What's the Difference Between a Chrome App, Extension and Theme?

Learn All About These Chrome Web Store Options

The Google Chrome web browser and Chrome OS introduce a new way to access the web. Traditional browsers have extensions and themes too, but what is this web app idea for Chrome? What's the difference between that and an extension?

Below is an explanation of Chrome's apps and extensions. They're not super different but they do have different functions and work in unique ways. Chrome also has themes, which we'll look at below.

Chrome apps, themes and extensions are available through the Chrome Web Store.

Chrome Web Apps

Web apps are basically websites. They run within Chrome's browser using programming languages like JavaScript and HTML, and they don't download to your computer like a regular software program. Some apps require a small component to be downloaded but it's entirely dependent on the app you're using.

Google Maps is one example of a web app. It runs within the browser and doesn't make you download something before you use it, but it does have its own user interface. Gmail (when it's used within a browser and not an application like a mobile app or email client) and Google Drive are two others.

The Chrome Web Store lets you choose between web apps that are websites and those that are Chrome apps. Chrome apps are bit more like programs in that they can run from your computer even when you're not using the Chrome browser.

You can also filter the results to only see web apps that are: available offline, released by Google, free, available for Android and/or work with Google Drive. Since apps are sectioned off into their own categories, you can browse through the apps by category as well.

How to Install Chrome Apps

  1. Open the Apps area of the Chrome Web Store.
  1. Click the app you want to use to see a description, screenshots, reviews, version information, the release date and related apps.
  2. Click ADD TO CHROME.
  3. Choose Add app to install the web app.

Chrome Extensions

On the other hand, Chrome extensions have a more global effect on the browser. For instance, a Chrome extension might let you take a screenshot of an entire website and save it to an image file. After installing the extension, you'll have access to it on any website you visit because it's installed to the whole browser.

Another example is the Ebates extension that can help you find deals on websites you visit. It's always running in the background and checks for price savings and coupon codes for lots of different websites.

Unlike Chrome apps, extensions are actually small programs that download to your computer in the form of a CRX file. They're saved to a specific location within Chrome's installation folder, so you can't typically choose where on your computer to save the extension. Chrome stores it somewhere safe and can use it any time you open the browser.

How to Install Chrome Extensions

  1. Browse for extensions in the Extensions area of the Chrome Web Store, optionally using filters and categories to narrow down the search results.
  1. Click an extension you want to download.
  2. Choose ADD TO CHROME.
  3. Click Add extension in the confirmation box that pops up.
  4. Chrome will download and install the extension and will probably automatically open up the settings for the extension once it's all finished.

You can uninstall Chrome extensions by opening the Chrome menu at the top right of the browser (the button made up of three stacked dots) and choose More tools > Extensions. Just click the trash icon next to any extensions you want to remove, and then confirm by choosing the Remove button.

You can also install unofficial Chrome extensions but it's not as easy as installing official ones that come from the Chrome Web Store.

Chrome Themes

Themes are used to personalize the appearance of your browser, such as by changing the color scheme or background. This can be powerful since you can change the appearance of everything from the tabs to the scroll bar. However, unlike extensions, changing your theme does not change the basic function of those items beyond the appearance. 

How to Install Chrome Themes

  1. Open the Chrome Web Store Themes area to browse for a theme.
  2. Click the one you want so you can read any reviews of it, see a description of the theme and preview what the theme looks like.
  3. Choose the ADD TO CHROME button and the theme will download and apply immediately.

You can remove a custom Chrome theme by opening the settings and clicking the Reset to default theme button in the Appearance section.