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.

5. Google Cloud Print

Printing documents isn’t as important as it used to be, but it’s still something that many people need to deal with from time to time. Chromebooks don’t have the same straightforward printing capabilities as other PCs—but they can use Google Cloud Print. This allows you to print from any location with an Internet connection, and your print job will complete on your printer at home.

If you have a newer printer, it may come with Cloud Print capability built in. Google maintains a list of Google Cloud Print-compatible devices online. Instructions on how to add a printer to your Cloud Print account vary by device, so consult your owner’s manual for more information.

You can also add a non-Cloud Print-enabled device on Google’s Cloud Print site. There’s a major catch, though: It requires the printer to be connected to a Windows PC or Mac to act as a print server, and that computer needs to be powered on and connected to the Internet to handle the print job.

6. Know your keyboard and touchpad

We’ve already discussed the search key, but there are several other keys that you should get to know as well. If you look at the top of the Chromebook keyboard where the function keys would be on a Windows PC, you’ll see shortcut keys for actions such as adjusting the volume, refreshing the browser tab, and switching between windows. They’re superhandy. Check out Google’s help pages to learn what all of these keys do.

chromeossplitscreen Ian Paul/PCWorld

Chrome OS in snap mode.

There are also some basic touchpad gesture controls and keyboard shortcuts that all Chrome OS users should know. The first is the system’s “snap” feature, which fits an open window to half the size of the display. To do it, select the window you want to snap, then press Alt to move the window to the right, or Alt +[  to the left.

Another important keyboard shortcut is Alt + Tab. Just like on other systems, this allows you to quickly switch among open windows.

Next is the touchpad. We’ve already discussed that a two-finger tap reveals the context menu. You can also navigate forward and backward through the history of a browser tab by swiping two fingers to the left or right. To scroll a page, move two fingers either upward or downward, as with other systems.

To switch between tabs, swipe left or right with three fingers. You can also tap the touchpad with three fingers to open a link in a new tab. Finally, to view all open windows on your desktop, swipe down with three fingers.

7. Enable tab audio muting

One-click audio muting for individual tabs has been a hidden feature in Chrome since April, 2015—surprisingly, it’s still not enabled by default. It’s a must-have feature for anyone who keeps multiple tabs open. Because every site under the sun now engages in auto-playing video or audio (yes, yes, I realize the irony), you need to know which tab is blaring audio over your Spotify session.

To activate tab audio muting, type chrome://flags #enable-tab-audio-muting into Chrome’s address bar and hit Enter. Under the section at the top labeled Tab audio muting UI control, click Enable.  Then click the Relaunch Now button that appears at the bottom of the browser page to restart the browser. Now, clicking the volume indicator that appears next to the site name in noisy tabs will silence them instantly.

8. Personalize your desktop background

This is an easy one, but it makes your desktop your own. First, download the image you’d like to use, or copy it to your Chromebook via USB. Once that’s done, tap an open spot on the desktop with two fingers to reveal the context menu. Next, select Set wallpaper…, and a window will open where you can select some stock images that come with your Chromebook.

setwallpaperchromeos Ian Paul/PCWorld

Setting a new wallpaper in Chrome OS 56.

From here, click the Custom tab and then select the tile with the + symbol. Select Choose File in the panel that pops out, and then a Files window will open. Navigate to where you saved your image, highlight it with your mouse pointer, and click Open. In a few seconds, your new wallpaper will appear. If it doesn’t look quite right, try adjusting it using the drop-down menu labeled Position. Usually Stretch or Center Cropped will do the trick.

9. Customize the Search Key

Personally, I like the search key as-is, but if you’d rather have Caps Lock functionality or set the key to serve as a backspace, here’s how to do it.

Click the clock area in the lower right corner of the shelf, and click the gear icon for Settings. In the Settings window under Device, select Keyboard settings. Yet another window opens, and right at the top you’ll see a drop-down menu next to Search. Click that menu, select the functionality you’d like the Search key to have, click OK, and you’re all set.

10. Enable offline functionality

Although society’s close to being oversaturated with Wi-Fi, there are still times when an Internet connection simply isn’t available. That’s when you need apps that can work offline. While Chromebooks are built to work from the web, they still include some offline functionality to keep you going when your Internet calls it quits. Be aware that enabling offline use requires apps to download data directly to your local storage, and most Chromebooks pack precious little space, so you may need to shuffle some things around.

Third-party apps in the Chrome Web Store that work offline will advertise the feature. Native Chromebook apps like Docs, Calendar, and Gmail need a little tweaking, and the way to enable offline mode varies from app to app.

sync google drive offline Ian Paul/PCWorld

The offline feature enabled in Google Drive.

To enable offline productivity in Google Drive, open Google Drive in your Chromebook. Click the settings cog in the upper righthand corner, then select Settings. Under the General category, make sure the box next to “Offline” is checked. Click Done.

enable google calendar offline Ian Paul/PCWorld

Enabling Google Calendar’s offline feature.

Now open Google Calendar and select the Settings cog again. From the drop-down menu, select Offline. In the next window that opens, click Enable.

Finally, download and install the Gmail Offline app from the Chrome Web Store. Once it’s installed, open it, select the Allow offline mail radio button, and press Continue. Now give Gmail some time to download your recent mail before shutting it off.

Google Keep works offline automatically, but if you’ve never used it on your Chromebook you’ll need to open it to allow your notes to download.

Wrapping up

Those are the ten things we advise new Chromebook owners to take care of to get the best experience on their laptop. If you ever run into a problem or need to know how to do something, click on the system tray and select the help icon—the question mark in a circle. This triggers a basic guide that can give you tips on using your Chromebook.

Finally, if you’re looking for online tools to use on your Chromebook, be sure to check out PCWorld’s guide to 12 powerful websites that can replace your PC software. The web’s mighty potent these days.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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