How (and why) to use your browser’s beta versions

If you do a lot of work in a desktop browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge, do yourself a favor and upgrade to the beta version.

Switching to your browser’s beta channel is a great way to enjoy new features before they reach the general public, and it’s also a simple way to get slightly out of your tech comfort zone. And despite the “beta” branding, these releases tend to be remarkably stable, so you can get a taste of cutting-edge innovation without much risk.

The case for beta browsing

Diving into pre-release software isn’t always a safe bet. The public betas of iOS and Android, for instance, can be quite rocky, with bugs and battery life issues that get in the way of everyday use., and you can’t switch back to stable versions without factory-resetting your phone. Using pre-release versions of Windows is also a bit risky, as you can’t switch off those Insider builds until a new stable release becomes available.

Beta versions of web browsers are much more inviting by comparison. Even before reaching the beta stage, major browser makers put out experimental “Nightly” or “Canary” versions, followed by somewhat-rough “Developer” versions, so they’ve already gone through rigorous testing by the time they hit beta.

This is purely anecdotal, but I once ran the beta version of Microsoft Edge for nearly a year and can’t recall running into any major problems. What I can remember is having a better browsing experience through early access to new features, like the ability to sync Edge’s “Collections” across devices, “Web Capture” for taking full-page screenshots (invoked with Ctrl-Shift-S), and of course vertical tabs.

And if you do decide to switch back, the process is usually hassle-free. Most browsers will carry your bookmarks and extensions between versions, and you never have to wait for a new stable release before you’re able to downgrade.

To the betas (and beyond)

If you’re on board with this philosophy, here’s how to switch to your browser’s beta version:

Google Chrome: Install the beta from Google’s website. This replaces your computer’s stable version, though you can also install the beta separately.Microsoft Edge: Install the beta from Microsoft’s website. This will run separately from the stable version, so consider setting the beta as your default.Mozilla Firefox: Install the beta from Mozilla’s website. This replaces your computer’s stable version, but you can choose the Developer Edition to install it separately. (Unlike other browsers’ Dev channels, this version is functionally the same as the beta, but with some additional tools for coders.)Brave: Install the beta from Brave’s website. This runs separately from the stable version.Opera: Install the beta from Opera’s website. This runs separately from the stable version.

Beyond the betas

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with beta browsers, it’s tempting to take things a step further. Nightly and Canary builds can be a fun way to live on the bleeding edge, but you can also dig deeper into hidden settings menus for even more unreleased features.

In Chrome, you can find this menu under chrome://flags. If you’re running the Chrome beta, Google has just started surfacing some of these experiments in a beaker icon on the toolbar, so you can quickly check out the most promising new ideas. (A personal favorite as of this writing: Type “enable-reader-mode” into the search bar, then enable this setting. You’ll now see a little icon in the address bar that lets you display articles in a clutter-free view.)

You can find similar features in most other browsers by replacing “chrome” with the name of the browser in question, so you can type edge://flags/ or brave://flags in Edge or Brave, respectively. (In Firefox, you’ll find these experimental features under about:config.)

If there is a risk to using beta browsers and unfinished features, it’s mainly that things can change without the kind of clear explanation you’d expect from a final product. Microsoft Edge, for instance, once quietly changed how copy-and-paste worked for links, and I had to go searching for a way to change it back.

But on some level, that risk is its own reward. Being able to stay on your toes and roll with unexpected changes is an underrated tech skill, and beta browsers are a relatively safe and easy way to build up that technological muscle for when change inevitably comes.

This column originally appeared in Jared’s Advisorator newsletter. Sign up to get a tech tip in your inbox every Tuesday.


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