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.

[ Also on InfoWorld: 10 must-have Google Chrome add-ons | Battle of the Web browsers | 13 features that make each Web browser unique | Attack of the mobile Web browsers | Learn how to secure your Web browsers in InfoWorld's "Web Browser Security Deep Dive" PDF guide. ]

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.

Chromium 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.

A "portable" version of Chromium, the open source core from which Chrome is derived. The privacy settings at the top have been disabled by the user.

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.

Apart from its privacy features, SRWare's Iron has some odd and gratuitous changes, such as the replacement of the Chrome app store with SRWare's own.

Comodo Dragon Here's an interesting concept: A variant of Chrome re-branded by security software outfit Comodo as a safe-browsing tool. Comodo Dragon, as it's called, is functionally identical to Chrome, but it sports a slightly reworked interface and a few security-related changes under the hood.

On installing Dragon, one of the options you're given is to use Comodo's own Secure DNS servers, either with Dragon alone or for your entire system. This feature, Secure DNS, automatically blocks access to websites that have been flagged as untrustworthy by Comodo's threat-detection network. You can toggle it back off if it creates more problems than it solves. (I ran into no issues myself.)

You can also elect to set up Dragon in a "portable" installation, where the program's executables and options are all stored in a single directory -- handy if you're using PortableApps or some other self-contained app solution, or if you want to try out Dragon side-by-side with an existing browser.

Cosmetically, Dragon resembles Chrome, but a few key changes have been implemented. Dragon's wrench menu is accessed by clicking the icon at the upper left-hand corner of the window. In place of the wrench menu is a quick link to Comodo's Site Inspector service, which can tell you whether a given website is a source of malware. Wedged between that and the omnibox is a button for quickly sharing the current page on one of a number of popular social networks (Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn).

Like Iron, Dragon has a bundle of under-the-hood changes that address privacy issues, many of them identical to the changes Iron implements, such as removing the Chrome client ID system, RLZ tracking, and error-reporting mechanisms. Another addition is an option to suppress the HTTP-REFERRER header, essentially an implementation of the Do Not Track policy. That said, regular Chrome users could use Google's own Keep My Opt-Outs add-on to achieve much the same effect.

Other new options include allowing incognito browsing by default and clearing history and cookies automatically at exit. Dragon also uses its own custom updater, not Google's, again as a privacy-protection measure.

Among Comodo Dragon's features is built-in access to Comodo's secure DNS service for safer browsing.

RockMeltAnother intriguing spin of Chromium into a semi-commercial product is RockMelt, which tightly integrates social networking features -- specifically, Facebook -- into the browser's interface. Your affinity for this sort of thing will depend on how heavily you use those systems, and whether or not you care for the way RockMelt has integrated them. (I suspect privacy advocates are already cringing.)

When you first launch RockMelt, you're obliged to sign in to Facebook (hope you remember your password!), although you can run RockMelt without logging in. On connecting to Facebook, icons appear at the top edge of the browser to let you access your notifications, messages, and friend requests, while the right-hand edge becomes a persistent, expandable Facebook chat panel.

The left edge is reserved for RockMelt Apps, little portals akin to the mobile site versions that some sites (e.g., YouTube) have created for quick consumption of their content. One of the functions enabled by RockMelt Apps is Social Reading, where you can automatically alert other RockMelt users to what articles you're looking at in real time. Social Reading works on a site-by-site basis, so you don't have to broadcast all your reading habits to the world at large. Note that if you add a site that doesn't have a formal RockMelt App built for it, its RSS feed (should one exist) will be used instead.

One very nice RockMelt feature is "quiet mode." Click the bell icon at the top right of the browser and all your social networking functionality is toggled off with one click. If you're like me and you're easily distracted by this feed or that update, this is a godsend of a feature.

RockMelt is still technically in beta, and there are some rough corners. For one, Chrome add-ons don't work -- not just some of them, but all of them. They flat-out refuse to install. Anyone with a clutch of favorite Chrome add-ons will be irked by this, and it's not clear whether this functionality will be added later on. One can only hope.

Until RockMelt reaches the official release stage, it won't be clear how much better it is than Chrome plus some Twitter or Facebook-centric add-ons. The RockMelt Apps functionality is handy, but it's a toss-up whether or not your favorite sites will support it.

RockMelt turns Chrome into a front end for Facebook and adds some more conventional browsing tools as well.  

CoolNovo CoolNovo is yet another third-party take on Chromium, with some new UI touches and a few built-in convenience features. It was created by programmers from China, and unfortunately for native English speakers, it shows. The CoolNovo website, and some elements of the browser's own UI, are replete with misspellings and grammar botches.

Many of the obvious new CoolNovo features are UI-related. The way tabs are handled, for instance, received enough of a makeover to warrant its own subsection in the Options menu. This includes little things like when to hide the close button on a tab, how new tabs are opened (foreground or background), and whether double-clicking a tab causes it to close.

Another feature, most likely inspired by the Opera browser, is mouse gestures. Hold down the right mouse button and trace a gesture on the page to activate one of a number of macros such as scrolling to the top or bottom of a page, closing the current tab, or switching tabs. I liked this feature quite a bit, although it's nothing that can't also be added to Chrome via a plug-in. Ditto the built-in ad-blocking function, which lets you pick one of a number of pre-defined block lists by geographic territory or language, but again isn't anything that requires a separate build of Chrome.

If you find yourself dealing with sites that render properly only in Internet Explorer -- for instance, an old corporate intranet -- CoolNovo has a handy browser-engine switching feature. Click the Chrome icon in the omnibox, and you can toggle between Chrome's rendering engine and the IE engine. CoolNovo also by default makes a best-guess attempt, via the Cloud Switch feature, to determine if the page you're on renders better in IE or Chrome -- but again, all of this is available elsewhere.

Most of the other new features are good ideas with poor execution. CoolNovo can use its own custom download manager in place of Chrome's own, but I had nothing but trouble with the CoolNovo manager. It didn't persistently remember target directories for download, and many download links (e.g., from Sourceforge) didn't work at all.

CoolNovo's profusion of under-the-hood changes include gestural controls, integrated support for showing tabs with the IE engine, and ad-blocking functions.

Chrome itself It's worth talking briefly about Chrome's own internal variations, where you can often find some variation of functionality without having to jump to an entirely different browser. The stable channel of Chrome is the one most everyone uses and the one that's installed by default. The beta channel contains features that have been approved for inclusion in the next stable revision of Chrome, but which may still need a little testing. If you're curious about what's coming down the pike and want to try it out with minimal risk to your data or to Chrome's stability, start here.

The dev channel is where things begin to get adventurous. This contains all changes merged in over the previous week, although it is accordingly less stable. Canary build is Chrome's nightly build. It contains the most bleeding-edge changes, but it is also the least stable of the bunch. On the plus side, you can install Canary side-by-side with any other edition of Chrome. It keeps all its settings and user-profile data in its own folder, so you can use Canary plus any stable, beta, or dev channel build interchangeably.

Chrome, Chromium, or remix With relatively few exceptions, much of what's available in these remixes of Chrome is available through third-party add-ons for Chrome. If you want additional privacy features, it's easy enough to do that by taking Chromium and toggling off some of the under-the-hood settings.

Iron does most of that legwork for you, but at the cost of using a version of the browser that's been rebranded and reworked in some awkward ways. Dragon isn't bad either, but its most useful feature -- the secure DNS function -- doesn't require the program itself.

RockMelt is an interesting idea, but it's been changed pretty dramatically from Chrome as we know it, and tied so closely with Facebook alone that people who use multiple social networks may find it constraining. And CoolNovo comes with a decent collection of built-in navigation enhancements and twin browsing engines.

All of these Chromium-based remixes will have their users. Although many of their "extras" can be duplicated with a little effort, they make it easy to get certain sets of functionality right off the shelf, without the hassles of maintaining Chromium itself. 

This story, "Google Chrome remixes worth trying out," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in Web browsers, applications and HTML5 at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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