There’s a lot going on in Google Chrome. It’s the most feature-complete and well-supported web browser in existence and has expanded the definition of what a browser can do. This is in large part because of its support of apps, plugins and extensions made by third-party developers.
But what is the difference between these three things? If you’re looking to get an ad-blocker, is that an app or extension? And what if you need to watch an embedded video on a website, but it’s not working?
Here we explain the differences between Chrome apps, plugins and extensions, so you will always know what you’re looking for.
Probably the most ambiguous of the three things we’ll be covering in this guide, Chrome apps can mean more than one thing.
First, and most simply, Google itself refers to apps and extensions interchangeably. As proof, if you go to the Extensions page in the Chrome web store, in the address bar replace the word “extensions” with “apps;” it will actually redirect back to the extensions page!
This wasn’t always the case, as the Web Store used to have a dedicated “Apps” section with standalone desktop apps available there. But in late 2017 Google got rid of these traditional Chrome apps, as it pushed the idea of “Progressive Web Apps,” which essentially turn websites into instantly accessible apps from your desktop or phone home screen.
On Chrome OS, in the Web Store you’ll still find an “Apps” section, but this is steadily being populated with Progressive Web Apps or website links that run through your browser. (This is also due to the fact that Chrome OS is becoming increasingly compatible with Android apps via the Play Store.)
But for regular PC users, Chrome apps have been blended into extensions these days. If you’re looking for an ad-blocker, Web Clipper, or any number of things for Chrome, whether you search for “Chrome app” or “Chrome extension,” you’ll end up with an extension.
Which leads to the next question: what is a Chrome Extension?
This one’s much easier to explain, thankfully. Chrome extensions are add-ons to Chrome designed to improve your experience in various ways. This can range from data savers, to ad blockers, to dictionaries that let you double-click on a word in Chrome and instantly get its meaning. You can find extensions in the Chrome Web Store, and when you install one, it will appear as a little icon in the top-right corner of your Chrome browser.
You can resize the extensions area by hovering over the space just to the right of the address bar, then left-clicking and dragging it left and right. Extensions that don’t fit here will sit in the Chrome menu which you open by clicking the three-dotted menu icon at the top-right corner of Chrome.
Plugins are best described as bundles of code that “plug in to” Chrome, allowing web developers to embed certain features, animations, videos and so on to their websites. Until version 57 of Chrome, you could go to chrome://plugins in the address bar and see a list of all the plugins for Chrome, which included things like Adobe Flash Player, Chrome PDF Viewer and Java.
The reason this page no longer exists is partly because Chrome doesn’t support NPAPI plugins anymore due to security concerns – some plugins no longer work and others have been integrated into Chrome in various ways. Flash Player, for example, is now controlled through Chrome’s settings, while Java-based applets no longer work in the browser. Features like the PDF Viewer have been directly integrated into the browser.
So, a bit like with Apps, the idea of Chrome plugins is being phased out or being integrated into the body of the browser.
Those are the main differences. Essentially, the only thing you’ll ever need to concern yourself with in Chrome are the extensions. “Chrome apps” isn’t a term with a stable meaning at this point (though it may soon be replaced by Progressive Web Apps), while plugins have by and large been deprecated over the years.