10 Google Chromebook tips, tricks and tweaks

Samsung's Series 5 550 Chromebook

I have been using a new Google Chromebook — specifically the Samsung Series 5 550 — since I bought it for $449 about a month ago. For the first week, I was alternating between a capable and portable two-year-old MacBook Air and the Chromebook, but for the past three weeks, I have been a happy full-time Chromebook user. Along my Chromebook journey, I have found a number of little tips, tricks and tweaks that both improve and personalize the experience.

Before I share them, note that I’m not trying to convert anyone to a Chromebook, nor am I suggesting the Chrome OS is the best solution for you. It works for me because it fits my workflow nicely and without the distractions or extra features my work efforts don’t require. If Windows, OS X or a Linux distro works for you, then clearly, that’s what you should be using. For those who can work completely in a browser — or even do a large portion of daily activities in one — then the Chromebook is worth the look, and these tips are for you.

  1. Take and edit screen shots. Thanks to the new built-in photo editor in Chrome OS, this is an easy task. Just press Ctrl and the window switch button for the screen cap. Then press Ctrl – M to open the file manager and see the saved screen shot in the file listing. Double-click the file to open it and click Edit for basics: crop, rotate, brightness. Note that by default, all image captures are saved in the .png format.
  2. Convert .png to .jpg. Related to the first tip is the use of an online file-conversion tool. Here at GigaOM, we use the .jpg format for images and there’s no way to easily convert .png screen captures or images to .jpg. There are a number of online file conversion sites — I use CoolUtils — to make the conversion in a matter of seconds. In fact, when I find online tools such as this, I add them to a special Chrome OS folder in my bookmarks (bonus tip!).
  3. Unlock Chrome’s hidden features. Type “chrome://flags” in the browser and you’ll see dozens of experimental functions, many of which can be used with Chrome OS. Some of the currently available options include: enable smooth scrolling, GPU-accelerated rendering of SVG and CSS filters, preload instant search, enable experimental pipelining of HTTP requests, enable gamepad support, and enable experimental HTML implementation of the task manager dialog, to name a few. Note that some features require a Chrome OS restart.
  4. Turn on touchscreen-like scrolling. Coming from my MacBook Air, where I have the same scrolling direction enabled as on my iPhone, I was originally flustered with the multitouch Chromebook trackpad. When using two fingers to scroll a web page, it went in the opposite direction than I was used to. Then I found the solution. Click the little wrench icon in Chrome OS and choose Settings. Under Device, Pointer Settings, you’ll see an option to “enable simple scrolling direction,” which reverses the scrolling direction.
  5. Watch iTunes movie trailers. Of course, I don’t just work with my Chromebook. I try to keep up on the latest upcoming movies using Apple’s iTunes Movie Trailers site, but I quickly ran into a problem when using the Chromebook for this: Apple requires QuickTime to stream the trailers, and you can’t install QuickTime — or any native apps, really — on a Chromebook. I then realized Apple will allow you to download the trailers, so I tried with a 1080p trailer. Once downloaded, just hit up the file manager and double-click the trailer file, usually in .mov format, and the Chrome OS media player will show the trailer just fine.
  6. Use the secret caps-lock button. This is a simple but handy little tip. With the new Chromebooks, Google did away with the caps-lock keyboard button, opting to leave a full-sized search key instead. Tapping the search key opens up a new browser tab, but if you hit search while holding the shift key, you enable the caps-lock function. To remove caps lock, just tap the search button while holding the shift key again.
  7. Minimize a browser tab. With Chrome OS, Google has added more desktop-platform-style window management. You can drag browser tabs as if they were windows to the left or right side of the display, for example. But sometimes I want a tab open and active but hidden: I stream music using Rdio over the web, for example, and I don’t need to see that tab at all. I minimize it by first making it a stand-alone tab: Just drag the tab off the browser to do this. Then, place the cursor on the square icon next to the tab-close button at the top right of tab. Drag down from there, and the stand-alone web page is minimized into the Chrome OS dock. Extra tip: Use the dedicated window switch button on a Chromebook to quickly cycle through minimized browser tabs.
  8. Use an external monitor. Since the Chromebook is a laptop, I didn’t expect to use it as a desktop. However, I wanted to see how well the device worked with an external monitor. The Chromebook has a DisplayPort++ interface, so it should work with nearly any external monitor. I bought a cheap ($6.57) cable from Amazon and now use my 27-inch iMac as a monitor when working in my home office. Chrome OS works great on a large screen and keeps me going with the distraction-free experience but with more screen real estate when needed.
  9. Enable offline Google Docs. Last month Google finally introduced offline support for Docs, which is now actually part of Drive. It won’t just work automatically, though: You have to enable it in advance. If you don’t and you’re using a Chromebook without connectivity, you’re not going to be able to use offline docs until you first get back online and set it up. To enable it, just open the settings in Google Drive while online and turn on support for offline use. Once you do that, Google will download local copies of your cloud-based files, which could take some time. After that, however, file synchronization is relatively quick, as only files that have changed are synced.
  10. Test new features early. By default, a new Chromebook is set to receive background updates to Chrome OS as soon as Google releases them to what’s called the stable channel. These are the updates that were tested in beta prior and are ready for public consumption. But you can change your Chromebook channel, so to speak, and get early access to new or experimental features from the beta or dev channels as well. Note the dev channel is specifically dubbed “unstable,” so be prepared for system issues if you use this channel.
    To change channels, click the Chrome OS wrench icon and choose About Chrome OS, More Info. Here you can select among the stable, beta and dev channels. To keep an eye on what features Google is working on within each channel, pay attention to the official Chrome Releases blog.

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