We haven’t made one of these posts/videos in quite some time, so it’s nice to get back to Chrome OS feature videos. Frankly, we get a little spoiled by an operating system that updates so frequently and is always showing off new tricks. With the lead up to Chrome OS 97 and the transition to a 4-week update cycle moving forward, it’s felt like the striking, new features with each update have been a bit fewer and far between lately.
But Chrome OS 96 actually ships with some pretty sweet stuff in-tow: you just have to know where to look for it. Some of these new features we’re discussing today are ready to use right out of the box and a few of them simply need a flag flipped on. Either way, with very little effort, you can start using all of them right now, so let’s get into what they are, how they work, and how you can get started.
This feature is only cool if you have the setup that requires it. With devices like the HP Chromebase 22 or with an external, vertically-oriented monitor, you may have noticed that snapping windows to either side of the screen is pretty much useless. When you have a tall, vertical screen, putting apps side-by-side on the left and right simply makes no sense. With this new feature, Chrome OS recognizes and adapts to screens that are taller than they are wide and changes the window snapping to top/bottom instead of left/right. It works as you’d expect and for those who work with taller screens, this is a big productivity boost.
Virtual Desk Reorder Shortcut
I wrote about this feature and its surprise arrival in Chrome OS 96 the other day, but we definitely wanted to include it on this list. The idea is simple: Chromebooks have virtual desktops you can see by pressing the overview key on your keyboard or swiping up with 3 fingers on the trackpad. For a little while now, you’ve been able to drag those desks around to reorder them with the mouse cursor.
But Virtual Desks are at their best when you learn the keyboard shortcuts and really start whipping through them like a pro. This new feature allows for that reordering to happen like most other functions of Virtual Desks: with the keyboard only. Once in the overview mode, use the arrow keys to highlight a desk, hold the CTRL key and use the arrows again to move it wherever you’d like. It’s pretty sweet.
Thank goodness: Dark/light mode switching is finally here! We’ve been tracking this change to Chrome OS for a very long time – nearly 3 years at this point – so it’s nice to see it so close to being available to everyone right out of the box. The good news is you don’t need any special skills or know-how to get this feature working right now. You simply need to go to chrome://flags/#dark-light-mode and turn on the flag. After restarting Chrome, you’ll boot up in a new, light theme.
This theme is not quite Material You-level custom, but it shades itself to compliment your wallpaper. You can go with a stock light theme as well or simply switch back to the standard Chrome OS dark mode. As an addition, if you enable the flag found here – chrome://flags/#webui-dark-mode – you will get a dark theme in your settings menus when the dark theme is selected.
This all works very, very well, and I’m rocking this new light theme for a while. Chrome OS has been in a pseudo-dark mode since Chrome OS 70, so I’m ready to lighten things up a bit. Now we just need Material You to show up and complete the full-blown theme options!
Our next feature is a big one as well. With a quick switch of this flag – chrome://flags/#productivity-launcher – you can enable the new Productivity Launcher. When Chrome OS 70 launched in preparation for the Pixel Slate, Google got a bit too tablet-focused for a desktop UI. They implemented the full-screen app launcher and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. While fine for a touch UI, the full-screen app tray has felt wildly out of place for years at this point, and I’m glad it is going away for the desktop mode of Chrome OS.
Once you have the flag enabled, your launcher is a simple square at the bottom-left of your screen and it makes so much more sense. You can drag/drop apps and make folders like you’d expect, but there are way more features coming to this new launcher down the road like app sorting, categorization and more. Those things aren’t live yet, but this initial implementation works well and we’ll be excited to see the other add-ons arrive in future updates.
Side Search Panel
This one is another hidden gem that I feel like could become part of my everyday use. Side Search is something we’ve been tracking for quite some time, but Kevin Tofel at About Chromebooks found it to be simply hiding behind a flag here in Chrome OS 96. Turn on the flag – chrome://flags/#side-search – and you’ll now have this feature enabled.
You won’t notice anything new until you run a search and click on a result. Once you do, a new G icon will appear next to your URL bar. Click that G and you’ll see the search results sidebar (it resembles Google search on mobile) that got you where you are and you’ll be able to look through more results while still viewing your page.
I’m sure you’ve had times where you are looking for something, researching something, or trying to piece an idea together while bouncing back and forth between tabs. With the side search panel, some of that hunting will be simplified and I think this could be something that becomes a very valuable tool that one day we’ll wonder how we operated without.
That’s it for Chrome OS 96 right now, however. I’m sure there are some other hidden nuggets in this update that we’ve yet to identify, but the truth is we’ll be welcoming Chrome OS 97 on January 6th, so we’re already shifting into that mode. We’re hopeful some of these fleshed-out features come to Chrome OS 97 right out of the box, but we’ll have to wait and see on that. It won’t be a long wait.