How to use a Chromebook: 10 must-know tips, tricks, and tools for beginners

Chromebooks are dead-simple to use, but just like any PC a little tweaking makes your experience that much better.

When Google first introduced Chromebooks in 2011, it seemed like a ridiculous idea. A laptop that can only run a browser? Who wants that? But over time, web apps slowly became more powerful and capable, while Google steadily improved the Chrome OS experience. Soon, many newer Chromebooks will also run Android apps.

All of this means the Chromebooks of 2017 are nothing like that original experience. Today, Chrome OS feels like a modern operating system that offers a near desktop-like experience. It can satisfy the needs of almost every user, with the notable exception of those who need video or advanced image editing.

If you set your Chromebook up right, that is. Let’s get that done.

1. Get to know the system

chromeosdesktop Ian Paul/PCWorld

A Chromebook desktop with Chrome OS 56.

Chrome OS has some basic similarities with other desktop systems. Just like Windows, Linux, and OS X, there’s a desktop area that you can customize with your own background image. But unlike the desktop in other systems, you cannot place any files here. It’s merely a visual space where you can arrange open windows.

When you open an app—which are mostly websites on Chromebook—it will open in either a new window or a tab in the main browser. Open windows can be resized or split to take up half the display like in other systems.

You’ll probably notice right away that your keyboard has a search icon where the caps lock key should be. This search key is a way to get at all the apps contained on your system. Tap it and a window opens with a search box, and below that you’ll see several apps. Click All apps to get a view of everything you have available.

chromeosfilesapp Ian Paul/PCWorld

The Chrome OS Files app in version 56.

One system-critical Chromebook app that is not a website is Files. This is the Chrome OS file manager that lets you access files saved on your system, view the contents of a ZIP folder, or access items in Google Drive.

The last point of interest in our system tour is the lower-right corner of the taskbar-like shelf, called the system tray. (More on the shelf later.) The first thing you’ll see is a small counter that tells you how many notifications you have. Click it and you can view and clear your notifications.

chromeosnotificationsarea Ian Paul/PCWorld

The system tray in Chrome OS 56.

Next to that is a clock, Wi-Fi status, and a battery life indicator. Click this area and a panel appears with basic system settings, including Wi-Fi, VPN, Bluetooth, Casting functionality, volume, help, and the shutdown button.

There’s also a cog icon. Selecting it provides access to your Chromebook’s settings window. Here you can set your wallpaper and add visual themes, as well as access system settings for the touchpad, mouse, keyboard, display, and meager onboard storage.

Finally, to access your Chromebook’s task manager, click Shift + Esc.

2. Set up your shelf

When you first open your Chromebook, you’ll see several app icons sitting at the bottom of the screen. This area is called the shelf, and it mimics the Windows taskbar. The Chrome OS shelf shows you which apps are running and provides an easy way to switch among open windows.

To make the Chromebook your own you’ll want to add your commonly used apps to the shelf, and remove the ones you don’t use. To get rid of something from the shelf, hover your mouse pointer over the app icon in question, tap the touchpad with two fingers (the equivalent of a right-click on a Chromebook), and select Unpin from the context menu that appears.

chromeosaddtoshelf Ian Paul/PCWorld

Adding a website to the shelf in Chrome OS.

The easiest way to add your own apps to the shelf is to open the web app you want to use in the browser. Next, click the menu icon in the upper right hand corner—it looks like three vertical dots—and select More tools > Add to shelf. A small pop-up window appears asking you to confirm that you want to add the web app. If you want a desktop-like experience where your shelf apps open in their own window, check the Open as window box, and then click Add.

To rearrange apps on the shelf, click and drag them to the desired position.

3. Smartphone unlock

To open a Chromebook, you need to sign in with your Google account password. That’s easy enough, but if you have an Android phone this process can become even easier. Your phone can automatically unlock your computer without a password via Bluetooth.

To set this up, click the clock in the lower right corner of your desktop and select Settings. Next, scroll down to the bottom of the settings window and select Show advanced settings…

Scroll down again until you see “Smart Lock for Chromebook (beta).” Select Turn on and then follow the instructions to activate the feature.

4. Modify Google Sync

One of Chrome’s key features is the ability to sync your recently opened tabs, browsing history, bookmarks, extensions, passwords, and other items across multiple devices. This syncing works on any device that runs Chrome—including computers, smartphones, and tablets—as long as you’re signed into your Google account.

chromeossync Ian Paul/PCWorld

Decide what you want to sync with Google’s servers and turn on encryption.

Syncing’s on by default with Chromebooks, but you can control which items are synced and which aren’t. Go to Settings, and then under “People” click Advanced sync settings…

A window will appear showing all the various items that are synced. Select Choose what to sync from the drop down menu at the top, and then un-check anything you don’t want shared with other devices. 

Next page: Printing, helpful controls, customizing your system, and more.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Googlechrome

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?