11 tips and tricks for the Chromebook

These tricks will help old and new Chromebook owners alike get more out of the laptops with Google's OS. There is also a bonus tip for connecting securely to work.
1 of 13 James Kendrick/ZDNet

11 tips and tricks to get the most out of the Chromebook

Chromebooks are laptops running Chrome OS from Google that are gaining in popularity. The Chrome browser is front and center on the Chromebook and its extensibility is one of its strongest features.

There is a lot of customization available in Chrome and it can be overwhelming to discover features that can be enabled to take full advantage of using a Chromebook.

The 11 tips and tricks in this collection point out a broad range of features that Chromebook owners may not discover on their own. They will demonstrate touchpad gestures that make using Chrome easier, along with a couple ways to gain access to new features before they are part of Chrome OS proper.

My colleague Ken Hess may find something useful in this collection to help with his Chromebook experiment.

While these tips are for Chromebooks some of them can be used with any installation of the Chrome browser on Macs, Linux, and Window PCs.

There is a bonus tip for those who need to connect remotely to work systems using VNC at no cost.

Additional Chromebook coverage: 

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How to create a recovery image

As solid as Chrome OS may be, like any platform there's always the chance something goes wrong and the Chromebook will not boot. It's never happened to me but I've heard from others who've had to recover their device.

The first step in recovering a Chromebook that will not boot is to create a recovery image when the device is running properly. This is a simple process built into the Chrome OS.

Enter chrome://imageburner into the URL bar in the browser. This takes you to a utility for burning a working system image on a USB flash drive or SD card. The drive and SD card should have at least 4GB of space for the image. Note that the image burning will wipe the drive or card so make sure there's nothing you want to save.

The image burning utility recognizes the flash drive or SD card once it's inserted and the image is downloaded and burned. That's it, store the image in a safe place.

To restore your system from the image just insert it in the Chromebook when the system is on the "Chrome OS is missing or damaged" screen when it fails to boot. The device will boot from the image saved and then prompt you through the simple steps to recreate a working Chromebook.

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Interactive keyboard map to discover key shortcuts

Google is famous for adding key shortcuts to apps to make it easy to get to most system functions. Chrome OS is no exception as this keyboard map makes clear.

The keyboard map is accessed by hitting Ctrl-Alt-? which shows the one-key shortcuts. From the default screen you can tap the Ctrl, Alt, or Shift key (on the physical keyboard) to see additional shortcuts accessible by hitting one of those keys in addition to the indicated key on the map.

This map is very useful and it's wise to visit it from time to time to avoid overlooking useful key commands.

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Chrome OS version channels

The way Google develops Chrome is through three channels: Stable, Beta, and Developer. Stable is the standard version of Chrome, Beta is the channel where experimental features are incorporated before making the Stable channel, and the Developer channel is where alpha features are tested.

I use the Beta channel as I find it a fairly stable implementation that gives me an advance look at new features. I rarely have problems using the Beta version of Chrome.

To access one of the advanced versions of Chrome, access the Settings through the system panel on the lower right of the desktop. Select Help on the settings page and look for the Change Channel button. Once you choose a channel other than the one you are currently using, that version will download and install.

Once the installation completes you restart the system to run the new channel.

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Getting the Caps Lock key back

Google put the Search button in place of the Caps Lock key. Some like that change but others like me need the Caps Lock key.

That's easy to fix in the keyboard settings in Chrome. It gives you the option to change what happens when you hit the Search, Ctrl, and Alt keys. 

Since the Search key is where the Caps Lock is normally located, it makes sense to change that one to Caps Lock.

You can change these keys any time you like so feel free to try something new.


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Touchpad gestures: Accessing previous/next web pages in the browser

Chromebooks have good trackpads and they have multi-touch gestures that make it easy to do certain functions. This includes the 2-finger swipe in the browser to cycle back through previously visited web pages.

Simply swipe left or right with two fingers to go to the previous or next web page on the active tab. It works smoothly and keeps your hand on the trackpad. I use this method more often than hitting the left or right arrow keys next to the Esc key on the top row of the keyboard.


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Touchpad gestures: Cycling through open browser tabs

Another useful touchpad gesture makes it easy to cycle through open tabs in the browser. This is a 3-finger swipe to the left or right to spin through the open tabs. This is especially good for those who have lots of tabs open in Chrome.

I find it necessary to swipe slowly for precision, but you can quickly swipe and jump all the way left or right.

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Touchpad gestures: Accessing graphical Task Manager

My favorite touchpad gesture is the 3-finger swipe to invoke the graphical Task Manager. Just swipe up with three fingers and every active window is displayed in a thumbnail image on the main screen.

From the Task Manager you can swipe down with three fingers to return to the last active window or tap on a thumbnail to jump to that app.

This is particularly useful if you run apps in a window and not in a tab in the browser.

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Enabling experimental features

In addition to the three Chrome version channels you can access experimental features not yet implemented in the Stable channel through the flags function.

This is accessed by typing chrome://flags in the URL bar in any browser window. This brings up the list of available features as shown in the image above.

As prominently indicated at the top of this list, these are experimental features and settings that may not be stable on your Chrome installation. Scanning these features shows there are some heavy-duty settings that can change every aspect of Chrome, including how the hardware works. The rule of thumb is to not change anything you don't completely understand to avoid introducing problems.

That said, there are dozens of flags that can change the operation and appearance of Chrome that can be safely toggled on and off at will.

Chromebook Pixel owners and those using the new Acer C720P Chromebook, both with touch screens, will find several flags that can implement changes to the touch operation of Chrome that are useful.


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Enable parental controls

Those who share Chromebooks with kids or who bought them for their children should implement parental controls to keep them out of trouble. This involves setting up supervised accounts for each child under the parent account. The parent account must be set up first using the parent's Google account.

Once the Chromebook has been set up with the parent account, new users can be added for the children to be supervised. Different controls can be used for each child account which is handy for those with kids of different ages.

Note that parental controls in Chrome are still in beta and should evolve over time.

11 of 13 James Kendrick/ZDNet

Hiding a browser tab while keeping it active

Multiple tabs are typically handled in Chrome in one window. That works most of the time but those who have a lot of tabs open at once may find it useful to have one or two web sites separate from the others.

This is easy to do and has advantages we'll cover. First of all, there may be a web site that you wish to have active in the background but hidden from all the other pages open. Secondly, web sites open in their own windows display separately in the Task Manager previously covered. This makes it easy to jump to that site by tapping it in the manager.

To get a web page displayed in its own window just drag the tab at the top to the desktop. That site will display like a separate browser instance.

One great use for this method is to keep the Gmail tab in its own window. That keeps it off the screen and hidden from prying eyes when minimized yet easily accessible in the manner indicated above. I also have the Gmail icon pinned to the taskbar so I can also access and hide my email by tapping the icon.

12 of 13 James Kendrick/ZDNet

Zooming any browser page or web app

Many Chrome users may be familiar with this old standby but it's worth mentioning. Chrome makes it easy to zoom pages up and down with a simple key combination.

For pages that display too small, zoom it up by hitting the Ctrl-+ key combination. It will blow the page up incrementally with each press of the key combo until it's the right size. 

You can scale pages back down the same way by using the Ctrl-- (minus key). 

Pages will always display at the last zoom setting when revisited so different pages can have a unique zoom setting that only needs to be set once.

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VNC Viewer to securely access work systems (free)

Google has the Chrome Remote Desktop extension to access remote computer and it works great. Those who need to access systems secured through VNC swear by the VNC Viewer web app in the Chrome store.

It can access remote Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and UNIX systems using VNC technology from RealVNC. The free app has good features including a virtual keyboard for entering special characters required by the remote system.

Chrome Remote Desktop

VNC Viewer

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