Chrome open source apps and extensions

Chrome Stuffing

Article from Issue 167/2014
Author(s):

Transform the Chrome and Chromium browsers into productivity powerhouses with open source apps and extensions.

With the right apps and extensions, you can transform the Chrome and Chromium browsers into powerful and flexible productivity platforms that can handle practically any task you throw at them: from text editing and coding, to reading ebooks and managing tasks. Although you'll find a lot of closed source and paid offerings in the Chrome Web Store, plenty of excellent open source apps and extensions are also worth installing.

Text Editors Galore

Whether you need a simple app for jotting down notes and drafting articles or a text editor for serious coding, you can choose from several open source apps. Text [1] is probably the simplest text editor for Chrome out there, so it will appeal to users looking for a minimalist tool. Despite its apparent simplicity, however, Text has a handful of useful features (Figure 1). The editor runs offline, and you can use it to open and save local text files. The editor lets you open multiple files and easily switch between them.

Figure 1: The Text editor can come in handy for editing occasional text files.

On Chrome OS, the app allows you to save files to Google Drive. The editor supports syntax highlighting for popular programming and markup languages, including Markdown, PHP, Python, Bash, and others. Other creature comforts include line wrap, smart indentation, and a simple search feature. Although Text doesn't offer advanced functionality essential for working with text, it can still come in handy when you occasionally need to tweak some code or draft an article.

If you often work with Markdown-formatted text files, you might want to opt for a dedicated Markdown app like Light Markdown Editor [2]. As the name suggests, this app includes only the bare essentials, such as line numbering and real-time preview (Figure 2). The editor can't open and save files in a traditional sense. Instead, it uses four slots in the browser's local storage to save text. These slots act as text containers, and you can easily switch between them using the dedicated buttons in the editor's main toolbar.

Figure 2: Light Markdown Editor is a simple tool with a few useful features.

The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to save modifications explicitly (this happens automatically), and you can use the editor offline. Light Markdown Editor offers two ways to extract text from the editor. Pressing the Save .md button in the main toolbar downloads the text as a Markdown-formatted .md file, and the Export to HTML button exports the text into the HTML format.

If Light Markdown Editor is too limited for your needs, take a look at Dillinger [3]. This extension is basically a wrapper for the dillinger.io service, so you need an Internet connection to use it. Dillinger features several creature comforts that most users find handy. For starters, the editor has a word count feature, an essential tool for most writing professionals (Figure 3). The auto-save feature (enabled by default) ensures that you won't lose your work, and you can customize the editor's appearance by selecting one of the many available themes. You can open existing Markdown files in the editor as well as create new ones.

Figure 3: Dillinger is probably the most feature-rich web-based Markdown editor.

Better still, the editor supports several popular services, including Dropbox, Google Drive, and GitHub. When you link the editor to any of these services, you can open files, edit them, and save them back to the linked service. In addition to standard Markdown, the editor also supports GitHub Flavored Markdown as well as HTML. Commands tucked under the Utilities menu allow you to export the currently opened file in the Markdown, HTML, and PDF formats.

Text, Light Markdown Editor, and Dillinger are all decent apps, but they can't replace a dedicated heavy-duty desktop text editor. Caret [4] can. This app is modeled after Sublime Text, a text editor that is hugely popular with developers. And, although Caret offers only a subset of Sublime Text's functionality, it's still a rather capable and flexible text editor. To begin with, Caret is infinitely customizable. Configuring Caret is a matter of editing options in the JSON-formatted files where all the editor's settings are stored.

To tweak basic user settings, choose Settings | User Preferences. This opens the user.json file where you can tweak the available options. Here, you can change the default theme, specify a custom font (Caret currently supports only monospaced fonts), toggle the auto-completion feature, and so on. If you want to edit the default key shortcuts, you can do this by editing the keys.json file accessible via the Settings | Keyboard menu. The clever part is that all settings are automatically synced across all Chrome and Chromium installations linked to the user account.

Caret is aimed primarily at developers and offers all key features that make coding more efficient (Figure 4). Commands under the Edit menu can be used to manipulate text, and the Tools menu gives you access to navigation and macro recording commands. As you would expect, practically all commands in the editor have keyboard shortcuts, but you don't have to remember them all. The handy Open Command Palette command (or the Ctrl+Shift+P keyboard shortcut) evokes a command prompt where you can quickly find and execute the desired command.

Figure 4: Inspired by Sublime Text, Caret is loaded with features that make it a decent coding editor.

Caret supports tabs, which makes it easier to work with multiple text files. Additionally, the text editor can handle projects consisting of multiple files and directories. To create a project, choose Project | Add Directory and select the desired directory. You can then navigate through the project files and folders in the left sidebar. To save the project's profile, use the Project | Save Project File command. Although Caret lacks some of Sublime Text's advanced functionality, it does provide support for rather useful features like multiple selections and multiple cursors. To create multiple cursors, press and hold the Ctrl key and use the mouse to create cursors in the desired locations. In a similar manner, you can make multiple selections: Press and hold the Ctrl key, then select multiple text fragments.

Although Caret is designed for developers, the text editor features tools that are handy for other users, too. These includes the ever-handy word count feature, find and replace functionality, auto-completion, and Go to commands that can be useful for navigating through long texts and multiple files.

Beyond Text Editors

Of course, daily computing is rarely limited to text editing, and other useful apps and extensions are worth adding to your productivity toolbox. Keeping tabs on passwords for various websites can be a real pain, unless you have a decent password manager. Padlock [5] might not be the most advanced password app out there, but it lets you manage passwords with consummate ease.

The app allows you to import existing data in the CSV format, which makes it easier to migrate from another password management tool. When adding a new record, you can define custom fields. You can also synchronize data between multiple Padlock installations (Figure 5), but you need to link the app to the Padlock Cloud service for that. Fortunately, this process is rather straightforward. In Padlock, switch to the Settings section and click Connect to Padlock Cloud. Specify your email address and device name, then press OK. Use the link sent to the specified email address to confirm the request, and you are done.

Figure 5: Padlock is a minimalist password manager that supports sync.

Do you want to read ebooks without leaving the convenience of the browser? Readium [6] has you covered. This app turns Chrome and Chromium into a no-frills ebook reader that can handle EPUB files (Figure 6). Although Readium lacks some useful features like bookmarking, highlighting, and synchronization, the app does provide all the essentials, such as support for a table of contents, keyboard shortcuts, and a customizable appearance. Because Readium is not overloaded with features, using the app is as easy as it gets: Use the Add to Library button to add ebooks to the reader, then open the ebook you want to read by clicking on it. The Settings button opens the Settings dialog where you can tweak the available options like font size, margins, text, background colors, scroll mode, and page effects.

Figure 6: Use Readium to peruse ebooks from the convenience of the browser.

When it comes to minimalist task managers, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more simple tool than Lithium [7]. It lets you add and remove tasks – and that's pretty much it (Figure 7). It does, however, sync tasks across all linked browser instances. The complete lack of embellishments means that Lithium is only good for maintaining a simple task list, but that is quite often all you need.

Figure 7: Lithium is a super simple tool for managing a task list.

Plenty of apps and tools let you set up a group chat, but almost none of them guarantee your privacy. Enter Cryptocat [8], an app that lets you communicate with other users securely (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Cryptocat lets you set up a secure chat.

Cryptocat is available for other browsers and platforms, so you can communicate with users who don't use Chrome or Chromium. Using Cryptocat is as easy as it gets. Launch the app, pick a name for the conversation (think of it as a chat room), specify your nickname, and press Connect. Other users can then join the conversation by entering the conversation's name in the appropriate field in the connection dialog. Cryptocat can also piggyback onto Facebook Messenger, so instead of setting up a dedicated conversation, you can use Cryptocat to chat securely with your Facebook friends.

A Quick Extension Roundup

Although AdBlock Plus and its derivatives are the most popular extensions for blocking ads, µBlock [9] provides an excellent alternative. This ad blocker is designed to be light on resources, which makes it a perfect extension for Chromebooks or Chrome and Chromium browsers running on limited hardware. The extension uses the same blocking lists as AdBlock, so µBlock is at least as efficient at blocking ads as its alternatives. Whereas µBlock removes annoying ads, Disconnect [10] stops other sites from tracking you. This feature not only improves your privacy, but also makes pages load faster.

For even better privacy protection, you might want to add Privacy Badger [11] to the mix. If you find the default new tab page lacking, you'll appreciate the Humble New Tab Page extension [12]. Once installed, the extension transforms the new tab page into a dashboard that gives you quick access to bookmarks and apps (Figure 9). Using the available options, you can tweak the default layout and appearance of the page. Finally, the Real-Time Tab Sync extension [13] can come in handy when you want to keep tabs in sync on all linked browsers.

Figure 9: Humble New Tab Page turns a new tab into a useful dashboard.

Infos

  1. Text: http://is.gd/M14zpA
  2. Light Markdown Editor: http://is.gd/ZI46Tf
  3. Dillinger: http://is.gd/sM3x92
  4. Caret: http://thomaswilburn.net/caret
  5. Padlock: http://padlock.io
  6. Readium: http://readium.org
  7. Lithium: http://is.gd/JXuSJ5
  8. Cryptocat: http://crypto.cat
  9. µBlock: http://is.gd/0lNZUA
  10. Disconnect: http://is.gd/jdblOz
  11. Privacy Badger: http://is.gd/sH7KDv
  12. Humble New Tab Page: http://is.gd/EXQaVB
  13. Real-Time Tab Sync: http://is.gd/GTEAi9

The Author

Dmitri Popov has been writing exclusively about Linux and open source software for many years, and his articles have appeared in Danish, British, US, German, Spanish, and Russian magazines and websites. Dmitri is an amateur photographer, and he writes about open source photography tools on his Scribbles and Snaps blog at http://scribblesandsnaps.com.

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