Five things I really like about ChromeOS

I saw my first Chromebook, the original Cr48, over 10 years ago. I’ve deployed them into my own school with great success. And I now use them as my primary computing device every day. As a Mac user for many years, an occasional dabbler in Linux, and a Windows user for many more before that, I found the simplicity and ease of use of ChromeOS a refreshing and welcome change.

Despite initially seeing a Chromebook as an easy alternative for a bit of web browsing, it took me a while to get to the point where I could see it as a viable option for my primary computer. Despite finding myself regularly using my Chromebook to present at conferences and workshops, I’d bring my MacBook along “just in case”. Eventually, after a lot of travelling around the world carrying two computers, I realised that I almost never used the Mac anymore, and I actually preferred to use the Chromebook. I still remember packing for a trip one day, and looking at my MacBook on the desk and thinking “should I or shouldn’t I take it?” I didn’t. The world didn’t end.

It’s funny how we can become so attached to an operating system, to the point where we convince ourselves that we can’t possibly adjust to a new one. I remember when I switched from Windows to Mac, I agonised over the decision. I overanalyzed it, made lists of all the apps I used to ensure there was an equivalent on the Mac side. Then when I made the switch, I wondered why I waited so long. And it was the same as I started to use a Chromebook more. “What if I need to do X and the Chromebook can’t?” I’d think. It took me a while to get to the point where I could let it go, but once I did, and adopted the Chromebook as my daily driver, I have never really looked back.

Here are 5 things about ChromeOS that I would miss a lot if I had to go back to a conventional operating system.

A keyboard that makes sense

One of the first things you notice about a Chromebook is that there are different keys on the keyboard. The usual row of function keys is replaced with a set of keys that do the kinds of things a modern web user would want – a back button, refresh button, buttons for going full screen and exposing all the current windows, as well as buttons for adjusting brightness and volume. (If you really want the function keys back, you can switch them back in the settings) The Caps Lock key is missing too, but I’ve always thought it was a useless addition to a keyboard. Again, if you really want it you can enable it in the settings, or just press the alt key to get it.

The other nice thing about the keys is that they are shown in lowercase letters. For young users this is great, as they can better recognise the letters, but even for me I find the lowercase letters just provide a sense of calm and simplicity. I saw a Windows keyboard recently and really felt a sense of busyness with the uppercase letters and so many keys also marked with additional functions. The Chromebook keyboard has a real zen feel about it.

I really like the way the keyboard feels on my Chromebooks. Maybe I’m just comparing them to the ridiculously awful keyboard on my MacBook Pro, which is without question the worst typing experience I’ve ever had.

There are a ton of awesome keyboard shortcuts too. Just press the ctrl+alt+/ keys to see a fully searchable list of shortcuts, or check out this list.

The Everything Button

Ok, I know this is still part of the keyboard, but it’s such a big deal it gets its own mention. The “Everything Button” as it’s called (or sometimes just referred to as the Search key) is so incredibly useful, I can’t imagine not having it. Pressing it once brings up a search field, where entering a search term will search your device, your apps, your settings and even the web.

Tapping the Everything Button and typing the first few letters of, say, the word ‘classroom’ will let you immediately open Google Classroom. Just type ‘cla’ and press enter and you’re in the app within seconds.

Typing the word ‘hello” might offer you a link to a video of Adele performing her song of that name, a link to an online website such as hellofresh.com, or a chance to say hello to the Google Assistant.

Starting to type the word ‘lesson’ presents me with the list of documents stored in my Google Drive that contain the word lesson.

And of course if you just want to search the web, just tap the Everything button and type your search query instead of heading over to Google.com.

Once you get used to having search so deeply embedded into the operating system you won’t go back.

Multiple Copy and Paste

Usually when you copy something on your computer it replaces the last thing you copied. Typically most computers can only store the last thing you copied, making it annoying if you are doing a lot of copying and pasting.

On a Chromebook the usual cut and paste system applies – ctrl+c for copy, ctrl-v for paste. But if you use the Everything Key (let’s call it ‘search’ for simplicity) when you paste – so search+v – then you’ll get an option to paste any of the past 5 things you copied! And not just the last 5 pieces of text either. If you copied a picture, or a table, or some formatted text, it lets you paste exactly what you copied.

Somewhat related (although not exclusive to ChromeOS) it’s also worth noting that if you use shift+ctrl+v when you paste, your pasted text assumes the formatting of the location you’re pasting it into. So if you copy a piece of text that is, say, red 16pt Georgia bold, and paste into a block of text that is black 12pt Arial italic, the pasted Georgia text will become the same size, colour and format as the Arial text it’s being pasted into. Handy!

Accessibility options for everyone

ChromeOS has some amazing accessibility options, all built-in right at the operating system level. From ChromeVox, the built-in screen reader for people with vision impairment, to simple and easy to use screen magnifiers, resizable cursors and highlight tools, dictation mode, select to speak, mono audio and more, every Chromebook comes with a ton of built-in customisations to allow every user to tailor the experience to best suit themselves.

It highlights the fact that accessibility doesn’t just mean catering to people with disabilities or special needs (although it certainly does do this). It means providing options to make the Chromebook work in ways that make the most sense, with the most usability, for every user.

It just works.

Honestly the best thing about Chromebooks is that they just work. The operating system gets out of the way because it’s light and simple and obvious. You don’t get constantly interrupted with updates that disrupt your workflow or make you wait for hours before you can use your computer. Updates just happen in the background, and won’t bug you.

I really like the fact that Chromebooks are based on the user not the device, which means that whatever device you log into, all your stuff is there. So if you want to work on multiple Chromebooks, or have your students share a set of Chromebooks, or even if you lose one and have to get another, once you log in again all your stuff is there. Documents, bookmarks, extensions, settings, everything. It is literally like being on the same machine.

Starting your Chromebook takes about 8 seconds to get to the login screen, and then another few seconds once you log in. The slowest part is typing in your password, although if you have your phone paired to your Chromebook you can just unlock your phone (usually with your fingerprint) and then tap the Chromebook login screen and you’re in. And once you’re in, the battery just keeps going and going and going and going.

So there you go, that’s five things. As I read back over what I’ve written, I realise how much of a Chromebook fanboy I sound like, and perhaps I am. But if a regular person asked me to recommend a computer for them, unless they had a really specific reason or use case for needing Windows or Mac, it would take a lot for me to recommend anything but a Chromebook. They really are the right computer for the vast majority of regular people that just want to get online and get stuff done without the computer getting in the way all the time.

I haven’t even touched on the way Chromebooks can be managed centrally through the admin console, so maybe I’ll write another post on that sometime and why these devices make so much sense for schools.

What’s in your Extension list? Part 1

One of the nice things about Chrome is how easily it can be enhanced with powerful and useful extensions. Extensions give the Chrome browser additional “superpowers” that it doesn’t have by default, giving you the ability to add some really useful extra features to Chrome to suit the way you use your computer.

Here are some of my favourite extensions, in no particular order…

Extensity – The one extension to rule them all, Extensity is an extension manager that gives you the ability to easily enable or disable your extensions. I find myself installing far more extensions than I really need to use at any one time, so I like to turn off any that I don’t need to use right now. It’s as easy as clicking on their name. Extensity also has a “master switch” to turn them all off, which is handy for those few times when you might need to troubleshoot some rogue extension that could be causing trouble.

Text Blaze – A amazingly useful text expander that can take a few keystrokes and expand them out to a full word, phrase, sentence or more. You decide on your shortcut and it magically expands it in full whenever you type it. Great for emails, or any documents where you find yourself typing the same things over and over.

Clipboard History Pro – You know those times when you’re doing a lot of cutting and pasting, and wish you could go back and retrieve the second last, third last (or more) thing that was on your clipboard? With Clipboard History Pro you can. It remembers everything you cut (or copy) and you can easily retrieve it from the list. You can even create a favourites list of things you commonly need to paste.

Screencastify – A really handy and easy to use screen recorder for Chrome. It’s great because it integrates so well with Google Drive, and because it works directly in Chrome it is perfect for Chromebooks. The premium version is affordable and even has a built in video editor tool.

Be Awake – A simple utility that prevents your Chromebook from going to sleep. Just toggle it off or on as needed. Really basic but very useful.

OneTab – It’s too easy to accumulate lots and lots of open tabs in Chrome. OneTab can help reduce tab clutter by gathering all open tabs into a handy list, which can then be saved, shared or restored. I also like to save my open tabs at the end of a busy day so I can revisit anything important later.

The Great Suspender – Another neat tab mangement tool that puts unused tabs to sleep after a predetermined time to help save memory and system resources. As soon as you return to the tab it instantly wakes again. There are lots of these kinds of extensions in the WebStore, but this was one of the first to do this.

Full Page Screen Capture – Most operating systems have built in keyboard shortcuts for taking screenshots, and most give you the option of grabbing the full screen or just a specific region. But things get trickier when I want to capture a long page that goes “below the fold” such as a long scrolling webpage.  This extension solves that.

Marinara – If you use the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused on tasks, this Chrome based Pomodoro timer is very nice. It has the standard Pomodoro timings by default, but you can customise it if you want to.  I like the way it keeps a full history of completed units.  If you don’t know about the Pomodoro Technique, check it out.

Mote – Mote lets you add voice recordings to comments in Google Docs. It adds simple one-click recording to add a voice comment.  There are other ways to do this, but Mote is by far the simplest.

Bitly – Google Docs typically have very long URLs so I find myself making them into short URLs quite. I like using bit.ly for that.  This extension makes it really simple to create a bitly address (which can be fully customised) in just a few clicks.

AdBlockPlus – Because ads can be really annoying! However, many websites also rely on ads for revenue so I whitelist a lot of sites where the ads are not too intrusive, but it’s good to be able to block the really annoying ones.  Also blocks ads on Facebook and YouTube too.

Emoji Keyboard – Sometimes you want to add an emoji to your text and this extension makes it really easy. Just search, choose and paste. Super fun and easy! 

QR Code Generator –  A really quick and simple no-frills way to generate a QR code from the current webpage as a PNG file. Just click and save to your Chromebook

Share to Classroom – If you are a Google Classroom user you should definitely have this one installed on all school machines. You can push webpages to all classroom computers in just a couple of clicks, and turn any webpage into an assignment, question or material, simply and immediately.

Speedtest – Because sometimes I just need to know how fast the network is.

That’s just a few of my favourites but there are, literally, thousands to choose from. As you can see, many of the ones I like are focused on improving productivity and efficiency, but take some time to browse or search through the Chrome Webstore and you are sure to find extensions ideally suited to the way you work or to meet your specific needs.

What extensions do you llike? Let me know in the comments!

Do you want me to write a part 2 list?

10 Multimedia Things you can do on a Chromebook

Chromebooks have become (and continue to be) an important computing platform in many schools across the world. With speed, simplicity, and reliability as their goal, many schools have adopted Chromebooks as the ideal computer for students. A low price is often touted as the reason for their success, but I think low price is simply a benefit, not a feature. While it’s nice that Chromebooks are relatively cheap, to see them as simply “cheap computers” is to entirely miss the point. Chromebooks are succeeding for many other reasons that go far beyond price.

One of the myths about Chromebooks is that they are not very good for working with rich media such as audio, video, and graphics. While GSuite gives us marvelous tools for the core functions of word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations with Docs, Sheets, and Slides, there is clearly much more that we’d like students to be able to do with these machines.

Obviously, because of the way Chromebooks are designed to work, a stable Internet connection is pretty important for using any of these applications, and it’s fair to say that if a school has poor connectivity then that would need to be addressed first before any large scale Chromebook adoption can successfully happen. However, it’s probably also fair to say that even conventional Mac or Windows computers are far less useful without being connected to the internet, so regardless of which computing platform you choose, having a good solid internet connection is an important place to start!

Creating multimedia is important to students. Every student I’ve ever taught with has loved working with text, graphics, audio and video. Combining media in ways that help them tell their stories, explain ideas, demonstrate understanding and explore their world is an important literacy and creative outlet. We want students to be able to do more than just write, crunch numbers and present ideas (although these are all still very important skills to develop).  But media literacy and being able to confidently share stories through digital media is just as important, so as more and more schools move to Chromebooks we need to ensure that we can still meet these needs.

It’s worth pointing out that if you (and your students) plan to work in the professional graphic design or media production fields one day, there’s no question that the “real world” uses high-end applications from Adobe, Apple, Avid and others. Right now, you’re out of luck there, because tools like the Adobe suite are not available on a Chromebook as you can’t install conventional software on a Chromebook. (However, you can bet that some very smart people over at Adobe are working on ways to address this, and we are already seeing some browser-based versions of these creative tools with things like Spark)

In the meantime, here are 10 amazing web-based tools that can provide you with a surprising amount of rich media functionality in “just the browser”.

Pixlr Editor – The closest thing to Adobe Photoshop on the web, Pixlr Editor supports layers, brushes, masking, cloning, adjustments such as curves, levels, saturation, and vibrancy, as well as a collection of filters and transforms. If you have used Photoshop, then Pixlr is pretty easy to understand.

Polarr – For advanced photo editing, the kind of thing you may have used Adobe Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture for, you should take a look at Polarr. This incredibly capable image editor really gives you detailed control over your images, again with full control of curves and levels, individual management of specific hue and saturation levels, cropping and vignetting, etc. It also has some useful filters if you just need quick results.

Gravit Designer – If vector graphics are more your thing, take a look at Gravit Designer, a full-featured vector design tool that is becoming a respectable alternative to Adobe Illustrator. With full support for layers, bezier curves, fills and borders, alignment and all the tools you’ve come to expect. It also now features a useful built-in graphics library.

Adobe Spark Post – Spark is part of Adobe’s move to a more web-friendly set of design tools. Spark Post allows you to quickly create fun graphics and text based on an almost limitless set of choices for colour, font, and style. It’s free and runs entirely in the browser, making it perfect for Chromebooks. Check out Spark Page and Spark Video while you’re there!

Canva – Somewhat similar to Spark, Canva is great for creating quick designs for graphics and other publications. It offers a range of templates to get you started, but set your imagination free and create from scratch.

Book Creator – Originally an iOS only app, Book Creator is now available for Chrome. It features all the same capabilities, including the ability to create digital books, add images and text, add audio, and then export as an ePub format eBook. Offers amazingly simply opportunities for student publishing and is a great platform for students to really show their learning.

Google Slides – Although Google Slides is usually seen as an easy presentation alternative to Microsoft Powerpoint, you can wrangle it to be a pretty decent page editing tool simply by creating a custom page size instead of a standard slide. Pages made in Google Slides can have text, shapes, images, and even video, added to them, so Slides becomes a surprisingly credible tool for making posters, flyers, brochures and much more.

LucidPress – If your desktop publishing on a Chromebook needs to get a little more serious, then Lucidpress is likely to be your answer. An astoundingly capable browser-based layout and design tool, LucidPress gives you a ton of great templates to start with, or you can just create from a blank page. It provides full control over every element of the page, and can even import Adobe InDesign (.indd) files. It is fully collaborative for students to work in teams, integrates with Google Classroom, and is both simple yet powerful. One additional feature of LucidPress is the way it can create not only for print but also for interactive online formats at the same time.  No need to create two different versions for print and online – both can be generated from the same LucidPress original file. That’s a great feature!

Soundtrap – Soundtrap is an incredibly powerful and collaborative music composition tool that runs entirely in the browser. With full support for both loops-based and MIDI-based editing, Soundtrap enables the creation of complex multitracked audio recordings, complete with a huge array of effects like delay, wah, reverb, compression and more. It comes with an extensive collection of loop samples to choose from, as well as a huge number of MIDI voices. You can plug in a microphone, or guitar, bass or external keyboard, and start creating your own musical compositions. For those who don’t have a musical background, the loops are a great place to start, as you can build up layers of pre-recorded looped sounds easily to create a composition. For those who have a little more musical talent, open up a virtual keyboard and play your own melodies and chords. The software includes sophisticated features like quantization and autotune, so you can really dive into some amazingly fun audio creation. The best part is the ability to work collaboratively so that multiple students can all contribute to the same composition. If making music is not your thing, then what about using Soundtrap to create podcasts and other audio recordings? Once you’re done you can publish to a range of online destinations, or just download the finished product as an MP3 file. It really is an astoundingly good piece of software for use on a Chromebook and you will find yourself saying “I can’t believe this is happening in a browser!”

Wevideo – In the early days of Chromebooks most people assumed that rich media such as video was simply not possible, but Wevideo changed all that. Working in just a browser, Wevideo is a fully featured multitrack video editor that can work with high definition footage to produce an astoundingly sophisticated video output. It supports all the usual video editing features such as transitions, titles, and backgrounds, all customisable for duration, transparency, scale, etc. You can add additional video tracks for the creation of cutaways, closeups, picture in picture and it also supports the use of chromakey (often just called “green screen”). Wevideo can also record the screen of the computer for making screencast style videos, as well as the webcam too. Additional audio tracks can also be added so that recorded sound, narration, music and more can all be layered into the final soundtrack, allowing for a surprising level of sophistication. When it’s time to export the finished edit, Wevideo can simultaneously output in full HD to YouTube, Google Drive, Facebook, Dropbox, etc, or just download to local storage as an MP4 file. Wevideo is easily comparable to other popular classroom video editing tools like Apple iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements. And it works brilliantly on Chromebooks!

Year 1 students at PLC Sydney using Soundtrap to compose short musical pieces.

There are no doubt many other browser-based media production tools that work on Chromebooks, but these are just a few that I’ve found that works well for me. I’m continually amazed at what can be done in Chrome. Some people think that because Chromebooks are “just a browser” they are fairly limited when it comes to producing sophisticated creative multimedia, but those people are wrong. And as Chromebooks become increasingly more powerful, the future of rich multimedia production on Chromebooks is only going to get even better!

PS: I haven’t even touched on what’s possible with Android apps on a Chromebook, but for those newer Chromebooks that can access the Play Store, it opens up a whole other world of powerful touch-enabled, media production apps. More on that in a future post!