Managing one’s data well can be quite difficult in today’s world where every time you turn around, someone else is asking you to sign up for another subscription service or to create another account that requires you to store yet another password. Keeping separate Chrome browser user profiles can be a great way to create compartmentalization between work and personal life or even creative endeavors, especially as working from home becomes a necessity for more people. These profiles rely on Chrome browser account synchronization, which is your gateway to keeping everything consistent across devices – your themes, extensions, history, passwords, bookmarks and settings will all be identical on your Chromebook, Windows computer and Mac. Aside from your extensions and browser theme, which are not compatible with mobile, all of the same data will sync there too. Google provides a few options for separating and accessing your data if you own several accounts, so today, we’re going to be discussing the benefits and drawbacks of each so that you can make a decision that fits your lifestyle and workflow.
Methods for signing in to multiple Google accounts
If you’re on a non-Chrome OS laptop or desktop, you’ll notice an icon in the shape of a person at the top right of your browser where you can sign in and begin syncing your data with a user profile. This is not to be confused with signing in with multiple accounts at once at the top right of google.com or adding subsequent users to other Google Play apps (to keep from getting too confusing, I’ll combine adding users to google.com and to android apps into one phrase as they provide many of the same benefits). Signing in to the website does not synchronize this data directly to that device in the same way that signing in to the browser wrapper itself does. Instead, it simply allows you to access and manage it as a website. In other words, Google.com lets you sign in to multiple accounts and swap between them quickly, whereas signing in to a browser profile restricts you to one Google account and its data at a time until you switch.
If you’re using a Chromebook, this very same concept applies the moment you log into your device with a Google account. It’s the equivalent of that person icon, actually, with a few added benefits. Once you’re signed in to a profile, you also have the ability to log in to google.com with other accounts and hop back and forth between them within one Chromebook login. You can log in to your Chromebook with several separate Google account profiles to keep everything separate, too. This is called “multiple sign-in” and should only be used with trusted accounts as it does not require a password to actively swap between them. Confusing, right? So then how do you decide which one to use? Well, it’s largely preferential and your choice depends on how much compartmentalization you would like in your life between your data, so bear with me as I try to explain.
The Single Chromebook Login with multiple browser accounts approach
Let’s start with using one Chromebook account login – doing so provides you with your own shelf and icons, Google Play apps, web apps, wallpaper, settings and the aforementioned user data. If you’re a single user with no additional Google accounts, this is the method you will be using. Okay, let’s toss a second Google account into the mix. Let’s say for example that you want to log in to your business account through Google.com from within your personal Chromebook login – just to edit a few files for work and read a few emails. This can be convenient if you’re okay with just using all of your work data through the web browser, but if you want that laptop feel for your job, then there are a few issues here.
First, the files app only shows files for the account that you signed in to the Chromebook with, not subsequent accounts added through Google.com. Browser bookmarks, settings, and more are also restricted to the primary account. In addition to that, you’ll be mixing search history and what recommendations you receive across Google services if you don’t constantly swap to the correct account before performing an action specific to it. Jumping back and forth can also be a bit annoying and some Google services automatically default you to the first account that logged into it, even if you were using a secondary or tertiary one before visiting them. I should also mention that mixing work data and personal data could be a legal issue within some companies and it’s probably better not to do so. Lastly, receiving notifications for several accounts in one system tray can quickly lead to information overload and cause you to be less productive. Basically, mixing everything just lets you jump back and forth faster and multitask easier, but is it really worth the trade-off for your mental clarity?
If you do go this route, I would recommend signing in to your Chromebook using the account you’d like the most system integration with. If you want your work files to feel like they’re local through the files app and have several bookmarks that are important to you for your job, then you should sign in with your work account and use the browser to swap to your personal account for the little things, for example. If you’re using an enterprise or education account with your Chromebook, your administrator will often block your access to the Google Play Store for security reasons, so if you sign into that account first and then use the browser or Google apps to sign in to your personal account, you won’t be able to download any unapproved apps! What I’m saying is, you’ll lose access to the millions of apps and games in the Play Store on your personal account if you do this! If this bothers you as much as it does me, then signing in to your personal account and using the browser or Google apps to sign in to your work account is what I would recommend doing as you’ll have full access to the Play Store and still be able to perform work tasks, albeit less natively.
The Multiple Chromebook Logins approach
If you’re anything like me and think that the above method is chaotic and has way too much cross-pollination of data (it was already much too difficult to explain), then I recommend using separate Chromebook account logins for each area of your life. Doing so leads to more focus and less mental fragmentation, and switching between multiple accounts is optional based on how much you’re multitasking. To set this up, you just need to click on the clock at the bottom right of your Chromebook, click on your profile image and then click ‘Sign in another user…’. This only works if you’ve already added multiple Google accounts to your device from the lock screen. Again, I remind you that swapping between these accounts does not require a password once you’ve signed into them all, so remember to lock your laptop if you walk away from it!
Keeping separate accounts allows you to have different icons pinned to your shelf based on your specific needs for that profile, a different wallpaper and your Drive files for each account will always be managed via the Files app, which feels more native. You’ll be able to access different bookmarks and data for each account as well in a more integrated fashion. Essentially, separating your accounts into different Chromebook logins allows you to completely customize each workspace based on that account’s needs. For example, I like to have Discord pinned to my shelf for my personal account, Google Chat for my work account and my business website on my creative account, but none of those shortcuts belong on the shelf of the other. Pinning these all on the shelf of one single account login will leave you with a full shelf of icons that aren’t relevant at all times throughout your day and may cause you to feel overwhelmed. You could just leave everything in your app launcher in separate folders, but why bother when this other method gives you more customization?
There are drawbacks to this approach, though. If you are working with several accounts simultaneously for whatever reason – let’s say you’re working on a business document and you need to swap over to your personal profile to check your Google Messages or change the track on Youtube Music because you accidentally dismissed your music controls from the notifications tray – then it could become a bit burdensome to keep going back and forth. There is a keyboard shortcut to help with this though – pressing
CTRL+ALT+< will cause you to jump between accounts you’ve logged in to without having to go through the quick settings interface pictured above. I’ve found that with three or four accounts going all at once, using this shortcut quickly became less effective because I had to blindly cycle through them and memorize what order they were in. Another drawback to this method of using your Chromebook is that only the primary account that’s logged in will have access to the Google Play Store as I mentioned before. The Linux container is also restricted to the primary user, as well as Bluetooth access. If you don’t sign in to your personal account first and then sign in to the others, you can forget about using headphones for your personal music collection! A lot of these things are probably intentionally designed this way for security reasons, but I have to admit, they severely incapacitate the OS for those of us who choose to use our Chromebooks for personal and business accounts simultaneously. Not to mention, it’s super annoying.
Achieving Work-Life Balance
So since Google has given us several approaches to account management, which one do I recommend you use to achieve a proper work-life balance? I personally keep everything separate, as I’ve shown in the screenshots above and I recommend that most people do the same. First, I log into my creative account so that I can use Linux apps for design work. Then, I sign into my other Chromebook profiles so that I can swap between them and have a highly personalized experience for each. A different shelf, a different wallpaper, different web app shortcuts in my launcher which are organized into different folders, etc. I also prefer to manage each account’s files through the “local” Files app, so this approach is ideal for me all around. Because I use web apps more often than Google Play apps, it’s not that much of a pain point for me to miss out on the Play Store on my secondary and tertiary accounts, but this may be a problem for some.
Things like Google’s new picture-in-picture mode and global music controls help make separate profiles a bit less painful as the audio and video for one account can be controlled from the others, but these haven’t fully been rolled out yet and there’s still work to be done. If you want to have your cake and eat it too, you can always use both methods described above simultaneously. Have a unified Chromebook login with all of your accounts logged in under it and then separate logins for each as well, so that you can choose based on your mood. With the introduction of LaCrOS, I may eventually go back to using all of my accounts under one login but the Chrome OS team would also have to add the ability to use several Drive accounts under one Files app – something a real Linux distro already does. Anyways, work-life balance is about more than just data separation – it’s about flexibility. While I hope that Google continues to think of ways to make all of this less confusing, I hope that these tips and tricks help you make a decision that works for you.