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Everyone comes into their personal computing situations in different ways. For me, a lifelong Windows user with a powerful primary laptop that needed a lightweight and quick secondary laptop, I gravitated toward a Chromebook. But whether you're a seasoned veteran of this platform or the other and you've brought a Chromebook into your life, you might be looking for ways to tailor the experience to your needs and habits — we've got some tips for that.

Keyboard and trackpad tips

Using ChromeOS requires a bit of hybrid intuition — we're talking about your desktop or laptop device and your phone — and this applies to moving around the software.

The Chromebook keyboard and trackpad experience take a freeform jazz approach, if you will. You'll likely first notice that the Launcher key — or Search key if your device is a bit older (equivalent to the Windows or Option key on the bottom row) — is in the place where Caps Lock would be. You might also be surprised by the top row of shortcut keys taking over for the function keys. And you'll be especially confused clicking around if you're trying to right-click.

Here's a little cheat sheet for how to get around:

  • Right-clicking: Use two fingers to tap or click the trackpad.
  • Scrolling: Use two fingers to swipe up and down the trackpad.
  • Back and forward: If you're browsing Chrome, use two fingers to swipe left and go back a page or swipe right to go forward a page
    • Be careful if you're scrolling horizontally. Once you hit the left or right boundary of a page, you will trigger the back and forward shortcut intent.
  • Switch Chrome tabs: Use three fingers to swipe left and right between your Chrome tabs.
  • Switch windows: Use three fingers and swipe up to access Overview, which assembles all your windows in one view. Swiping down takes you to your last open window.
  • Caps Lock: Press Launcher/Search (⌾ or 🔍) + Alt to turn it on or off. You'll know the feature is on if you see a modified caret symbol below in your shelf (what Windows calls the taskbar).
    The Caps Lock indicator on ChromeOS is a symbol containing a caret above a horizontal line, located to the right of the time.
  • Screenshots: You may have a dedicated screenshot key (⧇) that takes you to a rich screen clipping interface, but if you're just looking for a shortcut to take a full screenshot, press Ctrl + Show windows (□ǁ).
  • F-keys (function keys): This can be tricky. Hold the Launcher/Search key and then press the top-row shortcut key corresponding to the F-number you want. If you want F2, press the second shortcut key (typically either → or ↻). There are a few things worth noting about this, however:
    • Ordination excludes Launcher/Search + Esc — this is a dedicated shortcut that brings up ChromeOS's task manager.
    • You can invert the Launcher/Search hold requirement for how you access the function and shortcut keys by heading to Settings > Devices > Keyboard and then clicking the toggle next to Treat top-row keys as function keys. Having this setting turned on means accessing the shortcuts now requires holding the Launcher/Search key.
    • Some keyboards have fewer than 12 shortcut keys, meaning that you won't be able to access F12 without attaching an external keyboard.
  • Reassign keyboard/trackpad functions: If you don't like how some parts of the navigation experience are working, you can change them by heading to Settings > Devices and then choosing the following submenus:
    • Touchpad: There are toggles for tap-to-click, tap dragging, touchpad scroll speed, and others depending on the hardware.
    • Keyboard: You can switch the functions for Launcher/Search, Ctrl, Alt, Esc, and Backspace keys in addition to toggling top-row function key access.

I've found these reminders to be the most impactful in my Windows-to-ChromeOS experience, but the platform does support a boatload of other little tricks that you can pick up for yourself by opening up the Keyboard Shortcut Helper with Ctrl + Alt + / (forward slash). XDA also has extra tips on how you should configure the settings on your Chromebook.

Launcher, window, and desk tips

Managing your virtual workspace on a Chromebook is important. But the process shouldn't get in the way of the important things you want to do.

Overview on ChromeOS, which manages access to the user's desks.
  • Desks: If you use virtual desktops to manage your work, you can do it on ChromeOS, too. Using three fingers, swipe up to access Overview. At the top of the screen, you'll see a bar for virtual desks. You can add them, close them, and switch between them. You also have the option to save your current desk for later — that desk can be closed to save on computing resources in the meantime.
  • Docking or split-screening windows: Click on the top of the window and drag it to the left or right edges of the screen to dock and fill that respective half of the screen. You can also drag it to the top edge and bring the window fullscreen.
Performing a search through ChromeOS's launcher.
  • Launcher Search: Open your launcher and use the search bar at the top to look for not just apps, but any file or setting on your device or even a Chrome tab that you've got open (and hidden in a window you can't find).
  • Sort your Launcher: For the longest time, ChromeOS's launcher didn't support custom sorting for apps. That's changed, thankfully.
    • Move apps: Click, hold, and then move the app to the position in the launcher you'd prefer.
    • Sort apps: Right-click on any open space within the launcher. You will be able to choose to order apps by names alphabetically or by color.
    • Pin to shelf: You can set apps to launch right from the shelf by right-clicking on an app in the launcher and selecting "Pin to shelf."

App, game, and file tips

You might be missing out on some of the functionality you had on Windows or Mac with their vast ecosystem of programs. ChromeOS does get you most of the way there through Android and web apps, but sometimes you will want to use a program that you're missing from Windows.

Linux apps

A ChromeOS window for setting up the Linux development environment.

One way you can expand the app selection on ChromeOS is to use Linux apps. Yes, that means setting up Linux. No, you don't have to dread the process.

Here's how to get started:

  1. Go to Settings > Advanced > Developers.
  2. Under Linux development environment, select Turn on.
  3. In the installation process, you'll need to provide a username to register with the Linux environment (not that important) and allocate disk space to the environment's partition (important, but this can be adjusted later on in the same developer settings page).
  4. Once that's done, a terminal window will open. This will be the main interface for your virtual Linux machine, called Penguin.
  5. For future access, head to your Launcher and look for the folder labeled Linux Apps. Select Terminal, then penguin. The terminal as well as Linux apps you've installed will also appear in the Continue where you left off row.

ChromeOS runs a virtual Debian 11 (codename "bullseye") environment and supports the instant installation of DEB files. Just double-click on them and then click Install in the opened prompt. There are other methods of downloading Linux apps including through various repositories like Wine. The least fussy way is through APT repos, and we have a comprehensive tutorial on how to install Linux apps on ChromeOS to help you out in that direction.

Make sure any files you want to use with Linux apps are moved into the Linux partition.


A Chromebook running Deep Rock Galactic from the Steam on ChromeOS beta.

ChromeOS supports various cloud gaming services including Xbox Game Pass and Nvidia GeForce Now. But if you've amassed an illustrious library on Steam, you may be able to play some or all of your games from there as the platform is available on ChromeOS in beta. That said, you will need to make sure you've got a capable machine and be willing to jump through a few hoops.

Steam on ChromeOS supports Chromebooks running either an AMD Ryzen (5000 C-Series or later) or an Intel Core processor (12th generation or later). Google recommends at least a Ryzen 5 or i5 with 16GB of RAM for an optimal experience, but the minimum spec is for a Ryzen 3 or i3 with 8GB of RAM.

To install Steam, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Settings > About ChromeOS > Additional details and then, under Channels, switch to Beta. You'll then need to restart your Chromebook.
  2. Open a Chrome window and enter chrome://flags#borealis-enabled.
  3. Flip the toggle for the Enable Borealis flag to Enabled. Once again, you will have to restart your device.
    • If you don't see this flag appear at the top of the window, your machine does not support the Steam for ChromeOS beta.
  4. Open the Launcher and search for "Steam." Select the top result for Steam and follow the installation prompts.

After that's done, you should be able to open Steam, sign in with your account, and download games in your library that have a Linux version. You'll be surprised at how far you'll get — I've been getting by with the Android version of Civilization VI, but the Steam version works half-decently and supports multiplayer games.


A ChromeOS desk featuring the ChromeOS file browser and a Linux-based one called Nemo.

The file browser on ChromeOS may be a little basic for your needs, so you'll need to setup up your Linux environment in order to install an alternate file browser like Nemo or Dolphin.

To get it, all you have to do is open your Terminal and execute:

sudo apt install nemo\\ orsudo apt install dolphin

You'll then need to allow your Linux-based file manager to browse files on your primary partition:

  1. From the ChromeOS file browser, right-click on the Downloads folder and select Share with Linux.
  2. Switch to your Linux file manager, and you should be able to open up your Chromebook's overall file system. Your primary partition files are stored in the directory /mnt/chromeos/.

These are just some of the things I've grown to know about ChromeOS coming out of the Windows camp. I still do plenty with Windows, thank you very much, but jumping between Chromebooks on top of that gives me a better sense of how messy computing can really be.

There are many millions of Chromebook owners out there who feel limited by what they think they can do. They shouldn't feel that way. There's a wealth of online resources that can help them get to what they want to do with their surprisingly powerful laptop. And if you're just coming to grips with your experience on ChromeOS, I'm glad you've turned to us to get started.