Chromebook tips and extensions

Open Book

Article from Issue 178/2015
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Get the most out of your Chromebook with these tips, tricks, useful open source extensions, and apps.

Chromebook's simplicity means that you can master its basics in a matter of minutes. To get the most out of it, however, you might want to learn about Chromebook's less obvious features and turbocharge the Chrome browser by adding extensions and apps. This article will help you with both.

Bag of Tips and Tricks

No matter what you use the Chromebook for, you will sooner or later need to take screenshots, and Chrome OS conveniently provides two keyboard shortcuts for that. The Ctrl+Cmd (the Command key has an icon that looks like stacked windows) shortcut lets you take a screenshot of the entire screen, whereas the Ctrl+Shift+Cmd key combination can be used to take a screenshot of a selected area. The Command key is also useful for getting a quick overview of all opened windows and switching between them. Press and hold the Command key to evoke a window overview and switch to the desired window by touching it.

Because Chromebooks lack the dedicated Caps Lock and Delete keys, their roles are relegated to keyboard shortcuts: The Alt+Bksp (backspace) key combo replaces the Delete key, and Alt+Search toggles the all-caps mode. The same applies to the Page Up/Down and Home/End keys: Their functions are performed by the Alt+Arrow Up/Arrow Down and Ctrl+Alt+Arrow Up/Arrow Down shortcuts.

If your Chromebook misbehaves and a hard reboot is the only option, use the Power+Refresh keyboard shortcut. Keep in mind, though, that doing a hard reboot means losing all unsaved changes. This is, of course, only a fraction of the keyboard shortcuts supported by Chrome OS, and the dedicated page on the Chromebook help website [1] offers a full list of available key combinations.

The Launcher in Chrome OS can be used not only for launching apps and performing searches: It can also act as a simple calculator (Figure 1). Simply start typing the equation you want to calculate, and the Launcher immediately displays the result. The calculator can do simple unit conversions, too.

Figure 1: You can use the Launcher as a simple calculator.

An Internet connection is essential for doing any meaningful work on a Chromebook, and if you are experiencing issues with your network connection, the Chrome Connectivity Diagnostics app [2] can be an indispensable troubleshooting tool (Figure 2). It automatically runs a series of tests that check for common connectivity issues, port blocking, and network latency. The results can help you to identify and fix possible issues.

Figure 2: Chrome Connectivity Diagnostics tool can help troubleshoot network issues.

As a power user, you probably know that you can evoke the command-line shell using the Ctrl+Alt+T keyboard shortcut, typing shell, and pressing Enter. But, did you know that you can use the shell to connect to remote hosts via SSH? This functionality can be useful when you need to administer a remote server or use a Linux machine for specific tasks. This way, you can deploy something like a Raspberry Pi on your local network, connect to it from your Chromebook, and make use of a full Linux system without installing anything on your machine. To establish an SSH connection, use the regular ssh <user@remotehost> command, replacing user and remotehost with the actual username and IP address of the remote server. You can also use the -p parameter to specify an alternative port.

Finally, if you want the latest and greatest features and improvements before they arrive in the stable version of Chrome OS, you can switch to the Beta channel (Figure 3). To do this, choose Settings and click the About Chrome OS link. In the About box, click the More info link, press the Change channel button, and switch to the Beta channel.

Figure 3: Switch to the Beta channel to get the latest Chrome OS updates.

Turbocharging Chrome with Extensions and Apps

Many extensions and apps can transform Chrome from a regular browser to a computing environment tailored to your particular needs. Of course, which modules and apps you choose to install depends largely on your specific requirements, but there are several must-have pieces you might want to add no matter what you use your Chromebook for. For example, ad-blocking extensions and privacy tools should be at the top of your list.

Although AdBlock and AdBlock Plus are among the most popular ad-blocking extensions in the Chrome Web Store, the uBlock Origin [3] app provides an alternative that offers the same functionality in a smaller and more resource-efficient package (Figure 4). uBlock Origin features a smaller memory footprint and numerous speed optimizations, which translates into more efficient and faster ad blocking. Privacy Badger [4] is another must-have extension that prevents third-party services from tracking your online activities (Figure 5). Once installed, the extension automatically blocks third-party cookies that may track you without your consent.

Figure 4: uBlock Origin is a lightweight and efficient ad blocker.
Figure 5: Privacy Badger blocks third-party tracking cookies.

The default new tab screen in Chrome does the job, but several extensions can turn it into a hub of useful information. The Elegant New Tab extension [5], for example, adds a dash of style to the new tab screen and populates it with several useful widgets (Figure 6). The Agenda view features the clock/calendar and task widgets, a search bar, and a list of the most visited websites. Switch to the Weather view, and the extension presents you with the current weather conditions in your location. Elegant New Tab features a rather nice default background photo, which you can easily replace with your own picture.

Figure 6: Elegant New Tab adds some style and useful information to the new tab screen.

Rubber New Tab [6] is another extension that can improve the new tab screen by turning it into a handy dashboard (Figure 7). Once installed, the extension adds default info bars to the new tab page, including current date and time, new email message count (it supports Gmail only), weather conditions, browser history, and news. The screen also conveniently lists all installed Chrome apps, and the links in the lower right corner give you quick access to bookmarks, Chrome pages, and Google Chrome Web Store. If the default bars are not enough, you can add other items, such as Google News, Reddit Inbox, RSS feed, and others. You can also rearrange added bars as well as modify their settings.

Figure 7: Rubber New Tab transforms the new tab screen into a handy dashboard.

Speaking of tabs, if you are looking for a somewhat unconventional way to manage opened tabs, you might want to try TabToDo [7]. This extension allows you to treat opened tabs as to-do items, which effectively turns the browser into a rather unusual task manager (Figure 8). TabToDo displays a list of all opened tabs and lets you to give each tab a descriptive name. Thus, you can rename a tab with an interesting article into a "Read this article" item and a tab with an Amazon book page to "Buy this book." You can then rearrange the to-do items by their priority. This extension based on a seemingly simple idea may prove to be just the tool you need to manage dozens of tabs in a more efficient manner and get some work done in the process.

Figure 8: TabToDo treats tabs as to-do items.

A solid text editor is another indispensable tool in your productivity toolbox, and you can choose from several text editing apps depending on your needs. If your writing activities involve mainly working with Markdown-formatted texts, a dedicated Markdown editor is what you need. In that case, you can't go wrong with Mado [8]. It's not the most advanced Markdown editor out there, but Mado features a slick interface and just the right amount of features (Figure 9). Mado can open and save local files, and it can handle both Markdown-formatted and plain text files. The editor's clean and slick interface puts all the essential commands at your fingertips, and the preview functionality allows you to view the formatting in real time. It includes a word count feature, and all commands in the editor have keyboard shortcuts assigned to them.

Figure 9: Mado is a slick Markdown editor.

Chrome OS doesn't support popular protocols like Samba, WebDAV, and SFTP, so when you need to edit a file on a remote server, you are out of luck – unless you deploy the SFTP app [9]. Once installed, it enables you to mount a remote filesystem on your Chromebook (provided the remote host runs an SSH server like OpenSSH). The app is essentially a one-trick pony, and it's supremely easy to use: Launch the app, specify the required connection info in the dialog box, and press Mount to see the remote filesystem in the Files app (Figure 10).

Figure 10: SFTP app enables you to mount remote filesystems on your Chromebook.

Installing Minimal Linux with Crouton

Although Chrome OS is based on Linux, it can't do everything a full-fledged Linux distribution can do. Take backup, for example. Practically all regular Linux distros come with the excellent rsync tool that lets you run simple and advanced backup operations. On Chromebook, you are limited to copying files manually using the default file manager, Google Drive, or a third-party file storage service.

Deploying a Linux distribution on your Chromebook then is the next logical step in expanding its functionality, and there is probably no easier way to do that than using Crouton [10]. This versatile script offers a wide range of options for deploying different Ubuntu variants on your Chromebook. If you are not interested in learning all Crouton's intricacies, however, the following is a quick way to deploy a minimal Ubuntu installation that plays nicely with Chrome OS.

Start by installing the Crouton Integration extension [11], which provides integration with Chrome OS and enables URL handling, notifications, and clipboard synchronization in Crouton. Next, download the latest version of Crouton using the https://goo.gl/fd3zc link. In the Chrome browser, press Ctrl+Alt+T, type shell, and press Enter to launch the shell. Then, run the

sudo sh ~/Downloads/crouton -t extension

command to install the minimal version of Ubuntu. Run sudo enter-chroot to enter the chroot environment, and you can use the installed distro in a normal manner. The best part is that Crouton doesn't modify Chrome OS in any way, and you can remove the installed Linux distro at any time.

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