Chrome OS is an operating system designed by Google that is based on the Linux kernel and uses the Google Chrome web browser as its principal user interface. As a result, Chrome OS primarily supports web applications.
Google announced the project in July 2009, conceiving it as an operating system in which both applications and user data reside in the cloud: hence Chrome OS primarily runs web applications. Source code and a public demo came that November. The first Chrome OS laptop, known as a Chromebook, arrived in May 2011. Initial Chromebook shipments from Samsung and Acer occurred in July 2011.
Chrome OS has an integrated media player and file manager. It supports Chrome Apps, which resemble native applications, as well as remote access to the desktop. A few Android applications have been available for the operating system since 2014. Reception was initially skeptical, with some observers arguing that a browser running on any operating system was functionally equivalent. As more Chrome OS machines have entered the market, the operating system is now seldom evaluated apart from the hardware that runs it.
Chrome OS is only available pre-installed on hardware from Google manufacturing partners. An open source equivalent, Chromium OS, can be compiled from downloaded source code. Early on, Google provided design goals for Chrome OS, but has not otherwise released a technical description.
Expert features of Chrome OS
One of the key strengths of Chrome OS is its simplicity – but if you’re a power user who likes to speed up your workflow with shortcuts and productivity tricks, there are plenty to discover. With OS updates rolling out all the time, it may be impossible to produce an authoritative list of advanced features, but here’s a selection of our favourites.
1. Two-finger scroll
Navigating around large web pages can be a pain. Happily, in Chrome OS you don’t need to deal with fiddly scroll bars: pan around the active window by simply dragging across the touchpad with two fingers. (A three-finger drag will scroll more slowly for precise positioning.) If you’re used to multi-touch gestures on OS X, you’ll be right at home – except for the fact that the default scroll direction in Chrome OS is the reverse of OS X, so you drag downwards, not upwards, to see the bottom of a page. This can be changed by opening up the main Chrome OS Settings page, hitting the Touchpad Settings button and enabling “Australian scrolling”.
2. How much space?
Many Chromebooks come with a bare minimum of storage space, and if you make use of offline capabilities, this can quickly become squeezed. You can see how much storage is available by opening the File Manager – select Files from the Launcher icon, or press Alt+Shift+M – and clicking the Gear icon towards the top right of its window. Alternatively, navigate to chrome://quota-internals: at the top, under Summary, you’ll see a measure of available disk space.
3. Hide the shelf
If you want a web app to use the full height of your screen, right-click (or two-finger click) on the shelf at the bottom to open its view options: from here you can enable autohide – and, if you prefer, move the shelf to the side of the screen. If your Chromebook has a touchscreen, you can also hide and restore the shelf by swiping up from the bottom of the screen.
4. Open in a new window by default
Right-click on an app on the shelf or in the launcher to see opening options. The default is to open apps in a new Chrome tab, but you can set specific apps to open as a pinned tab – that is, one with only an icon and no title at the top – in a window, or maximised. These last two options open the app in a new browser window with no controls, so it looks like a regular desktop application.
5. View multiple pages at once
You can drag a tab out of the main Chrome browser to view it in its own window. Windows can be arranged by dragging and resizing with the mouse in the familiar style, and you can also dock browser windows to the left or right of the screen by dragging them to the side. As a shortcut, hold down the mouse button on the maximise icon at the top right of the window: you’ll see the neighbouring icons turn into arrows, which you can select to send the window to the left or right side of the screen. Or, press Alt+[ or Alt+] for instant docking.
6. Factory reset
The factory-reset procedure (“Powerwash”, as Google calls it) can be accessed from the main Settings screen: click “Show advanced settings” then scroll to the bottom. Obviously this is no use if you manage to forget or lose your password. Should this happen, initiate a Powerwash by pressing Alt+Ctrl+Shift+R at the login screen.
7. Edit images
Chrome OS includes a simple image editor – it’s no Photoshop, but it will do for cropping and tidying up images before you post to a social network. To access it, double-click on the image you want to edit in the File Manager (it works only on local files), then click the pencil-shaped Edit icon at the bottom right of the window. You can apply automatic correction, crop and rotate images, and manually adjust brightness and contrast.
8. Access the terminal
If you’re a developer, or an experienced user of Linux (or a similar Unix-like OS), you may from time to time find yourself wanting to break out of Chrome OS’s mouse-based environment and type commands into a familiar shell. Pressing Ctrl+Alt+T will open the Chrome OS developer shell: this is quite limited in its default mode, but if you’ve set your Chromebook to Developer Mode (see 10), you can type “shell” to open a full Bash shell, which lets you nose around inside the device to your heart’s content.
9. Customise the keyboard
On the main Settings page, under Keyboard Settings, you’ll find the option to reprogram the Search, Ctrl and Alt keys. The functions of all three can be switched around to suit your tastes, and Search can be made to act as a regular Caps Lock key, or a second Escape button. There’s also a tickbox you can select to make the top-row keys act like regular function keys – this isn’t useful within the graphical Chrome OS environment, but if you’re an advanced user wanting to use the terminal it can be handy.
10. Developer Mode
Chrome OS is based on Linux, but it’s heavily locked down, making it hard for hackers and malware to infiltrate the system. If you want to tinker with the underlying Linux OS, unlock it by switching your Chromebook into Developer Mode. On older models, this is achieved by flicking a physical switch on the chassis; on more recent Chromebooks it’s accessed via a series of key presses at startup – check your documentation for precise details for your machine.
Once you’re in Developer Mode, you can download and compile third-party software – although apt-get isn’t installed by default, so you may have to jump through a few hoops. You can even install a second operating system on the hardware, dual-booting Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS. Before you start experimenting, however, be warned that switching to Developer Mode will perform a factory reset of the device.
11. Get free Google cloud storage
Chrome OS relies on cloud storage, so Google likes to make sure that Chromebook users don’t run out. Go to https://drive.google.com/redeem on your Chromebook and you’ll receive 100GB of complimentary Google Drive storage. Sadly, the extra space lasts for only two years: after that period you’ll have to pay to continue using the storage, or buy another Chromebook.
12. Get new features early
Chrome OS upgrades itself whenever a new update is available, but not everyone receives the same updates. Like many Linux-based systems, Chrome OS is released in multiple channels; by default, Chromebooks are subscribed to the stable channel, so they only receive updates that have been widely tested as stable.
If you prefer, you can switch to the beta channel to try out new features before they hit the mainstream – or to the developer channel that always brings you the very latest code, even if it’s known to have bugs. To switch, go to the main Settings page, click Help, then select More Info and click the “Change Channel…” button.
13. Try experimental features
Navigate to “chrome://flags” to access a secret menu of experimental settings. As the page warns, “these experiments may bite” – there’s no guarantee they’ll work properly for you, but they’re fun to play with. At the time of writing, experimental features include autocorrect for spelling, pinch-to-scale on touchscreen Chromebooks, auto-fill predictions for web forms, automatic secure password generation and a whole lot more.
14. Do a barrel roll
When you hit the Reload button, the Chrome OS browser refreshes the active web page. Hold down Alt+Ctrl+Shift while pressing it, and you’ll see a much more entertaining effect – one which, it must be admitted, perfectly reflects the symbol printed on the top of the key. While perhaps not the most useful feature, it’s a fun Easter egg.
15. Key commands
The Chrome OS keyboard is designed to be simple, but if you’re used to a Windows keyboard, you may feel like you’re missing several useful keys. The good news is that almost all of them can be simulated in Chrome OS by pressing the right key combinations:
Caps Lock Alt+Search (press again to cancel, or hit Shift)
Page Up/Down Alt+Up/Down
Print Screen Ctrl+Switch Window