6 Google Chrome remixes worth trying out

Chromium-based spinoffs bring privacy, security, social networking, and other interesting twists to Google's Chrome browser

Once upon a time there was a browser named Firefox -- an open source project that many people happily picked up and spun off into their own versions with names like Iceweasel and Pale Moon. Now the same thing has happened with Google Chrome. Its open source incarnation, Chromium, has become the basis for a slew of spinoffs, remixes, and alternative versions.

Naturally, a variant version of a browser needs to be broadly compatible with the original to be useful, but at the same time have enough new features or enhanced functionality to be a compelling alternative. Just as a remix of a song combines something from the original with something new, Chrome spinoffs inherit Chrome's speed and rendering prowess while striking off in new directions.

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When is it worth ditching Chrome for a Chromium-based remix? Some of the spinoffs are little better than novelties. Some have good ideas implemented in an iffy way. But a few point toward some genuinely new directions for both Chrome and other browsers. Here's a rundown of the ones we think are the most interesting: Chromium, SRWare Iron, Comodo Dragon, RockMelt, CoolNovo, and Chrome itself.


The first place to start is the one closest to home. The open source core of Chrome, Chromium is what the browser is before Google adds its branding and integration features. These include things like user metrics (the sending of browsing stats back to Google), crash reporting, the built-in Flash player and PDF viewer, multimedia codecs (MP3, AAC), and the auto-updating system. Folks who lambast Google over privacy issues often recommend using Chromium, which lacks the user tracking features they dislike in Chrome.

Browsing in Chromium is virtually the same experience as using Chrome itself, in big part because many of the missing pieces are made up for in other ways. The lack of the internal Flash plug-in isn't a problem, for instance, because Chromium can make use of whatever copy of Flash is already installed in Windows.

One potential hurdle is that Chromium isn't distributed in the same manner as Chrome itself. There are automated builds of Chromium in the maze of directories for Google's Chromium site, and anywhere from four to five builds a day are created automatically from the latest source code. But because Chromium doesn't have Chrome's auto-updater, you need to upgrade Chromium manually.

Another problem is Chromium's inherent instability. If you simply pick a build, there's no guarantee it will run properly, so you may have to do some research ferreting out a reasonably stable one. Fortunately, some people have done a little of this legwork for you. For instance, the CRportable project repackages reasonably stable Chromium builds in the PortableApps format, so you can run the browser from a USB key or portable hard drive.

SRWare Iron

One of the more widely discussed variants of Chrome is SRWare's Iron, which, according to its creators, removes all the features that raised hackles with privacy advocates. These things -- the logging of input in the omnibox, for instance -- aren't just disabled by default, but disabled completely; they cannot be reactivated.

Iron's emphasis on removing features that allegedly endanger privacy comes at the cost of some functionality. For instance, Iron does not check for updates automatically, as its creators consider the presence of the updater to be another privacy issue. You have to manually install newer versions of the program, as with Chromium. You are, however, allowed to use Iron with the Google Sync feature so that bookmarks, passwords, and preferences can be synced between copies of Iron.

Some of the changes seem wholly gratuitous. If you open the extensions page in Iron and click on the "browse the gallery" link, you're taken to chrome-plug-ins.info, a compilation of Chrome plug-ins collected by SRware, rather than Google's own Chrome extensions gallery. You're allowed to manually access and browse the Chrome Web Store and install plug-ins directly from there, but it hardly seems necessary to send people somewhere else by default.

One way to get around the absence of auto-update is to use the PortableApps version of Iron, which can be updated automatically through the PortableApps launcher (although it doesn't always provide you with the most up-to-date edition of Iron). The master builds of Iron itself seem to be kept reasonably current, though. The most recent version as of this writing was version 16 (dated December 21, 2011).

Google programmer Evan Martin, who contributes to the Chromium project, has his own odd anecdote about Iron, and he points out that the privacy features in Iron are easily emulated by changing a few settings within Chrome (or Chromium) itself.

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