The best Chromebook add-ons and tricks | Popular Science
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The best Chromebook add-ons and tricks

Make the most of your Google-powered laptop

Chromebook

Google's Chromebooks are growing in popularity.

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Chromebooks have been with us since way back in 2011. Now, as Wi-Fi becomes more ubiquitous and web apps grow more powerful, these lightweight laptops are really taking off. The user-friendly Chrome operating system seems simple—that's part of its appeal. But you can still uncover lots of advanced features and tricks if you know where to look—and we do.

Offline

Set up your Chromebook to work offline

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Work offline

Once upon a time, a Chromebook without an internet connection turned into an expensive paperweight. But not any more. A number of web apps are now adding offline capabilities, so you can keep working (or gaming) away when the internet disappears.

Google is, of course, at the fore of this movement. You can enable offline support in the settings page of Google Drive, and Gmail has an official extension. Head to the Chrome Web Store and tick the box marked Runs Offline to see what else is available (like the Kindle Cloud Reader).

Smart lock

Unlock your Chromebook with a smartphone

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Use a smartphone instead of a password

Rather than typing out your password each time you open up your Chromebook, you can use an Android smartphone as a token of your identity. In order to set up this capability, you'll need a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone running Android 5.0 or above (which describes just about every Android phone in use today).

From the Chrome OS Settings tab, open advanced settings, then click the Set up button that appears under Smart Lock. Then, to connect your phone, simply follow the instructions on screen. Once the connection is established, the presence of the phone acts as your password. Your Chromebook will remain locked and password-protected while you're away, but as long as you carry your phone with you (and we know you do), the laptop will automatically unlock when you go near it.

New features

Get new features before anyone else

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Access new features first

Chrome OS, like the regular Chrome browser, comes in several flavors. If you don't mind a few bugs and a few crashes, you can switch to a more cutting-edge version of the operating system before it becomes widely available. Which means you'll get new features before they roll out to everyone else.

To do this, open up the Settings tab inside Chrome OS, click the About Chrome OS heading at the top, then choose More info. Select Change channel and choose between Stable (least bugs) and Beta and Development (most bugs). You can switch back whenever you'd like.

Guest Mode

Safely share your Chromebook with Guest Mode

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Stay secure with multiple users

On a Chromebook, most of your activities take place on the web. So switching user accounts is a lot less painful than it is on a Mac or Windows machine. In fact, it can be as simple as switching between browser tabs. To take full advantage of this ability, enable Guest Mode.

Guest Mode is perfect for when you want to let someone borrow your Chromebook, but don't want them to be able to access all your online accounts. To enable it, go to the Manage other users option in Settings. If necessary, other permanent users can be added as well.

Chromecast

Broadcast Chrome OS to bigger screens

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Compute on the big screen

As you might expect, Chrome OS works pretty seamlessly with Chromecasts. If you've got one of Google's streaming dongles around, then you can use its wireless mirroring tech to get your Chromebook's display up on a television screen or other large monitor.

Open the main Chrome OS menu, choose Cast, and then pick your Chromecast from the list that appears. If you haven't set it up yet, use the Google Home app on your phone. You can also cast videos from known streaming sites such as YouTube and Netflix.

Google Drive

Save your files straight to the cloud

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Save to the cloud

Chromebooks come with a limited amount of local storage space, but Google really wants you to save all your stuff to cloud-based Google Drive. For a start, it means that, should you drop your Chromebook into a lake, all of your files will be safely backed up and still available.

To configure Chrome OS to save files straight to Google Drive, rather than local storage, open the Settings tab. Then click Show advanced settings and choose Change next to Downloads. You can also have Chrome OS prompt you for a location for each download.

Task manager

Launch the Chrome OS task manager

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Manage tasks

You might be familiar with the task manager on Windows or macOS, and Chrome OS has one of its own. To see it, hit Search+Esc on the desktop. You get a list of all the open browser tabs, web apps, and background processes currently running on your laptop.

The task manager is useful because it lets you clean up your apps to keep the Chromebook working smoothly and speedily. You can see which apps and tabs are draining the most processor time and memory (and thus battery life). Based on this information, you can shut down any memory-hungry processes that seem to be causing problems.

Keyboard and trackpad

Configure your Chromebook's keyboard and trackpad

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Adjust the keyboard and trackpad

Chromebooks have a slightly unusual keyboard layout, with a search button where Caps Lock should be. If this setup tangles up your typing, you can change it. From Settings, click Keyboard settings to choose which buttons do what. You can also turn the top row of keys into function keys if you'd prefer.

When you're adjusting the Keyboard settings, you'll probably notice the adjacent Touchpad settings button. This enables you to turn off tap-to-click and set your preferred scrolling direction. Using the slider, it's possible to change the Chromebook's trackpad sensitivity as well, so you can tailor it to suit your tastes.

Android apps

Install Android apps on your Chromebook

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Grab some Android apps

Chrome OS now has the power to run Android apps, provided you have a compatible Chromebook. Most recently launched ones, the kind with touchscreens, will fit the bill. This type of machine comes with Google Play, which you can use to install and run apps just as you do on your phone.

Not all Android apps will work perfectly on a Chromebook, because most developers haven't updated their apps with Chrome OS in mind. But the Chromebook can actually make a better platform for certain apps, such as when you get to use a keyboard with Microsoft Office, or play mobile games on a bigger display.

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