This past July, I ventured into a new frontier in my world of tech: I decided to give a Chromebook a shot. Admittedly, I wasn’t hot on the idea when they were introduced a few years ago. I always thought I needed more than a browser and web apps to get by. There was a time when that was true, but those lines are starting to fade away. Once I realized that, and once I heard that the Google Play Store was on its way, I jumped right in.
As you would expect with getting comfortable with any new operating system, there are learning curves. There are also a few little things that don’t work quite the way I’m used to. Mostly this is due to some lackluster or frustrating choices on the hands of web developers, which we’ll get into soon. But I’m happy to say I’ve found some extremely useful tips and tricks to get around most of that.
I want to share a few of the workarounds that have made Chromebook not only do-able, but easy to get used to.
At this point, I’ve basically moved over to Google’s office suite of Docs, Sheets, and Slides. I’m actually using them for everything from writing to creating PowerPoint presentations weekly for my church.
But if you need the Microsoft Office applications for any reason, you have options to do so. First, I would point out that the Google apps can open and convert Office files to Google’s file format. You can also save a local copy in Microsoft’s file formats if you need to. But you can also access Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for free using the Office Online extension in the Chrome Web Store. Once the Play Store makes its way to the OS in the near future, you’d also be able to use the Android apps just as easily. These are great ways to access and edit all of your documents or create new ones, all in native Office files.
Even with this, though, I’ve needed another tool for less common file types. For example, on the weekly PowerPoint I create for my church, I need to be able to view the bulletin to get the slides right. This bulletin is created in Publisher, which unfortunately isn’t one of the programs offered in the online Office suite. For these, I use a free file converter I found on the Web Store. I use Zamzar as it supports .pub files, but there are a number of these available. It’s as easy as plugging in the unsupported file, choosing a file that can be opened on the Chromebook (I use PDF since I don’t have to edit the file, just view it), and getting back to work.
Is that an extra step versus what I’d need to do on a Windows machine? Sure. But with the time I save booting up my computer nowadays, and without having to launch Publisher to read the file (which isn’t instantaneous on a Windows machine, either), I think this is at least a wash.
I LOVE me a good keyboard shortcut. It’s far more efficient to use a keyboard to complete tasks rather than moving my hands to the mouse or trackpad to switch windows or start up programs.
Chromebooks are keyboard shortcut nirvana. There may not be a Caps Lock key, but there’s a shortcut for it (ALT + Search – alternatively, you can change the Search key functionality in Settings). Same with the DEL key (ALT + Backspace). You can even launch the programs on your Shelf (Alt + the number corresponding to the program’s position on the shelf).
One of my favorite keyboard shortcuts, though, is kind of meta: a keyboard shortcut to view all of the available keyboard shortcuts (see above). To get into this little gem, press CTRL + ALT + ?. Once you’re in, you can press Shift, CTRL, ALT, or any combination of the three to see what shortcuts are available for those combinations. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t sunk any time in this menu.
User Agent Switcher
To be perfectly honest, you may or may not ever come across a need for this one. A user agent switcher allows you to “disguise” your browser so that it appears to be running on a different platform. For example, I can have my browser appear to be running on iOS, or on Firefox for Windows, Mac, or Ubuntu. There are a couple dozen options I can choose from. I have found this very helpful in two distinct circumstances.
The first I found while downloading an audio book file from Audible, but this could possibly help with other services that force a download agent for wonderful, beautiful DRM. Audible requires users to use their download manager to download the books you buy, which was not made to be installed on a Chromebook. Luckily, Audible doesn’t make this available for Linux users, either. If you’re on Ubuntu Linux for example, you can just download your file. So, activate your user agent switcher, tell it you’re on Ubuntu, and voila, you can download a file of your audio book (albeit in a DRM heavy file type).
The second is more of a slight inconvenience, but it fixes a small issue with some websites. I’ve noticed that some sites think I’m browsing on Chrome for mobile, so they serve me up the mobile version of the website when I’d much rather have the full desktop version. A user agent switcher fixes this, because you can just specify that this is incorrect.
Not Going Back
There are so many Chrome OS features that I’ve grown to love over these past three months. While there are some things I need to work around, the security, stability, and simplicity of these machines are well worth it. I’m not even to the point where I can use Android apps on this model of Chromebook yet, so it’s hard to imagine what my experience will be like once that happens. But I think it’s safe to say that, combined with these above, my computing experience will be an entirely different story than it has been in the past.