Dear Lifehacker, I'm a big Chrome user and saw that there's yet another "channel" (Canary) out for us Mac users to try. I've always been a little bit unsure about which one of these I should be running; could you give me some advice? Sincerely,Confused by Chrome
Chrome, Firefox and Opera all have multiple "channels" that you can run, each of which trades different levels of stability for newer features. Each channel automatically updates to the latest version of that channel, so once you've installed the browser, you don't need to manually update it yourself—it will automatically update to the newest version available on that channel, unless you reinstall a different channel. Here's a quick overview of how each channel works.
The Stable Channel
The stable channel of each browser is the official release that you'll get from that browser's download page, and the one that most people use. It's expected to be fully stable, and for all features to work correctly, so if you want everything to "just work", this is probably the channel for you. You won't get any of the newest features until they've been fully tested, but if you're happy with most of the features Chrome and Firefox already provide, that isn't much of a problem.
The Beta Channel
This is where new features come to be more widely tested before moving on to the stable channel. This is designed for more cutting edge users, that want to get a piece of the newest action before the masses, and test out new features (usually with the expectation that they file bugs to make sure everything gets fixed before being officially released). I've found that beta channels are usually pretty darn stable, and help get me closer to those new features earlier on. This is usually my preferred channel for day-to-day work (call me boring, I don't care).
The Dev Channel
Also known as Aurora on Firefox or Opera Next on Opera, the dev channel is the release designed for extension developers to make sure their extensions work with upcoming versions of the browser. This is where new features appear once they've been finished, and get put through their paces. You may experience a bit less stability with this channel, and some of your extensions may break since they haven't yet been updated for the newest version. If you need the latest features as soon as you can get them though, this is the channel to use—you just might have to deal with a few more crashes than normal.
Chrome Canary and Firefox Nightlies
The most bleeding-edge builds around, Chrome Canary and Firefox nightly builds, are where new features get developed. This channel is for enthusiasts only, and is not always stable enough for daily use. You'll see new features as soon as possible, but they may not always work correctly, and again, many of your extensions may not work. That said, these builds usually install separately from the other channels, so you can have them run side-by-side. This is helpful if you find a specific Canary or nightly build is too unstable for your daily use, or if you just want to keep it around to see what features are coming up next.
Note that Chromium, the open source project behind Chrome, also has nightly builds, but these are kind of a whole separate program to Google Chrome itself. They're even less stable than Canary, and they don't come with proprietary add-ons like Flash, so you'll have to do a bit of extra work if you want to watch Charlie bite his brother...again. If you're using Chrome, Canary's probably the best bleeding-edge option, while Firefox users will have to use nightly builds instead.
Hopefully that helps you decide which browser channels you should be running. It's mostly up to your own preferences as far as how stable you want your daily browser to be (and how impatient you are for new features). You can find Chrome's channels at the Chromium Early Access page. You can find Firefox's stable, beta, and Aurora channels at the Firefox Future Releases page, and nightlies at the Nightly Builds page.
P.S. Got your own points to add, or any thoughts to share on why a specific channel is your favorite? Tell us in the comments.