenting with them and visiting your favorite websites to see if they produce any benefits. In our experience, the Accelerated 2D canvas and GPU compositing options offer the most extensive advantages. On the other hand, disabling Vsync seemed to cause rendering issues on our Windows 8 Pro-based test systems on websites that use HTML5 animations.

Establishing the benefits (or drawbacks) of many of the experimental settings mentioned above proved to be rather difficult. We did, however, observe some performance differences when we ran quick tests using Rightware's BrowserMark and some of the browser benchmarks available on the IE 10 Test Drive site.

With all of the hardware acceleration options disabled in Chrome, our Core i3-powered Acer TravelMate test system (with 8GB of RAM and Windows 8 Pro) using Chrome v22.0.1229.96 scored 314,359 in BrowserMark, and it managed a frame rate of 16 frames per second in the "Bubbles" benchmark on the IE 10 Testdrive site.

Microsoft created the Internet Explorer Test Drive website to show off IE 10, but you can use the benchmarks offered there to get a rough idea of whether your tweaks are benefitting your preferred browser.

Enabling GPU and threaded compositing in Chrome resulted produced a BrowserMark score of 351,492, but had no impact on the Bubbles benchmark. Enabling the other features (and disabling Vsync) yielded a Browsermark score of 361,687; however, the Bubble benchmark wouldn't render properly and wasn't fully visible on-screen. Reenabling Vsync fixed the Bubble benchmark, and bumped the measured frame rate to 27 fps. Specifically, the Accelerated 2D canvas setting boosted the graphics performance in the Bubbles test.

If you already have a fast system and you keep your software, drivers, and browser version up-to-date, it probably already uses some form of hardware acceleration—and its performance should be quite good. Even so, experimenting with some of the hidden features in Chrome may net some additional performance for free, and that's never a bad thing.

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