The best Chromebook add-ons and tricks


Google's Chromebooks are growing in popularity. David Nield/Popular Science

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Chromebooks have been with us since way back in 2011. Now, in a world where Wi-Fi is almost everywhere and web apps grow more powerful, these lightweight laptops have really taken 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.

No connection, no problem

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The Chrome Web Store can direct you to apps that work offline. David Nield

Once upon a time, a Chromebook without an internet connection instantly 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 where the Wi-Fi signal just won’t reach.

Google is, of course, at the fore of this movement. You can enable offline support in Google Drive by clicking the cog icon, then Settings, and checking the Offline box. In Gmail, click the cog icon, then Settings, then go to the Offline tab and check the Enable offline mail box. To know what else will work offline, (like the Kindle Cloud Reader, for example) head to the Chrome Web Store and check the box marked Runs Offline to filter search results.

Smartphones are better than passwords

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You can use your Chromebook to unlock your phone. David Nield

Rather than typing out your password each time you open your Chromebook, you can use an Android smartphone as a token of your identity. First, open up Chrome OS Settings, click the three dots to the top right of the browser, and then choose Settings. Click Set up next to Android phone.

To connect your phone, simply follow the instructions on the screen. Once the connection is established, you’ll be able to go back to the Settings menu and click on your phone to turn on Smart Lock—the next time you log in, if your phone is detected via Bluetooth, you won’t have to enter your password (you’ll need Bluetooth enabled on the Chromebook and on your phone for this to work).

Call dibs on new features

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Join the beta or developer channels to get new features earlier. David Nield

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, tap the three dots to the top right of any browser window and choose Help then About Chrome OS. Click Detailed build information and then Change channel to make your choice: Stable (the fewest bugs), Beta (occasional bugs), or Development (most bugs). You can switch back whenever you like.

Stay secure with Guest mode

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Keep your Chromebook secure by enabling Guest mode. David Nield

Since on a Chromebook you must be logged in to do most of the things you normally do, deciding whether to lend your laptop to somebody to check their email can be a bit of a problem. The best solution? Enable Guest Mode.

Guest Mode is perfect for when you want to let someone borrow your Chromebook and protect your online accounts at the same time. To enable it, click the three dots to the top right of any browser window, choose Settings, then pick Manage other people and turn on the Enable Guest browsing toggle. You’ll then see a Browse as Guest option on the login screen whenever you reboot your Chromebook.

Bigger screens are always better

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You can send entire browser tabs, or videos playing in them, to a Chromecast. David Nield

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

Click the three dots in the top right corner of any browser window, choose Cast, and then pick your Chromecast from the list. If you haven’t set it up yet, use the Google Home app for Android or iOS on your phone. You can also cast videos from streaming sites such as YouTube and Netflix.

You don’t need a hard drive when you have the cloud

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You can tell Chrome OS to save files straight to Google Drive. David Nield

Chromebooks come with a limited amount of local storage space, because what Google really wants is for you to save all your stuff to cloud-based Google Drive. For a start, it means that if you ever drop your Chromebook into a lake (for whatever reason), all of your files will be safely backed up and still available to access from another device.

To set up Chrome OS to save files straight to Google Drive rather than local storage, click the three dots to the top right of any browser window and open Settings. Choose Advanced, then click Change next to Location, and pick Google Drive as the default option.

Close those apps that don’t spark joy

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Chrome OS comes with its own task manager. David Nield

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

The task manager 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.

Adjust the keyboard

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You can tweak the keyboard to suit your needs. David Nield

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. Open Settings from the Chrome OS menu (via the three-dot button to the top right of any browser window), then click Keyboard to choose which buttons do what. You can also turn the top row of keys into function keys if you want.

Grab some Android apps

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Chromebooks recently got the ability to run Android apps. David Nield

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 need to use a keyboard with Microsoft Office, or want to play mobile games on a bigger display.

Turn on the Night Light

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Rest your eyes with the Night Light. David Nield

Chrome OS now supports a warmer display temperature with less blue light—something you might have already noticed appearing on Android and iOS. The idea is to spare your eyes from being exposed to the sort of blue light that can negatively affect your sleep.

Click the three dots to the top right of any browser window and pick Settings, then choose Displays and toggle the Night Light switch to on. You can also adjust the display temperature, and set Night Light to work on a schedule, from the same screen. If you want to quickly turn Night Light on or off, you’ll find a button on the quick settings panel (click the clock, bottom right, to see it).

Snap windows

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Chrome OS can snap windows to the side of the screen. David Nield

Just like Windows, Chrome OS includes a feature that lets you ‘snap’ windows to one side of the screen or the other. It means you can, for example, get 2 browser windows up side by side, which is useful if you’re taking notes on something or trying to watch a show and keep up with the Twitter discussion on it.

If an app or browser window is full screen, click the resize button (top right, to the left of the X button). You can then drag the bar at the top of the window to the left or the right of the display to snap it in place. This works with both browser windows and Android apps.

Let your Chromebook do the writing

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Spend more time talking to your Chromebook by enabling dictation. David Nield

While certain sites and apps (including Google Docs) already let you talk-to-type, you can enable this across Chrome OS as a whole. Open up the Chrome menu (the three dots to the top right of any browser window) and go to Settings > Advanced > Manage accessibility features.

Turn on the Enable dictation (speak to type) option, and you’ll then see a microphone button appear down in the app picker at the bottom of the screen. Click this button whenever you need to enter text—whether in a website or in an app—to speak out what you want to say rather than typing it.

Can’t commit to one wallpaper? Rotate it

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Get a fresh background image every day. David Nield

Keep your Chromebook feeling fresh by having the background wallpaper rotate every day. Click the three dots to the top right of any browser window, then choose Settings and select Wallpaper on the next screen.

The wallpaper picker appears on screen. You can select one of the categories Chrome OS has suggested for you—like Abstract or Landscapes—or you can also turn on the Daily Refresh toggle switch to get something new every day.