40 Chromebook tips for maximum productivity

40 Chromebook tips for maximum productivity

Supercharge your Chrome OS experience with these time-saving tricks and techniques.

Credit: Stephen Sauer/IDG

Chromebooks may be all about simplicity, but don't be fooled: Beneath their intuitive outer layer lies a web of advanced options. And you don't have to be a power user to embrace it.

Make your way through these 40 tips, and you'll be zipping around Chrome OS like a pro in no time.

Getting around Chrome OS

1. The Chrome OS launcher — the app-drawer-like interface that appears when you tap the Search key or hit the circle icon in the lower-left corner of the screen — is actually a powerful universal search tool. Just start typing as soon as it appears, and you can find and open apps, pull up websites and even get answers to specific questions right then and there.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - launcher search JR Raphael / IDG

The Chrome OS launcher can pull up apps and websites and perform all sorts of search-related functions.

2. The launcher has some hidden extra powers, too. Try typing in calculations ("172.4/3"), for instance, or unit conversions ("14.9 feet to meters") for fast answers.

3. Chrome OS has an out-of-sight onscreen shortcut for accessing the launcher on touch-screen Chromebooks, which is especially useful when you're using a Chromebook as a tablet: Simply swipe up from an open area at the bottom of the screen, and — just like with Android on Google's Pixel phones — the launcher will appear.

4. If you have a touch-screen Chromebook, you can hide the shelf — the row of pinned "favorites" at the bottom of your screen — by swiping downward on it anytime you have an app or window open. Swipe back up in that same area to make it return.

(You can also set the shelf to be hidden by default on any Chrome OS device by right-clicking the shelf and selecting "Autohide shelf" on the menu that appears. That'll cause the shelf to remain invisible in the standard non-tablet keyboard mode and to appear only when your mouse moves over that area of the screen.)

5. Quickly open any item on your shelf by pressing Alt and then the number key that corresponds with its position: Alt-1 for the first app in the list, Alt-2 for the second and so on.

6. Got a Chromebook with a stylus? You can take notes right from the lock screen with the Google Keep Android app. Install the app and then look in the "Stylus" section of your device's settings to make sure the option for lock-screen note-taking is enabled. Once it's active, you'll see an icon in the upper-right corner of your lock screen that'll let you scribble away.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - lock screen notes JR Raphael / IDG

Jot down notes from your lock screen with Google Keep and a stylus.

Managing apps and windows

7. You might not realize it, but your Chromebook has a handy Overview interface for managing open apps and windows. You can get to it by pressing the button that looks like a box with two lines on your keyboard (in the function row, directly to the left of the brightness controls) or by pressing the similarly shaped icon that appears in the lower-right corner of the screen when a Chromebook is in its tablet mode. You can also swipe downward with three fingers on your trackpad to open it anytime (and then swipe back upward with three fingers to close it and return to your most recently active app or window).

8. If you have a lot of apps and windows open, try going into Overview and then typing the name of the process you want. The system will gray out nonmatching items as you type and highlight only those that include whatever letters you've entered.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - overview JR Raphael / IDG

You can get right to the app you need by opening Chrome OS's Overview and then starting to type.

9. Prefer a faster Alt-Tab-like method of switching between processes? Your Chromebook has that, too — quite literally: Just press Alt-Tab once to toggle back and forth between your two most recently used apps or windows, or press and hold Alt-Tab to pull up a quick switching utility that'll let you tab between all of your actively open items.

10. Snap any app or window to either side of your screen by hitting either Alt and [ (left bracket) to snap it to the left side or Alt and ] (right bracket) for the right side. Repeat the command a second time to return the app or window to its original position.

11. Minimize an app or window by pressing Alt and - (the minus key).

12. Maximize an app or window by pressing Alt and + (the plus key).

13. Give your Chromebook's apps a little organization by creating folders within the Chrome OS launcher. All you've gotta do is click or tap on any app and then drag it on top of another app's icon. To take an app out of a folder, click or tap it and then drag it toward the top of the screen.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - app launcher folders JR Raphael / IDG

Drag and drop apps to create and add to folders within the Chrome OS launcher, as shown here with the Google Drive app and the "Office Apps" folder.

Getting around the web

14. Within a regular browser window, swipe left on your trackpad with two fingers to go back a page or swipe right to go forward.

15. In a window with multiple tabs, swipe left or right on your trackpad with three fingers to move among the tabs.

16. Next time you want to open a link as a new tab, save yourself a step and simply click the link with three fingers on your trackpad. It'll automatically open into a new tab in the background — no right-clicking and menu-selecting required.

17. Close a tab quickly by hovering over its title bar and then clicking your Chromebook trackpad with three fingers.

18. Pull up the browser's overflow menu in a jiff by hitting Alt-E while in an active window.

19. Need to open up a new browser window from the Chrome OS desktop — or pretty much anywhere else in the operating system? Just hit Ctrl-N.

20. If you have a shortcut to a website in your Chromebook's launcher or shelf — like to Gmail, for instance — and you want it to look more like a regular app, without the browser-oriented elements, right-click its icon and select "Open as window." You can also hold the Shift key and click any icon to do this once without changing its default behavior.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - open as window JR Raphael / IDG

Opening a website as a window will make it look like a regular app instead of a page in a browser.

Managing files

21. Chromebooks are all about the cloud and keeping your data perpetually synced — but by default, any files you download are actually stored in a local device folder. Fix that by opening up your Chromebook's settings, scrolling to the bottom and selecting "Advanced." Find the line labeled "Location" under the "Downloads" header. Click "Change" and select a folder (or make a new downloads-specific folder) within your Google Drive storage. Now, anything you download will automatically be saved to Drive and instantly available wherever you sign in.

22. Want your Chromebook to integrate with cloud storage beyond just Google Drive? No problem: Open up Chrome OS's Files app and click the "Add new services" option at the bottom of the left panel. There, you'll find simple add-ons for bringing Dropbox, OneDrive and other remote storage services into the Files app for system-wide use.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - cloud storage JR Raphael / IDG

A few quick clicks are all it takes to integrate Dropbox, OneDrive and other cloud services directly into Chrome OS's file system.

23. You can create custom shortcuts to commonly used folders — from either your local storage or any connected cloud service — in the left panel of your Chromebook's Files app for easy ongoing access. Find the folder you want and right-click it (or click it using two fingers on a trackpad), then select "Create shortcut" to add it into the list.

24. Speaking of your Files app, you can quickly open it anytime by hitting Shift-Alt-M.

25. While in the Files app, you can switch between different sections by hitting Ctrl and then the number keys that correspond with their position (Ctrl-1 for Google Drive, Ctrl-4 for Images and so on).

26. Chrome OS's Files app has a built-in photo editor that's perfect for basic image manipulation. While viewing an image in Files, click the pencil-shaped icon in the upper-right corner — or hit "e" on your keyboard — to get started.

Simplifying security

27. Your Android phone can serve as a virtual key to your Chromebook. All you have to do is set up Smart Lock, which lets you avoid typing in your password whenever your phone is unlocked and nearby. Open the "Screen lock" section of your Chromebook's settings to enable the feature and configure its options (including how close your Android phone needs to be in order to qualify).

28. If you're using a convertible Chromebook as a tablet, you probably don't want to type in your full password on a giant virtual keyboard every time the system wakes up — especially if you're in a public place with lots of wandering eyes. Luckily, there's a better way: In that same "Screen lock" section of your device's settings, you'll find an option to create a PIN that can be tapped in more discreetly on the screen, similar to how you'd unlock a phone.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - screen lock pin JR Raphael / IDG

Setting a PIN makes it easier to unlock your Chromebook in its tablet mode.

29. Let someone else use your Chromebook without gaining access to all your information with the help of Chrome OS's Guest Mode. Just look for the "Browse as Guest" option on the lock screen. It'll open up an incognito-like environment where no personal or account-related data is available and nothing that happens is saved beyond that session.

30. By default, Chromebooks make it easy for anyone to add an account and sign in from the lock screen — something you may not want to have happen on your work device. You can turn this feature off by opening the "Manage other people" section in your Chromebook's settings. Activate the toggle next to the line labeled "Restrict sign-in to the following users" and then make sure only your account and any others you want on the device are included in the list.

31. Next time you're stepping away from your Chromebook, secure it quickly by hitting the Search key and then L. That'll take you back to the lock screen and the account sign-in prompt.

32. If you want to go a step further, hitting Ctrl-Shift-Q twice will sign you out of the Chromebook completely, no matter where you are in the system or what you're doing.

Embracing system tools

33. Chromebooks now have multiple ways to capture screenshots, three of which are particularly useful: To capture the entire screen, either hit Ctrl and the Overview key if your physical keyboard is handy, or press your device's physical power and volume-down buttons if you're using a Chromebook in its tablet mode. To capture a specific limited area of the screen, hit Ctrl, Shift and the Overview key.

34. Need to focus? Open up Chrome OS's notification panel — at the bottom-right of the screen — and click the bell icon. That'll put your Chromebook into Do Not Disturb mode, and no new notifications will arrive and alert you.

35. You can also limit which apps and processes are allowed to notify you in general. Just click the gear icon within the notification panel and then uncheck any titles you don't want to be able to generate alerts.

36. If your Chromebook is running slowly or an app is acting up, hold the Search key and then hit Esc to open Chrome OS's Task Manager. There, you can see memory and CPU use for every active process and manually end any item as needed.

Chromebook Chrome OS tips - task manager JR Raphael / IDG

The Chrome OS Task Manager shows system usage for all of your open apps and processes.

37. Pressing Alt and then the brightness up or down keys (in your keyboard's function row) will let you manually adjust your keyboard's backlighting — assuming, of course, that your Chromebook has a backlit keyboard.

38. Stylus users, listen up: If your Chromebook came with a connected stylus, be sure to look for the stylus menu in the lower-right corner of the screen (alongside the settings and notification panels). It'll give you quick-tap options for changing your stylus's current function and taking full advantage of everything it can do.

Breaking down boundaries

39. Don't forget about Chrome Remote Desktop. It's a simple and effective way to access another computer (Windows, Mac, Chrome OS or Linux) from your Chromebook without any costly or complicated software.

40. Want to use a browser other than Chrome on your Chromebook for a while? That's actually now possible, thanks to the availability of Android apps on Chromebooks. Provided your Chromebook is recent enough to support the Google Play Store, just open it up and take your pick. You can install common favorites like Firefox and Opera along with more niche-oriented titles like Dolphin and Puffin.

Heck, if you really want to get crazy, you can even install the Chrome Android app and run it on your Chromebook. Just be prepared to see the ghost of M.C. Escher cackling off in the distance.

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