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Is Google’s Chrome Upside Down?

Yesterday Google announced Chrome – Google’s very own web browser. It has numerous very interesting concepts – like the complete process separation of different tabs or the Javascript VM – however, one little seemingly unimportant detail stood out to me: Google Chrome places the tab bar above the address bar and the history buttons. Opera did it this way ever since, while Firefox, Safari and IE7 place the tab-bar beneath the address-bar.

Tab bar placement in Google Chrome The way Opera and Google Chrome do it certainly makes more sense when you think about to which element the address bar and page controls belong to. When you switch the tab, you also switch the contents of the address bar (the URL) as well as what the history back and forward buttons do. Every tab has its own URL, so it is perfectly logical that every tab should have its own address bar. Likewise, when you press the history forward or back buttons, you are navigating the history for the current tab only. These are not functions that apply globally to the whole browser, so every tab should also have its own page control buttons.

With all that said, Opera’s tab bar placement was the single most important reason why I rather migrated from IE6 (Avant to be precise) to a buggy Firefox Beta instead of to a faster and stable Opera several years ago. Of course my decision was influenced by the fact that I was accustomed to having the address bar on top, but ultimately I really believe placing the tab bar above the address bar is a bad decision from a usability standpoint. I mainly have two reasons for that.

1.) The address bar is unimportant

While writing this article, my mouse cursor is mostly hovering above the textarea in which I’m writing. I also often switch to other tabs to look up stuff. I have the Google Chrome comic, Google’s announcement a thesaurus and a dictionary constantly open. While doing so, I almost don’t use the address bar at all. It is much more important for me, to quickly jump through different tabs, than to open a new page in an existing tab. Furthermore, opening a new tab by double clicking on the tab bar will automatically place my cursor in the address bar. There’s no need to move my the mouse all the way up there manually.

So, because the tab bar is so important and my mouse cursor is 99% of time hovering above the page itself, the tab bar should be placed as close to the page as possible.

Now, there are several things to consider: Admittedly jumping back and forth through the page’s history is also a very important feature. Even more important than switching between tabs I might say. However, I don’t use the browser’s buttons at all. On my PC I use the rocker navigation with my mouse; on the MacBook Air I use the three finger swipe. Also, many new mice have additional (hardware) buttons for navigating the history. The browser’s buttons itself are not as important as their functions. Of course the shortcuts for them are a bit of a “power user” feature, but the web browser often times is the most used application by far, so there are lot’s of potential power users.

Another argument against the tab bar placement beneath the address bar might be, that Google Chrome doesn’t have an address bar. They have something they call Omnibox – it combines the address and search bar of Safari or Firefox into one input box and thereby making it much more important than a normal address bar. But as I said previously, when I open a new tab, my cursor is automatically placed in the Omnibox and I can start typing whatever I search for.

2.) It’s not consistent anyway

Opera Zoom Function If the address bar and the history forward and back buttons are placed inside the tab like Opera and Google Chrome do it, shouldn’t then all the functions that only apply to the current tab be placed there, too? Opera breaks continuity with several functions that are accessible through the browser’s main menu bar. For instance, I can change the zoom level through the main menu – it is placed well outside of the tab area, yet the function only affects the current tab.

Google Chrome Screenshot Now, I can only speculate how Google will work around this problem of separating the global (browser affecting) options from the one’s only affecting the current tab. The first screenshots of Google Chrome shows no menu bar at all, however there is a little wrench icon on the right hand side inside the tab. I suspect that behind this icon are the global browser options. So Google might break continuity in the exact opposite way that Opera did.

When you have to break continuity anyway, why not do it in the user friendly way and place the tab bar close the page itself?


Placing the tab bar above the address bar, like Opera and Google Chrome do it, might make the tabbed browsing a bit easier to grasp for Internet novices, but causes confusion with other functions (“I set the zoom to 120%. Why aren’t all tabs bigger now?”). Of course, Safari and Firefox have this problem too, but they have it with every single function. It’s somewhat wrong, but at least it’s consistent.

The gain of placing the tabs close to the page itself quickly outweighs the short learning curve of how the address bar and the history buttons work.

Tuesday, September 2nd 2008
— Dominic Szablewski, @phoboslab


#1Alex Laburu – Tuesday, September 2nd 2008, 22:12

My browser tabs live in a sidebar to the right of main panel; this arrangement saves me valuable vertical space. If you are a Firefox user, you can get this functionality from Hiroshi Shimoda's Tree Style Tab extension ( ) As a bonus, when using this extension, the act of typing in a new URL in the address bar causes a new tab to be created in which the page is then loaded. Note that, if you hide the address bar and use Ctrl+L to get an address box into which to type the URL for a new page, the current tab's page will be replaced; in this case, a prior Ctrl+T is required in order to open the new page in a new tab. This last arrangement (tabs in a sidebar, address bar hidden) suits my browsing style best, but YMMV.

#2 – roli – Wednesday, September 3rd 2008, 13:07

DISCLAIMER: although it might sound that way this is not supposed to diss firefox but just highlight the features of opera i love :p

you can move the addressbar in opera above the tabs quite easily. just go into Customize mode (right click on any UI element, Customize...) and just drag it where you want it. you may also remove elements by right clicking on them and 'Remove from toolbar' :)

that's one of the reasons i'm using opera, you can configure _everything_, the whole ui, shortcuts, mouse gestures etc.

i made a screenshot how mine looks:
i have F10 bound to toggle the menubar as i use it so seldomly. all the navigational buttons i also use only very rarely (mousegestures!) but they are still there as i need the statusbar on the right hand side of it anyway.

> There's no need to move my the mouse all the way up there
> manually.
you are right, i hit F8 and i'm in there, everything selected and ready to be overwritten :)

further goodies that make my browsing experience a blast *cough*:
travel tabs by hitting [1] or [2] for left/right tab, ctrl-w/ctrl-e for 'close current & go to tab on left/right'.

let's say I hit F8 to modify current url in addressbar but recognize i want a new tab, just keep shift down and hit enter, new tab with just entered url opens. (this works btw in _any_ textfield in html forms)

1.) The address bar is unimportant
its accessibility is not important. but i also think the content of the addressbar is very important and closely coupled to the tab it represents. i prefer a longer addressbar over a shorter as i can see a bigger part of the url.
now if you have several ui elements you would like to be visible at the same time you don't have that many options. i need [a]tabrow [b]statusbar [c]addressbar. [a] needs whole width, [c] as well. so i can't avoid 3 rows anyway. those 20px are negligible for the mouse to go over :)

but there is even an advantage besides visual clustering: if i'm closing several tabs and i then plan to edit the current addressbar, i can move my mouse down towards the page i'm going to use afterwards. and not away from it.

but again, it's all about what you got used to. it just feels weird having it above if you used it for several years below.

2.) It's not consistent anyway
> Opera breaks continuity with several functions that are
> accessible through the browser's main menu bar.

in my point of view, the main menu is supposed to provide _all_ the things you can do. buttons inside the mainwidget (toolbars) etc are just shortcuts for things you do often.
for example 'Edit->Select All' is supposed to be there but still it only affects the current tab ;)

for the zoom part, as you can see i have it inside the tab. i don't know how current default settings do that but there were several versions that had it as dropdown inside the tab.

urghs, long text for such a small textarea ;)

btw, another topic but not of less importance: placing of statusbar.

#3 – roli – Wednesday, September 3rd 2008, 13:11

forgot to add that i'm impressed by chrome's speed. reminds me of dillo but just more beautiful ;)

#4Sachendra Yadav – Wednesday, September 3rd 2008, 15:43

Google’s Chrome is aimed at Windows, not IE

This is no longer about browser but about the an entire marketplace spread between desktop, mobile and web. With Chrome, Google’s taking a shot at Windows, not paltry Internet Explorer

I’ve covered this in more detail on my blog

#5Dominic – Thursday, September 4th 2008, 02:26

Opera is great browser, no doubt on that. When I tried to really use it years ago, there where however some small things I wasn't able to configure as I was accustomed to.

I'm not following you on your "the main menu is supposed to provide _all_ the things you can do" though. Of course there are dozens of applications doing just that (Photoshop, Firefox, Safari or any other application using an MDI), but that doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do. In fact, there are very strong voices against MDIs as a whole for reasons like that. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on this:

Anyway, after having used Chrome for a while now, I must admit it's UI feels great. Mostly because it's almost unbelievably smooth. The tab bar placement is a bugger, but somehow feels not as annoying as it did to me in Opera. Maybe because Chrome doesn't have as much "distracting" buttons per default.

However, Chrome doesn't make a good primary browser for me, as it just lacks features - which is not a bad thing at all for the vast majority of people. For everyone else there's still Firefox and (to a large degree) Opera, where you can do pretty much whatever you want.

With the Choice of your browser it's just the same as the choice of your OS. From the "take it or leave it" OSX (boy, I'm gonna get flamed for this) to the "do what you want" Linux, with Windows somewhere in between. Chrome, Safari and IE7 are clearly on the OSX mindset here - with two of those doing it right (guess which :))

#6Sketchee – Friday, September 5th 2008, 07:17

Just as you said, they omnibox is more important than the normal address bar and the move really makes it apparent. The Omnibar is as important to Google Chrome as the search box is important to Google Search.

Google says in the comic that the web is filled with applications. The tab bar is meant to be the web's version of Windows Taskbar or the OSX Doc. I find the taskbar and doc very usable things and it that context, the tabs above the application content makes complete sense.

#7Jason McCay – Saturday, September 6th 2008, 17:45

Tabs being at the very top of the screen serves the same purpose as Apple's menubar: items at the edge of the screen are easier to aim for. Moving the mouse cursor to an arbitrary area two inches away from the top takes more time than simply flinging the mouse to the top and only having to worry about the horizontal axis. At least, when you have Chrome maximized.

#8Dominic – Saturday, September 6th 2008, 21:32

Nice! You indeed can select another tab in a maximized Chrome window with your mouse on the topmost pixel of the screen. This pretty much solves the issue of an easy to reach tab bar - at least for maximized windows. Opera really can't compete with this, because it's tab bar is squished in between the address bar and menu bar. This makes it very hard to reach compared to Chrome.

I didn't notice this in Chrome until your comment, as I always had it in windowed mode. Sadly, Chrome spans both of my displays when I maximize it and the "maximize on one display" button, that is normally added to every window's title bar, is missing in Chrome. Also, as displays get bigger, more and more people don't maximize their browser windows either. This is even more true on OSX - where the menu bar prevents the tab bar to be on the very top of the screen anyway.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting thought to involve the screen edges into the applications UI design. Again, this doesn't make much sense on OSX, where windows are rarely maximized and the top and bottom screen edges are occupied by OS features. On Windows however, we have three edges to work with for fullscreen applications.

#9Dr.O – Tuesday, December 16th 2008, 20:29

I tried chromium. I really enjoyed it. It looks simple, yet functional browser