Chrome sounds like it’s just short for Chromium. In fact, they’re two separate things, though related.
Chrome is Google’s web browser and OS, built on the Chromium codebase.
Chromium is an open-source browser codebase, which is built and used by many entities including Google.
We can break down their differences into a matrix with two key values: licensing and security.
Let’s look at each more closely.
What is Chrome?
Chrome is Google’s browser. It’s really two browsers in one. On top, there’s a supremely simple and intuitive consumer browser that can be downloaded for free and used instantly and easily.
Once you’ve been using Chrome for a while, you’ll discover features including visual browser history, Incognito mode, and a bunch of tricks you can use with tabs—pinning, moving in groups, and so on. It’s built to be intuitive, but with a little digging you can learn to optimize it to your preferences.
Behind the scenes, there’s a range of easy-to-use controls that let you manage how Chrome accesses your mic and camera, how it handles downloads, and which pages open when you open the browser.
If something’s missing, you can bet there’s an extension to pick up the slack. Chrome extensions let you change how the browser looks, how it displays web pages, and a lot more. In addition, many popular tools and applications are available as Chrome extensions, meaning you don’t have to leave the browser to use them.
Under the hood, Chrome’s a very different browser—a complex, feature-rich tool for developers that’s frequently updated with experimental features called flags and dozens of tools (including SEO audits and autocompleting code) to make a developer’s day easier.
Chrome began life as a browser during the transition to Web 2.0. Built to adhere to open web standards on the WebKit browser engine and on elements of Mozilla’s Firefox, Chrome rapidly gained market share and currently accounts for 63% of all browsers and 66% on desktop computers.
What does Chrome have that Chromium doesn’t?
Chrome is a consumer browser built to be easy to use, so it comes with features that make it easier to do basic browsing and downloading. In particular, Chrome makes it easier to stream video and audio because it comes with support for those services built-in.
Chrome has the following features that Chromium doesn’t have:
- Support for third-party applications like Flash and media codecs like MP3 (Chrome will deprecate support for Flash this year)
- Tracks browsing data including cookies, site visits and durations, and more
- Can be managed centrally from the Google Admin console
- By default, only extensions from the Chrome Web Store can be installed
- Sandbox mode for extensions to limit access and improve privacy and security
- Flags that give access to additional or in-testing features, available at chrome://flags and controlled as part of the standard Chrome OS
What is Chromium?
Chromium is a minimalist, free, and open-source browser and OS whose user interface was substantially designed by Google. It’s also the codebase for that browser and that OS, and the ongoing open-source development project for that codebase. Browsers built on the Chromium codebase include Brave, Microsoft Edge, Opera, and others, as well as Google’s own Chrome browser.
You can download and try the Chromium browser here. The process of downloading and installing it is similar to downloading Chrome, and the application itself is also very reminiscent of a stripped-down Chrome.
While Chromium is available as a standalone browser, it’s mainly used as a test bed and codebase for other browsers. So if you want to see what the Chromium codebase is capable of outside Chrome, check out Opera or Brave.
What does Chromium have that Chrome doesn’t?
Chromium mostly lacks consumer features compared to Chrome. In particular, if you want to stream audio or video, Chromium will require installing the codecs you’ll need manually. On paper, that seems to offer less code bloat, but in practice most users won’t notice a difference in speed.
Here’s what it does offer:
- No tracking or centralized control (depending on your point of view, that can be an advantage)
- Manual updates you can skip if you want, rather than regular automatic updates
- Extensions from anywhere will run easily—no restrictions on developer or source
- A sandbox mode, but it’s not enabled by default
- Command-line switches, analogous to flags but requiring users to access the command line (a list of available switches is here)
Who should use Chrome?
If you want a simple, out-of-the-box browser that doesn’t require you to give any thought to privacy or security, Chrome is a good choice.
There are criticisms to be made of Chrome in both those domains but it is improving in response, and for most people, its default settings are acceptable. In particular, Chrome offers inbuilt protection against expired or untrusted SSL certificates and matches websites against a list of known malicious sites.
If you’re looking for a browser for your business or educational institution, the fact that Chrome can be managed remotely is a major selling point over Chromium. You can set up requirements like forcing users to sign into Chrome, enforcing traceability and accountability across the organization.
And if you’re a developer looking for a browser that’s representative of the average user, but still gives great dev support, Chrome is also a good choice.
Who should use Chromium?
If you want a browser that’s private by default, Chromium is a better bet than Chrome; Chrome collects browsing data, while Chromium doesn’t. And if you’re looking for a browser you can reconfigure and customize to your heart’s content, Chromium is also a better choice.
Yes, the more open range of extensions available to Chromium users is a double-edged sword—more choice, more risk. The less-stable, buggier nature of Chromium is the same deal. But if you’re happy with that deal, Chromium is a good choice for you.
Versions of Chrome
Chrome releases a new stable version roughly every six weeks for major releases. You can see details on all Chrome releases at the Chrome release blog.
In addition to regular updates of the Chrome browser and operating system, the browser comes in four different builds—essentially, windows into the development process at different stages. Chrome calls these “channels”: Stable, Beta, Dev, and Canary.
This is the Chrome build you’re probably using right now. It almost never crashes and all the features it comes with have been extensively tested. But it’s a long way behind the cutting edge. It’s updated every two to three weeks for minor releases, and every six weeks for major releases.
Beta is best thought of as a preview of the next stable build of Chrome. If you want to see what features the next Chrome Stable will probably have, check out Beta, but remember that some features don’t make the cut. It’s updated every two to three weeks.
Aimed at developers, Chrome Dev is a less-stable, buggier cut of Chrome Beta. Its main purpose is to enable developers to build their apps for the Chrome that users will be on when the app comes out, but this inevitably means that there’s a greater proportion of features that won’t make it to the final Stable build. Chrome Dev is updated every week.
Named for the “canary in the coalmine,” the early-warning system for danger underground, Chrome Canary is seriously unstable and prone to crash without warning. This is what Chrome developers think future Chrome builds might look like. Chrome Canary is updated every day.
Versions of Chromium
Chromium versions are numbered in four parts: MAJOR.MINOR.BUILD.PATCH. The relationship between Chromium and Chrome is that some version of Chromium goes on to become the new version of Chrome. Chromium 71 was released on September 1, 2018, for example, and became Chrome 71 in December 2018.
Changes to the Major and Minor build numbers track to Chrome Stable channel releases, and they tell you more about scheduling than code content; Build and Patch numbers record changes to the actual code.
Major and Minor are typically updated when a new Beta or Stable build is released. Major builds are updated when a backwards-incompatible user data change is implemented to ensure the data survives updates.
Build is always updated when a new build is put together from the current trunk, the main line of development for the Chromium project. This means it’s updated at least weekly in the case of Dev channel release candidates.