If you’ve followed Chrome Unboxed for any amount of time, you’re likely aware that I’m the tinkerer of the family. Whether I’m looking for new features in the Canary channel of ChromeOS or trying to install unofficial software via the Linux container, I’m always trying to push the boundaries of our beloved ChromeOS ecosystem. While I don’t recommend trying to install Windows or macOS on your Chromebook, there are some experimental features built into ChromeOS and the Chrome browser that might interest you.
You may have heard us or other tech outlets mention the term flags. More specifically, Chrome flags but what are these mysterious features that are hidden right in plain sight in Chrome? Simply put, flags are nothing more than experimental features and tools in Chrome and other software that have either not made it into the stable build of said software, or are used solely for developmental purposes and are disabled by default. Many of the features that we use in Chrome today once began life as experimental flags and while many features evolved from flags to prime time, some are deprecated entirely for various reasons.
Why use Chrome Flags?
Again, Chrome flags are experimental, and yes, occasionally enabling a flag can result in a buggy user experience and even crashes. That said, no need to panic. Resetting finicky flags is relatively quick and easy. More on that in a minute. First, let’s look at why you’d want to enable a flag in the first place. Then, we’ll take a look at the ins and outs of using flags in Chrome and ChromeOS.
There are two main reasons that you would want to enable a flag or flags in Chrome. For the curious types, like myself, enabling flags can gain you access to new, cutting-edge features that aren’t readily available in Chrome or ChromeOS. Here’s a great example. Did you know that once upon a time, Picture in Picture wasn’t a thing in Chrome or Chromium-based browsers like Edge, Vivaldi, Brave, and many others? That’s right. What may seem like a simple, must-have feature like PiP once began its life as an experimental Chrome extension. From there, it was added to the experimental chrome://flags page where it was tested thoroughly.
It was nearly a year and a half before the experimental flag became a full-fledged, baked-in feature for Chrome, and today, PiP is commonplace for embedded video content. This is but one of many features that are now part of the Chrome browser and operating system that began life as an experimental flag. Other features once hidden behind flags include ChromeOS dark mode UI, webcam support for screen recordings, live captions, and the list goes on and on. Long story short, enabling flags can give your Chrome browser or Chromebook superpowers and who knows, maybe even impress your coworkers.
The other main use for flags is when developers need to enable or disable a feature for testing purposes. For example, you can use the flash #ash-debug-shortcuts to enable a variety of keyboard shortcuts such as disabling your device’s touchscreen or getting a heads-up display for tracking CPU usage on your ChromeOS device. These features are generally disabled by default and only used for testing purposes. If you’d like to learn more about these tools, I will link a handy list at the end of this post.
How to enable Chrome flags
So, you’ve decided to do a little experimenting of your own and you need to know where to start. Well, you’re in luck because I am here to guide your way. To get started using Chrome flags, you will need to first open Chrome on your PC or ChromeOS device. There, that was easy enough. Right? Next, you need to point your browser to the Chrome flags page. For desktop Chrome and ChromeOS, simply type or paste chrome://flags into your URL bar, a.k.a. Omnibox. If you’re using a ChromeOS device, pressing enter here should pop up a PWA that houses all of your available Chrome flags. On desktop, the flags page should open directly in the Chrome browser.
The first thing you’ll notice is the warning that you see below. Yes, enabling flags can cause your system to become unstable. Yes, enabling flags does mean that you’re probably on your own if you bork your device. Thankfully, you can easily reset these flags with the handy “reset all” button at the top of the page. If you can’t access Chrome because of a flag-induced crash, you can always give your device a quick powerwash to reset everything. Keep in mind, this will wipe any local data. You should always keep your device backed up and this is especially true if you’re tinkering around with experimental features. If you are using the desktop version of Chrome, you can always delete the applications and reinstall a fresh version. Easy, peasy.
WARNING: EXPERIMENTAL FEATURES AHEAD! By enabling these features, you could lose browser data or compromise your security or privacy. Enabled features apply to all users of this browser. If you are an enterprise admin you should not be using these flags in production.chrome://flags
How to enable Chrome Flags
- Open Chrome
- Go to chrome://flags
- Search for the flag you want
- Flip drop-down to “enabled”
- Relaunch Chrome
The flags available to you will vary between Chrome and ChromeOS and will also look different depending on which version of Chrome you have. I stay in the Canary channel most of the time and therefore, see new flags weeks before stable builds of Chrome. My advice to you, if you are daring, is to fiddle around with different flags and see what you discover. Some flags are fairly self-explanatory while others are quite cryptic. You never know what they may actually do until you give them a try.
If you’re testing out flags on Chrome for the desktop, I recommend downloading the Beta, Dev, or Canary builds. You can discover new features that you may not find in the Stable release while keeping your main installation of Chrome in an untouched state. For Chromebook users, you should probably do your tinkering on a device that’s not your daily driver. 99.9% of the time, you can always reset your device but why risk bricking your primary ChromeOS device? Oh, that reminds me. Flags aren’t just for Chrome. Many of the Chromium-based browsers contain an experimental flags page. For Microsoft Edge users, flags can be found at edge://flags in your URL bar.
One last note. These experimental flags aren’t exclusive to desktop builds of Chrome. You can also find these features on Android at the same chrome://flags address. Just like Chrome and ChromeOS, Chrome for Android tests many new and upcoming features via flags and you can enhance your mobile browsing experience by trying out some of the new experiments.
Don’t worry. I didn’t forget those keyboard shortcuts I mentioned. If you enable the chrome://flags#ash-debug-shortcuts flag, you will have access to a variety of neat tools and features via key combos. You can find the full list of shortcuts here.
So, there you go. Now you know all about Chrome flags, what they do, and how to enable them. Don’t be afraid to play around with the experimental flags and see what you discover. Who knows? You may just stumble upon the next exciting feature that Google is testing for the world’s most popular browser. Stay curious.