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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5. 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.

If you’d rather have these keys behave as standard function keys go to Settings > Device > Keyboard, and turn on Treat top-row keys as function keys. If you don’t want a permanent switch, you can force these keys to become function keys on the fly by pressing Shift and your desired function key at the same time.

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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 switch quickly 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.

6. 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.

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Choosing a new wallpaper in Chrome OS 76.

At the bottom of the left hand rail, click My images, and then choose from the available images. In a few seconds, your new wallpaper will appear. If it doesn’t look quite right, choose between Center and Center Cropped in the upper right area of the pop-up window to adjust it.

You can also add a browser theme to change the color scheme of Chrome on your laptop. To do this go to Settings > Appearance > Browser themes, and click the link icon (that square with an arrow) that will take you to the themes section in the Chrome Web Store.

7. 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.

Open settings again, choose Device in the left-hand rail, and then select Keyboard. On the next screen, 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.

You can also adjust the functionality of Ctrl, Alt, Escape, and Backspace.

8. 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 Google’s web apps 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.

To enable offline productivity in Google Drive you need to specify the files you want offline. Open Google Drive in your Chromebook, select the three dot icon, and from the drop down menu activate Available offline.

Google Calendar doesn’t have an offline option, but you can download the Google Calendar Android app for that.

Finally, open Gmail on your Chromebook, and select the settings cog icon in the upper right corner. Select the Offline tab, and check the box labeled Enable offline mail.

A Google Keep app is built-in to your Chromebook and 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.

9. Use Android Apps

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Google Play in Chrome OS 76.

All Chromebooks now come with the capability to run Android apps from the Google Play Store, and many older Chromebooks do, too. Adding Android apps to your Chromebook is as easy as adding an app to your smartphone or tablet. All you do is open the Play Store, choose the app you want, click Install, and you’re done.

You may run across the odd Android app that won’t run on your Chromebook, but most apps will run just fine, You can, for example, run Valve’s Steam Link to stream games from your desktop to PC to a Chromebook.

10. Use Linux Apps

Chromebooks also come with the ability to run Linux desktop apps. How this works for older devices depends on the processor, but all of the latest Chromebooks are supposed to come with the capability. With Linux app compatibility you can run many of your favorite apps, or find alternatives such as Libre Office in place of Microsoft Word—though you can run the Android versions of Office if you prefer.

To activate Linux, click on Linux (Beta) in the lefthand rail of the Settings app. On the next screen, click the Turn on button at the top, then follow the instructions. Installation takes a few minutes, but once it’s done you’ll be able to run Linux apps.

This feature isn’t entirely user-friendly, as it’s meant for developers. The best way to install Linux apps on your Chromebook is through the command line and the Advanced Package Tool (APT). You can also download and install DEB files directly, but APT is the easier way to go because it can automatically handle dependencies (utilities your target application requires).

Here’s a solid tutorial on how to use APT.

BONUS: Get to know the Extras

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The Google Assistant running on Chrome OS 76.

Beyond the basic functionality there are a bunch of nice extra features that some users might enjoy. First, there’s the Night Light, which can be set to turn on and off with sunset and sunrise. To activate this feature go to Settings > Displays > Night Light. Here you can turn it on, as well as schedule it to run sunset to sunrise or with a custom time setting.

Google Assistant is also available on Chromebooks, for those times you want to do a quick web search or get the weather. The catch is that Assistant on Chromebooks doesn’t use the “OK Google” command as it does on phones. To save battery power, “OK Google” works only when your Chromebook is plugged in. You could set it to Always on, just be warned it may drain your battery faster than you’d like.

When “OK Google” isn’t working, you can tap the microphone icon in Google Assistant from the launcher. To get started with Assistant go to Settings > Search and Assistant > Google Assistant.

Finally, if you like the idea of a Chromebook, but you don’t want to be searching on Google by default, you can change that. Go to Settings > Search and Assistant > Search engine used in the address bar to select options such as Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo.

Wrapping up

Those are the ten things (plus one) 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, open the built-in Get Help app. This is 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.

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
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