The smart worker's guide to using a Chromebook offline

Chrome OS may be cloud-centric at its core, but you can get plenty accomplished offline on a Chromebook — if you set things up thoughtfully in advance.

Stop me if you've heard this one: A Chromebook is just a glorified browser in a box. Or this one: It's like a "real" computer but without all the good stuff — and it's practically useless offline.

You see where we're going with this, right? Those are all wildly inaccurate myths that have plagued Chrome OS since its start. To be fair, some of them did have nuggets of reality back in the platform's earliest days, when it was still a small-scale, beta-like project within Google. But for years upon years now, Chromebooks have been capable productivity tools that offer ample advantages over traditional desktop operating systems and work just as well as any other computers offline.

When it comes to offline effectiveness, the key — just like with a Windows or a Mac system — is a healthy dose of planning and preparation. Some cloud-centric services require a touch of setup before they'll be functional offline, and some common work tasks need specific third-party software in place in order to be handled without an active internet connection. None of that, however, is difficult to do. And it's certainly not impossible.

If you're using a Chromebook for work, think through the following four areas to make sure your computer is offline-ready and primed for productivity before the need arises. Then, when your next business flight takes off, skip the barely usable airplane Wi-Fi and instead sit back, relax, and enjoy your Slack-interruption-free productivity session.

1. Make sure your Google apps are prepared for offline use

Google's core productivity apps are completely offline-capable — but in most cases, it's up to you to take the initiative and set them up appropriately.

For Gmail:

  • Open the Gmail website from your Chromebook, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, and select "Settings" from the menu that appears. Click "Offline" in the menu at the top of the settings screen.
  • Check the box next to "Enable offline mail."
  • Make sure to carefully consider the remaining options on the page — how many days' worth of email should be stored, whether attachments should be made available offline, and whether data should remain on your computer even after you sign out (fine for a single-person computer) or should instead be erased and resynced every time you sign out and back in (more advisable for a system that's shared by multiple people) — and choose the settings that make the most sense for your situation.
  • Click the "Save Changes" button at the bottom of the screen, accept any confirmation prompts that pop up, and then wait while Gmail reloads itself and downloads your data.
01 chromebook offline gmail JR Raphael/IDG

Setting Gmail up for offline use takes all of 30 seconds to do.

There's just one more step, and it's an important one: Set a bookmark in your browser for Gmail by pressing Ctrl-D — or, easier yet, create a shortcut for the site in your Chrome OS shelf by clicking Chrome's three-dot menu icon while viewing Gmail, selecting "More tools," and then selecting "Create shortcut." Either way will let you pull up the site and access your mail when there isn't an active connection.

For Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides:

  • Make sure you have the Google Docs Offline Chrome extension installed. (If you see a blue box on its Chrome Web Store page that says "Remove from Chrome," you're good to go. If you see a box that says "Add to Chrome," you need to click that and follow the steps to complete the installation.)
  • Go to the Google Drive website, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, and select "Settings" from the menu that appears.
  • Look for the line labeled "Offline" in the settings box that pops up. If the box next to the phrase "Create, open, and edit your recent Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides files on this device while offline" isn't already checked, check it.
02 chromebook offline google docs JR Raphael/IDG

One check of a box, and all your recent Docs, Sheets, and Slides files will be available even without an internet connection.

Just like with Gmail, you'll need to make sure you have a bookmark or shortcut created to pull up Drive when your Chromebook isn't connected. You'll also need to double-check that the specific files you want to work with are set to be available offline ahead of time — as, rather annoyingly, Drive stores only a vague collection of "recent files" by default, and you don't want to assume that whatever you need will be included.

Here's what to do:

  • Open up the Drive website while you're online and find whatever Docs, Sheets, or Slides files you want. (You can also do this directly from the Docs, Sheets, or Slides websites, if you'd prefer.)
  • Right-click on each file's title, then activate the toggle next to "Available offline," if it isn't already active.
  • Repeat as needed for any additional files.

For general Google-Drive-stored files:

That previous section addresses only Docs, Sheets, and Slides files — not other types of files you've uploaded to Google Drive, such as images, PDFs, ZIP archives, or MP3s. (It's a rather confusing distinction to have to make, I realize, especially given how blurred the line is between Drive and the Docs-branded productivity apps. Hey, that's Google for ya.)

For any non-Docs, -Sheets, or -Slides files from your Drive storage that you need to be able to access offline:

  • Open the Files app on your Chromebook, then select "Google Drive" from the list of choices on the left.
  • Find any file or folder you want to make available offline, right-click it, and select "Available offline" from the menu that appears.
  • If a file or folder is already available offline, you'll see a checkmark next to that same option.
03 chromebook offline google drive JR Raphael/IDG

The Chrome OS Files app holds the key to making Drive files and folders accessible offline.

You'll then be able to access those files from that same Files app anytime you're offline. And, of course, any files you've manually downloaded or copied to your Chromebook's local storage will already be available for offline use.

For Google Keep:

  • Make sure you have the Google Keep Chrome app installed. (If you see a blue box on its Chrome Web Store page that says "Remove from Chrome," you're good to go. If you see a box that says "Add to Chrome," you need to click that and follow the steps to complete the installation.)
  • Open the app once to make sure it signs you in and starts syncing your data.

You'll then be able to access your notes anytime you're offline simply by opening the Keep app.

2. Figure out what other offline-ready apps you have — and what you still need

Chrome OS comes with a handful of offline-ready basics, such as a calculator and a plain text editor. The aforementioned Files app is fully offline-friendly, too, and it includes a simple image viewer and editor along with an audio player.

04 chromebook offline image editor JR Raphael/IDG

Your Chromebook's Files app has its own built-in image editor.

Your Chromebook probably also came with both Google Play Movies and Google Play Music preloaded; both of those will allow you to download media to keep yourself sane during a long flight (provided you're willing to pay for the associated services).

Google's official Chrome Web Store has a wide variety of other offline-capable options that are worth browsing through and considering. And if you still haven't found the tool you need, it's time to move on to Chrome OS's more advanced options.

3. Find Android apps and Linux apps to fill any remaining voids

Though it's still technically a cloud-centric platform, Chrome OS supports all sorts of apps these days — and odds are, you'll be able to find whatever you need among the software's more traditional app options.

By embracing Android apps on your Chromebook, for instance, you can use Google Calendar offline — something no other desktop platform supports. You can also stay connected to your data in services such as Evernote, OneNote, and Trello with or without an active internet connection, and you can even download videos from YouTube and Netflix for offline viewing (another perk that isn't possible on lots of regular laptops — here's lookin' at you, MacBook...). Basically, if an app works offline on Android — which most do — it'll work offline on Chrome OS, too.

05 chromebook offline android apps JR Raphael/IDG

With the Google Calendar Android app installed, your entire agenda is always at your fingertips — even when the internet is not.

For even more powerful possibilities, you might want to take the time to think about some Linux apps for your Chromebook — provided you have a recent enough system to handle such utilities. It's definitely power-user terrain, but it's not impossible to navigate. Click over to my step-by-step Linux-Chrome-OS guide to get started, and then check out my list of Chromebook Linux app recommendations for some standout ideas.

4. Give yourself some offline-ready reading material

You may not be able to browse the web while you're offline, but that doesn't mean you can't catch up on some worthwhile web-based reading.

The simplest way to store articles for offline use is to save them directly in your browser: While viewing any website on your Chromebook, click the three-line menu icon in Chrome's upper-right corner, hover over "More tools," and then select "Save page as." (Or hit Ctrl-S for an even faster way to get to the same place.) Hit Enter or click the Save button, and that's it: The entire page you were viewing is now available for your offline reading pleasure.

When you're ready to find the article, open Chrome's Downloads page — either by looking for the "Downloads" option in the main browser menu or by hitting Ctrl-J while a browser tab is open — and then click on its title in the list that appears. The entire page will load as if you were looking at it live.

06 chromebook offline web pages JR Raphael/IDG

An online article, offline — no complex hoop-jumping required.

If you'd rather have a more fully featured article-saving setup that works across multiple platforms, you can use a service like Pocket — which offers an offline-ready Chrome app along with apps for both Android and iOS. Pocket is free with an optional $45-a-year Premium plan that removes suggested stories and adds in advanced search, storing, and highlighting features.

If books or magazines are what you're after, meanwhile, Amazon's Kindle Android app and Google's Play Books Android app both provide commendable reading experiences (more so than their web-based counterparts).

And with that, your Chromebook is officially ready for compromise-free offline productivity — and maybe even a little offline procrastination.

Don't worry: I won't tell.

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