It’s an odd thing to have a gripe about all the cheap or free tools Google has given us, spread across multiple accounts, but here it is: It is nobody’s favorite thing to figure out how to keep your personal Gmail open, your work-related Docs, and maybe even a third account’s Calendar running. On a desktop, this is no big deal; on the web, because of the way authentication and cookies work, we have to be a bit more clever.
So let’s look at all the clever, obvious, and hey-it-works ways of managing multiple Google accounts on one system. Each setup shall garner a rating based on complexity and convenience, and a few notes on the possible “catches” of each system.
I’m going to provide one spoiler: I really dig the “multiple user profiles” solution I heard about on This Week in Google, and it’s becoming my favorite way to handle multiple accounts inside Chrome. But there are plenty of other ways for all browsers to handle your Google Apps identities. Let’s get into them.
Multiple browsersComplexity: On the technical side? Not too much. Chrome and Firefox do very well with Docs on every computer, while Safari also works great on Mac. Internet Explorer 9 and Opera are, if you need them, also available for Docs duty. They’re all free downloads and relatively easy to install. Convenience: They’re all different icons, and switching between them is as easy as Alt+Tab (Command+Tab on Macs). The necessary background files are kept completely separate, and you can keep each browser signed into the account you’d like: Chrome for home, Firefox for work, etc. Catches: Some computers aren’t going to handle running two or more browsers with lots of tabs all that well. And clicking links in other programs will always end up opening in whatever you’ve set as your default browser, which may not be the most convenient for your Apps usage.
Chrome’s Incognito windowComplexity: It’s the easiest to “set up” - tap Control+Shift+n (Command+Shift+n on Macs), and up pops a new window that acts as if it’s a completely different browser. Sign into a different Google account, and you’re off. Convenience: Fairly high, minus the trickiness of remembering to look in the upper-right corner to see which account you’re signed into, or at least looking for the “Incognito guy” icon. Catches: First off: no extensions. Next, you can only “persist” one Google account across all your Incognito windows, so it’s only really a solution for those with one extra Google account to monitor. You lose access to a few of Chrome’s butt-saving features, like re-opening closed tabs and recovering entire sets of tabs after a crash. And the big catch is that you always have to sign back into Google accounts when you re-open an Incognito window.
Google’s multiple sign-inComplexity: It all depends on what you need to do. Need to keep just one extra tab open for another account’s inbox? Click on your Google user icon, or the username with the drop-down arrow in the upper-right corner, and then click “Add account” from the drop-down box that appears. Sign into as many accounts as you’d like (I’ve got four going in the Chrome window I’m writing this in), and off you go. Convenience: As long as everything you need to use is covered in the list of multi-sign-in-friendly apps (scroll down that page a bit), and you can manage multiple browser windows with multiple tabs in each without wearing out your mouse hand (remember: Alt/Command+Tab for switching windows on Windows, Alt+~ for switching same-app windows on Mac and Linux, and Control+Tab for switching tabs), everything else is now baked into Google. You no longer have to “activate” multiple sign-in for Google accounts; it’s enabled by default. Catches: If you use Chrome or Firefox extensions that depend on a Google account, expect them to get very confused or just stop trying. If you’re trying to use multiple Google/Gmail accounts with Docs, you’re out of luck - Docs is only able to be open for multiple Google Apps accounts. And the biggest pain is that when you click to “Sign out,” you’re signing out of all those accounts at once.
Chrome’s multiple profiles in separate windowsComplexity: Actually, not so bad. Head into Settings in Chrome, jump to the “Personal Stuff” section, and add as many “new users” as you have extra Google accounts. You can’t rename or sign into those accounts from the Settings yet, so open a new Chrome window. Now, click on the user icon on the upper-right corner of the window, which might just look like a mannequin face for the default profile. You can choose from among your silly-named new profiles, and then sign into a Google account in that new window that pops up. Convenience: Actually, pretty nice. Once you’re signed into a Google account under the “new user,” you can change its name to something smarter (”TechRepublic,” “TEDxBuffalo”), and it gets an icon that will help you keep track of which window/account you’re working in, sometimes in your semi-conscious peripheral vision. You can even sync in your preferred extensions, bookmarks, and settings for each Google account. Catches: I believe your Apps administrator has to make Chrome sign-in a possibility in their Dashboard - at least one of my Apps accounts didn’t want to let me sign in. And this is, in a way, the least secure way to manage multiple Google/Apps accounts, because it keeps them open and signed in (unless you clear cookies every time you close, but in that case, what’s the point?).
Site-specific browsersComplexity: Probably the trickiest in terms of actual setup. First, find an SSB app that works for your platform: Mac has Fluid and Robin, and definitely a few more. Windows has, at the least, Pokki, and Prism, though that has proved to be a bit tricky, especially if you use Firefox for other browsing. Convenience: If you just need one app open from another account, it’s probably just perfect. For multiple apps spread across a few accounts, it’s probably not your bag. Catches: Depending on the app, there can be some browser/SSB confusion about which account is active. And depending on your system, launching that SSB from your standard taskbar or dock may not be as easy as it looks.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.