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.

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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. Then, Google went even further and added the ability to run Android apps, and still further with Linux desktop apps.

All of this means the Chromebooks of 2019 and 2020 are nothing like that original experience. Today, Chrome OS feels like a modern operating system that offers a first-class web browser, the flexibility of mobile apps, and a desktop experience in one box. 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 ChromeOS

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A Chromebook desktop with Chrome OS 76.

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 it will open in a new window if it’s an Android app, desktop app, or web app that you’ve set-up to launch in its own window. Otherwise, you’re opening a tab in the main browser. Open windows can be resized or split to take up half the display like in other systems, though some Linux desktop apps may not respond to these commands.

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 search your devices, apps, and the web in one spot. It’s also a way to see every app on your system.

To begin, tap the key, and a Google Assistant box pops up at the bottom of the screen with some of your recently used apps. Click the upward-facing arrow above the search box to get a view of everything you have available.

Most apps will appear here just as they would on an Android phone, but Linux apps are grouped together.

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The Chrome OS Files app in version 76.

One system-critical Chromebook app 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.

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The system tray in Chrome OS 76.

Next to that are 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, Night Light, volume, screen brightness, a shutdown button, and more

Selecting the cog icon in this section opens your Chromebook’s settings window. Here you can access system settings for the touchpad, mouse, keyboard, display, and onboard storage.

Finally, to access your Chromebook’s task manager, click Search + Esc. This shortcut used to be Shift + Esc, but Google is phasing it out.

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 which apps are running and provides an easy way to launch apps.

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, hover your mouse pointer over the app icon in question, tap the touchpad with two fingers (the equivalent of a right-click), and select Unpin from the context menu that appears.

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Adding a website to the shelf in Chrome OS.

The easiest way to add web apps is to open the site you want in the browser. Next, right-click the webpage tab—it looks like three vertical dots—and select More tools > Create shortcut.... 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 for the web app, check the box that says Open as window, and then click Create.

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, in the left rail select Connected devices, then in the main window click Set up in the Android phone section.

A new window will pop-up displaying your phone by brand or nickname. If you recently switched phones it may take a few days for your Chromebook to recognize the new phone. If everything is set click Accept & continue, then enter your password and click Done. Finally, back in the Settings window, confirm that the slider next to your phone is enabled. If not, activate the slider and enter your password to confirm.

Now when your phone is near your Chromebook it should automatically unlock.

4. Modify Google Sync

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

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.

Syncing’s on by default with Chromebooks, but you can control which items are synced and which aren’t. Go to Settings, and then in the left-hand rail select People > Sync.

The next screen shows all the various items that are synced. Turn off Sync everything at the top, and then deactivate anything you don’t want shared with other devices. 

Next page: Helpful controls, customizing your system, and more.

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