What's in the latest Chrome update? A JavaScript jolt from the new Sparkplug compiler

Google says that Chrome 91 is up to 23% faster than earlier versions of the popular browser, and other browsers that rely on its underpinnings should see speed-ups as well.

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Chrome 90

Google last week released Chrome 90, which gives preference to using encrypted connections to websites, lets users craft links that pinpoint selected text, and supports an open-source codec optimized for videoconferencing.

The Mountain View, Calif. search giant also paid out more than $54,000 in bounties to those who reported some of the 37 vulnerabilities addressed in Chrome 90. Six of the bugs were marked "High," Google's second-most-serious threat level, with $36,000 paid to the reporting security researchers. A number of the bounties, including two labeled "High," had not yet been assigned a dollar amount, so Google's final payout will be higher than the acknowledged total.

Because Chrome updates in the background, most users can finish a refresh by relaunching the browser. To manually update, select "About Google Chrome" from the Help menu under the three-dot icon at the upper right; the resulting tab shows that the browser has been updated or displays the download process before presenting a Relaunch button. People new to Chrome can download version 90 for Windows, macOS, and Linux directly. The Android and iOS browsers can be found in the Google Play and App Store markets, respectively.

Google currently updates Chrome about every six weeks; the previous upgrade was released March 2. However, Google has said it will accelerate the Chrome release schedule so that by late September or early October, the interval will have fallen to four weeks. Mozilla set a four-week cadence first, in March 2020.

Connections now default to HTPPS

Starting with Chrome 90, the browser navigates to a target website using HTTPS first when the user doesn't specify the protocol. Only if necessary — when there isn't an encrypted connection to the site — does Chrome fall back to the old preference, HTTP.

For instance, if the user enters computerworld.com in Chrome's address bar, the browser assumes the full address is https://computerworld.com, and reaches the site through the encrypted connection, assuming one is available. (In this example it is.)

Besides the obvious benefit to the user's browsing security, the change in Chrome's default, Google claimed, also results in faster initial loading speeds of destination sites. "Chrome will connect directly to the HTTPS endpoint without needing to be redirected from http:// to https://," wrote Shweta Panditrao and Mustafa Emre Acer, two members of the Chrome team, in a March 23 post to the Chromium blog.

Chrome desktop and Chrome on Android received the new HTTPS default in Chrome 90, but iOS users of the browser did not. That update for iOS Chrome will follow "soon after" version 90's debut, said the two Chrome developers.

Focusing minds by focusing links

Chrome 90 also boasts a new feature that produces a link that focuses the recipient's attention on a snippet of text or a specific section of the linked page.

Called "link to highlight" by Google, the feature replicates the function of a Google-made add-on — "Link to Text Fragment" — that traced its ancestry back to work done more than a year ago on Chrome 80. When link to highlight is enabled, users who select text on a page, right-click that selection, and choose Copy link to highlight from the pop-up menu can paste the resulting link in an email address, text message, or document.

When the recipient clicks that link, she is taken not simply to the intended URL, but to the previously highlighted location on that page, with the highlighted text, well, actually highlighted in yellow.

According to Google, link to highlight "is rolling out now to desktop and Android and is coming soon for iOS."

Chrome users too impatient to wait for Google to switch on the feature can do that themselves by entering chrome://flags in the address bar, pressing Enter or Return, then searching for "copy link to text." Change the mode at the right to Enabled and relaunch the browser.

New codec built for video calls and conferences

The latest Chrome supports the AV1 codec, an open-source format promoted by an industry consortium that includes the biggest names in technology, from Facebook to Google, Apple to Microsoft. Designed as a royalty-free alternative to commercial codecs, AV1 has been optimized for videoconferencing. It also integrates with the WebRTC standard.

The encoder shipped in Chrome 90 for desktops and boasts improvements in compression efficiency — which reduces bandwidth consumption and should boost image quality — as well as in screen sharing. Google also claimed that AV1 made it possible for users with very low bandwidth connections — as low as old-school dial-up speeds — to participate in videoconferencing.

Other additions to Chrome 90 that Google touted include thumbnail views of the document's pages when reading a PDF in the browser, a way to label Chrome's windows (not its tabs, but its windows) for easier identification when moving tabs between windows, and notification muting when the browser is screen shared (as when presenting to a group).

On the enterprise side, where Chrome competes with Microsoft's Edge, version 90 lets IT administrators configure the now-baked-in Legacy Browser Support — a feature that allowed some sites to be rendered by the obsolete Internet Explorer — so that it opens Edge instead for those designated URLs. Edge then relies on its own IE Mode to render the site or even web app. (More information about this can be found here.)

Google will ship Chrome's next upgrade, Chrome 91, on May 25. (The first Chrome issued on a four-week interval will be version 95, slated to ship Oct. 19.)

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