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Chromebooks: Tips and tricks to make offline use practical

Google recently announced that Chromebook sales have surpassed MacBooks. But before you run out and buy one make sure you know what the latest Chromebooks can do when not online.

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Chromebooks are on a continual upward trend, and the Google Play store is due to come to some newer models in August. If you're a professional looking for a cheap way to do work on the road you still need to be a bit wary: options are limited and offline function is tricky to figure out.

SEE: How to run Windows or Mac apps from your Chromebook (TechRepublic)

My old ThinkPad died a few years ago, and I was distraught. I was trying to build my career as a freelance writer at the time, and money was scarce. I invested in an HP Chromebook 11 because I had heard good things about them and the pricetag was unbeatable.

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For the next several months before landing a full time writing job I fought with it constantly. It was useless without an internet connection, offlining apps and files was difficult, and the performance—even for simple tasks—just wasn't there.

Newer models are nicer, and they run a bit smoother, but they still need the internet to do most of their work. If you're bound and determined to use your Chromebook offline you definitely can, but you might need some help to get it set up properly.

Editing Google Drive files offline

Newer versions of Chrome OS have a file browser built in that features an Offline tab. It would make sense that documents showing up there are offline, but it's not that simple.

In order to access Google Drive files offline you first need to open Drive while connected to the internet. Open the Settings menu, located on the right side of your window, and find the Offline option. Make sure the box is checked. Give your Chromebook a few minutes to catch up with the sync and you'll be all set!

Google Drive only offlines Google file formats by default. Docs, sheets, slides, and drawings all copy to your Chromebook automatically. If you want other files to sync open the file browser, two-finger tap the item, and select Available Offline.

SEE: Google's bold Android play to dominate the mobile and laptop markets (TechRepublic)

Be sure you also turn your Wi-Fi off and open up your most important files before you leave the office. It's better to be safe than find out you're stuck without essential documents later on.

Finding the right offline apps

So, you have your documents—what about other offline apps to help with work? A lot of apps—especially those that sync with a cloud server—allow you to work without access to the internet. Here's a list of some of the most useful ones currently available.

  • Gmail offline: if you want to compose or respond to an email when you don't have an internet connection you're going to need Gmail offline. You can write an email and it will send once you reconnect to the internet.
  • Google Calendar: offline email is important, and so is viewing your calendar when not connected to the web. Don't plan on adding events, though: it's read only without a connection.
  • Evernote: Creating and editing notes is possible while offline with Evernote. Google Keep is also capable of performing the same way, and with its strong integration with the Google ecosystem it may be a better choice for those who use Chrome OS/Android/Google Apps.
  • Wunderlist: If you use Wunderlist on your phone or tablet it's a natural extension to add it to your Chromebook. Your account will sync offline and allow you to keep working when the internet is out of reach.
  • Drive: Made by Jolicloud, this app allows you to roll all your cloud storage accounts into one app. It also works offline, which is great for those who are split between Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, and other platforms.
  • Scribble: One of the things I really can't live without are sticky notes on my MacBook. Scribble is similar but runs in a browser tab. Notes are saved automatically, stored offline, and can be synced between multiple devices.

Don't give up on your Chromebook yet

The offline apps available for Chromebooks are kind of a crapshoot. If you aren't invested in a particular app (Evernote or Wunderlist, for example) you may find yourself wondering if you should just give up on it, but don't quit yet—hold out for the addition of the Google Play store and Android apps to Chrome OS.

Once the Google Play store comes to Chromebooks it's going to be a whole new game. To see if yours will be eligible for the update check out Google's list here.

For more info and specs on Chromebooks that will run Android apps take a look at our gallery here.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Chromebooks can be used offline right now, but Android apps are going to be where they really shine. Expect the Google Play store to come to Chromebooks in late July or early August.
  2. Even with Android apps Chromebooks are still going to lack a lot of function when not connected to the internet. The same can be said for any computer, though, especially with so many businesses embracing online apps for their day-to-day operations.
  3. Don't expect a full laptop experience with a Chromebook—they simply aren't meant to be that robust. At their best Chromebooks are a cross between a laptop and a mobile device. At their worst they have the drawbacks of both.

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About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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