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.
  • Ian Paul (PC World (US online))
  • 17 March, 2017 21:30

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.

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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.