How to Get Access to Experimental Features in Chrome (and on Chromebooks)

Chromebooks are great because they’re simple, secure, and stable. If you’re the type who likes to tinker, however, you can deviate from that stable bit by enabling experimental features.

While some of the tweaks we cover here are specific to Chromebooks, others are also available in the Chrome browser for Windows, Mac, and Linux. We’ll specify which as we discuss them. Time to get your hands dirty!

Tweak Hidden Flags

As features are in development for Chrome, they’re often added in as “flags”—hidden tweaks that are almost ready for primetime, but still may need a bit of work. These flags are available on both Chrome and Chrome OS.

Before you start clicking and tweaking your little heart out, remember that most of these features are not finished. They’re mostly there, but not completely. As a result, these flags can cause your browser or computer to become unstable—and the more flags you tweak, the higher the chances of this happening. We’re not trying to scare you away from trying things out, of course, but you should keep your expectations in check.

Also note that Google can remove any of these features at any time, so it’s best to not get too attached. There’s a chance any particular flag could simply disappear after the next update. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

If you’re still interested in seeing what’s going on behind the scenes, open a new browser tab and type the following:

chrome://flags

This address opens the flags menu, where you’ll find all sorts of new goodies. We can’t possibly cover everything in this post (and even if we tried, it would be outdated in a week), so just look through everything and decide what you may want to try. Each flag has details about which operating systems it works on—Chrome for Windows, Mac, or Linux; Chrome OS, or all of those. Make sure to pay attention to that.

After enabling a flag, you’ll need to restart your browser. Fortunately, a little button that helps with that will show up at the bottom of the page, making it easy to apply your new features. You can also apply several at one time, then restart when you’re done, though we recommend enabling one at a time and then testing each out. That way, it’s easier to pinpoint exactly which flag is the culprit should a problem arise.

Change Release Channels

By default, all Chrome installations are on the stable channel—this includes browser installs on Windows, Mac, or Linux, as well as Chromebooks. And that makes sense. Google wants everyone to have the best experience possible right out of the gate.

If you’re not a “stable channel” kind of person, however, you can get access to all sorts of new stuff by switching to a different release channel. Right now, there are three primary channels:

  • Stable: This is the default channel option. Choose this channel for rock solid dependability.
  • Beta: Offers access to newer features that are almost ready to be included in the stable channel. The beta channel allows you to test new features before they roll out to the masses, and is still mostly stable in our experience.
  • Developer: Designed for developers to test new features, this is the most unstable of the three release channels, but it also offers the newest features quicker than the others. Only use this channel if you don’t mind a little instability in your life.

If you’re not scared away from changing channels yet, here’s how you can jump from the stable channel to something a little more rough around the edges.

How to Change Channels on Chrome OS

First, click the “Customize” button (the one with three dots) in the upper right corner of the Chrome window, and then choose the “Settings” option.

On the “Settings” screen, click the Main Menu button (the icon with three lines) in the top left corner, and then choose “About Chrome OS.”

On the “About Chrome OS” screen, click the “Detailed build information” button.

Next, click the “Change Channel” button, and then choose the channel you want.

How to Change Channels in the Browser

Changing channels on the browser is a little more straightforward: just download the version you want and install it. Simple. Note that this will replace your existing Chrome installation. You cannot run more than one channel at the same time.

You can find a full list of available downloads here—just choose your OS, build (32-bit or 64-bit), and release channel. Done and done.

Live on the Bleeding Edge: Use Canary

If you really want to see what Google is cooking, the Canary channel is the way to go. This is an enhanced developer build of Chrome that gets nightly commits pushed into its code—this means it’s highly unstable, but is also running the absolute latest features Google is working on.

To run Canary on your PC, Mac, or Linux machine, simply download the Canary build and install it. Unlike other builds of Chrome, Canary will install as a standalone browser—meaning it won’t overwrite your existing installation. This way, you can run the stable, beta, or developer version of Chrome, and also run Canary alongside your main installation. That’s neat.

Chrome OS, on the other hand, doesn’t work that way. You can only have one installation of Chrome OS at a time, so you really have to commit to running this highly unstable version of the operating system. As a result, they don’t make it a simple transition. To switch to the Canary build of Chrome OS, you’ll first need to put your Chromebook into developer mode.

Note: Developer Mode and the Developer Channel are two different things. Read the post linked above for more information on what developer mode is and what you can do with it.

After entering developer mode, open a CROSH shell (Ctrl+Alt+T), type the following text, and then press Enter:

live_in_a_coal_mine

You’ll be asked if you’re sure you want to switch. If you’re all in, type “Y” and hit Enter.

Head back to Settings > About Chrome OS, and then check for updates. This should download and install the Canary build. And good luck! It’s going to be a bumpy ride from here on out.

For more information on the Chrome OS Canary channel, along with how to switch back to one of the more stable builds, check out our post on switching to or leaving the Canary channel on your Chromebook.

Cameron Summerson is a die-hard Android fan, Chicago Bulls fanatic, metalhead, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys on the 'net, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, chugging away on the 6-string, spinning on the streets, or watching the Bulls while yelling at the TV.


Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.