RockMelt: Google Chrome, only better

22 Apr 2011

When we last looked at the alternatives to the well-known web browsers, we weren’t particularly impressed by any of them. Now there’s a new kid on the block, RockMelt, that’s coming mighty close to replacing Google Chrome as my default web browser.

When I say replacing Google Chrome, that’s a little disingenuous, because RockMelt is built on the same Chromium browser core as Chrome. It’s Google Chrome with knobs on. But for social networking and news-feed fiends, they are very useful knobs indeed.

Social side

RockMelt’s interface differs from Chrome in two immediately obvious ways. Down the left-hand side runs a series of mini mug shots of your Facebook friends (you need to sign-in with a Facebook account before you can use the browser). A little circular light indicates if your friends are online, and you can conduct IM conversations with your Facebook friends from within the browser. It’s convenient if you natter away on Facebook constantly, but I’ve got a day job, and all this feature has really achieved is to provide a pervasive reminder of how old my friends are looking.

The bar down the right-hand side, the so-called App Edge, is a hundred times more useful. Here you can set up feeds for anything from your Twitter or Gmail accounts to your favourite news sites, and get a little iPhone-style numeric reminder of the number of items awaiting your attention.

The presentation of the feeds is immaculate. Embedded links in tweets to photos, videos and audio are displayed and playable from the browser window itself, meaning you never need to leave the Twitter feed. Likewise, you can comment, give the thumbs up and view photos in your Facebook stream, without ever having to visit the site. The only real issue for social networking fiends is that the Twitter app doesn’t have a built-in URL shortener.

The App Edge also acts as an excellent feed reader for news sites. If you want more detail than is on offer from the news feed itself, you simply click on the link and the full story appears in the browser window, beneath the open feed.

Adding new feeds is easier than making an X-Factor contestant cry. The Add Feed button will automatically create a feed from the site you’re currently browsing, or suggest feeds from your most-visited sites.

Search

RockMelt also has a clever way of dealing with search. Unlike Google Chrome, which pummels search into the single address bar, RockMelt has a separate Search box – in a similar fashion to Firefox 4.

Type your search terms into the box, and a pop-up menu appears with the top 10 Google results. Click on any of those results and the page loads in the browser window, while keeping the search pop-up open on the right-hand side of the screen, so if the site you clicked on didn’t deliver the goods, you can move to another search result without having to hit the back button. RockMelt also appears to do some clever pre-caching with the search results, because pages load the instant you click on one of the search terms.

Google is set as the default search engine, but you can change that in the RockMelt settings. What you can’t do, alas, is choose between different search engines without changing the default (unlike the drop-down search engine selector in Firefox 4), which is a little frustrating.

Chrome extensions

What about all those Chrome extensions and apps you’ve grown fond of?  RockMelt officially supports Chrome extensions and apps, although not always successfully. RockMelt throws extensions into that right-hand App Feed, not the top of the browser like Chrome does.

This creates its own problems, most notably that the pop-up extension windows are bigger than they are in Chrome, sometimes resulting in a rather ugly appearance. And because the thumbnails for the extensions are also slightly larger, icons can look a little blurry.

Some extensions refused to work at all, including Create Link, a rather niche app for embedding custom HTML. Chrome Apps – which as I’ve mentioned in the past, are little more than glorified bookmarks anyway – worked fine.

Features

Aside from the odd extension glitch, there are other Chrome features absent from RockMelt. There’s no built-in Flash or PDF reader, meaning both plugins have to be downloaded separately from Adobe. Also missing is Chrome’s built-in audio player which allows you to start listening to podcasts right-away in the browser window without having to download the full audio file first.

On the credit side, however, RockMelt does have a newly released iPhone app that allows you to synchronise your feeds and bookmarks with your mobile (using your Facebook account for authentication). It also allows you to take advantage of one of RockMelt’s other neat features: View Later. Click on the little clock icon in the address bar, and RockMelt saves a link to the site so you can come back to read it when you’ve got more time, or on your iPhone on the way home.

Verdict

So does RockMelt elbow Chrome off my Windows taskbar? Yes and no. Yes, I’d be happy to run RockMelt as my default browser. The social networking tools are magnificent, and as someone who needs to keep a constant eye on breaking news, the feed updates are perfect.

But when I need to do specific tasks, such as editing web pages that benefit from that handy HTML extension, or play a podcast, I’ll still revert to Chrome. The beauty of RockMelt/Chrome being that both browsers fire-up instantly – unlike Internet Explorer or Firefox and their cloggy start-up procedures.

I've never considered running different browsers for different applications before. In that sense, at the very least, RockMelt is a game changer.

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