Chromium is an open-source browser project that forms the basis for the Chrome web browser. But let’s take a little deeper look at what that means.
When Google first introduced Chrome back in 2008, they also released the Chromium source code on which Chrome was based as an open-source project. That open-source code is maintained by the Chromium Project, while Chrome itself is maintained by Google.
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The biggest difference between the two browsers is that, while Chrome is based on Chromium, Google also adds a number of proprietary features to Chrome like automatic updates and support for additional video formats. Google also took a similar approach with the Chromium OS, which is an open-source project that forms the basis for their own Chrome OS—the operating system that runs on Chromebooks.
What Chrome Has That Chromium Doesn’t
Chrome is based on Chromium, but Google adds a number of proprietary, closed-source bits to their Chrome browser that Chromium lacks. Specifically, Google takes Chromium and then adds the following:
- AAC, H.264, and MP3 Support. Chrome includes licensed codecs for these proprietary media formats, giving you acess to a wider variety of media content—particularly sites using HTML5 video to stream H.264 videos. Both browsers include the basic, free codecs: Opus, Theora, Vorbis, VP8, VP9, and WAV.
- Adobe Flash (PPAPI). Chrome includes a sandboxed Pepper API (PPAPI) Flash plug-in that Google automatically updates along with Chrome. This is the only way to get the most modern version of Flash on Linux. Even on Windows and Mac, you’re better off with the sandboxed PPAPI Flash plugin from Chrome rather than the older NPAPI Flash plug-in available from Adobe’s website. (You can actually get a Pepper Flash plug-in from Chrome and then install it and use it in Chromium, if you like.)
- Google Update. Windows and Mac users of Chrome get an extra background app that automatically keeps Chrome up-to-date. Linux users use their standard software management tools.
- Extension Restrictions. For Chrome, Google disables extensions that are not hosted in the Chrome Web Store.
- Crash and Error Reporting. User of Chrome can opt to send statistics on crashes and errors to Google for analysis.
- Security Sandbox (?). Google also notes that some Linux distributions may disable Chromium’s security sandbox, so you’ll want to navigate to about:sandbox in Chromium to ensure the sandbox is enabled and functioning by default. This is one of Chromium (and Chrome’s) best features.
You should note that while it’s not Google-branded, Chromium is still very Google-centric. For example, Chromium contains the same sync features found in Chrome, allowing you to log in with a Google account and sync your data.
Getting Google Chrome on pretty much any platform just involves visiting the Google Chrome download page, so let’s just take a look at how you can get your hands on Chromium if you want it.
On Linux, you can often install Chromium directly from your Linux distribution’s software repositories. On Ubuntu Linux, for example, you can install it by opening the Ubuntu Software Center, searching for Chromium, and then clicking Install. Chromium gets updated with security updates through your Linux distribution’s software repositories.
On Windows and Mac, using Chromium is a little tougher. You can get official Chromium builds, but they’re bleeding-edge-only and won’t automatically update. The updater is a closed-source part of Google Chrome. You could get third-party builds from someone, but they wouldn’t automatically update either and you’d have to trust the third-party distributor. You could also compile Chromium from the source code yourself, but would you really want to do that every time an update is available? Probably not.
What About the “Spyware?” (It’s Not Actually Spyware)
Google Chrome includes crash reporting features not found in Chromium. If you choose to enable crash reporting in Chrome, information about crashes will be sent to Google. If you use Chromium, this crash reporter isn’t present and you’ll have to get a bug trace the old-fashioned way. Linux distributions may also modify Chromium’s code before giving it to you. If you’re trying to pin down some Chrome bug, you’re probably better off using Chrome instead of Chromium.
Chromium also lacks the usage-tracking or “user metrics” feature found in Chrome. This is an optional feature that sends information about how you use the different parts of the browser to Google, giving them data they can use to base decisions on. (This was the sort of data Microsoft claimed they used when they said they removed the Start menu because no one used it, so perhaps geeks should start leaving such features on.)
In the past, users were worried that each Chrome browser shipped with a unique “client ID” and noted that Chromium did not. Google stopped doing this back in 2010.
However, Chromium does include many features that depend on Google’s servers, and those features are enabled by default. You’ll see these features listed on the Chromium Settings page. They include a web service that helps fix mistyped web addresses, a prediction service, Google’s anti-phishing feature, and more.
So, Which Should You Use?
Chromium is nice because it allows Linux distributions that require open-source software to package up a web browser that’s almost identical to Chrome and ship it to their users. Such Linux distributions could even use Chromium as their default web browser instead of Firefox—and some do. If you’re into open-source software and try to avoid any closed-source bits, Chromium is a good option for you.
However, many Linux users who aren’t so passionate about open-source software might want to install Chrome rather than Chromium. Installing Chrome gets you a better Flash player if you’re using Flash and unlocks a larger amount of media content online. For example, Google Chrome on Linux can now stream Netflix videos. This requires H.264 support for HTML5 video, something Chromium doesn’t include.
So, Chrome or Chromium? If you’re using Windows and Mac, the choice is pretty clear. Chromium is just too finicky to actually use—mostly because you can’t get official stable builds that will update automatically. The real choice here is should be made by Linux users.
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