Chromebooks beyond the cloud: Everything Chromebooks can do offline

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By Brad Chacos, PC World | July 17th, 2014

From productivity to playtime, offline Chromebooks aren’t the useless hunks of plastic that they used to be.

Born as pure conduits to the web–showcases for Gmail, Drive, and other Google cloud services–Chromebooks have struggled to shake a bad reputation. The basic complaint is that Chromebooks become nothing more than dumb, worthless, keyboard-equipped pieces of glass when your Internet craps out.

While that may have been an accurate description of first-generation Chromebooks, nothing could be further from the truth today. The offline abilities of Chrome OS have skyrocketed since the first Googley laptops hit the streets, and now Chromebooks can tackle many of the most popular PC uses–from blasting out emails to working on spreadsheets to even just playing movies–completely offline.

Maybe that’s why Microsoft suddenly seems so worried about them?

Further reading: Chromebook power tips

What Chromebooks don’t do is enable that functionality by default, or even make their offline capabilities obvious. But we’ve got your back. Here’s a guide to everything you can do offline with a Chromebook, complete with instructions on how to set it all up.

Back to basics

Let’s start with the cornerstones of the Chromebook experience. Google’s email and productivity solutions live and breathe on the web, but enabling their offline options lets you tinker with files and sift through your inbox away from the Internet. You can then sync all your changes when connectivity kicks back in.

Chrome OS’s Gmail app doesn’t include offline capabilities natively, but that’s quickly fixed by downloading and activating Google’s Gmail Offline app, which mimes the look of the mobile Gmail apps. It will locally synchronize your messages and actions, which you’ll then be able to access while offline by opening the Gmail Offline app via an icon in Chrome’s New Tab page, or by selecting Gmail Offline in the Chrome App Launcher.

Enabling offline productivity is just as easy. Simply open Google Drive, then click the gear icon in the upper-right corner and select Settings. Open the General tab and check the box next to “Sync your work to this computer so that you can edit offline.” Presto!

The process is similar with Google Calendar. Open it in-browser, click the gear icon and select the Offline option, then click the Enable button in the pop-up that appears. Calendar’s pretty much only good for viewing your schedule while offline, though–you can’t create or edit events.

Things are even simpler if you use Keep– Google’s rival to Evernote and OneNote –to store your random musings. Keep automatically lets you peruse your stash and whip up new notes even when you’re offline, as it’s one of those newfangled Chrome packaged apps. (Much more on those later.)

Once you’ve configured Google’s various services to work offline, take a second to unplug that Internet connection and ensure that they’re truly working. The offline capabilities in Google’s apps can be a bit, well.. finicky from time to time. Consider yourself warned. (Be sure to double-check everything’s functioning correctly before hopping on any long, Internet-deprived flights, too.)

But not all data lives in discrete apps. Chrome OS includes tools for working with local files, and those tools work just fine offline. You can view PDFs, view or edit Office files, play music and movies, and both view and lightly edit images offline using local files. You’ll find your local files in the Files app. Just double-click on one to open it in the appropriate file viewer.

One more thing: To access a webpage while offline, use the Save as PDF option, found under the Chrome menu’s print section. It’ll save the page to your Chromebook’s local storage.

Kick back and relax

Chrome OS’s offline chops aren’t limited to work-related functions. You can take your play offline, too, and no, it’s not just limited to slapping a thumb drive stuffed with movies into your Chromebook’s USB port.

Google recently rolled out offline movie and TV show playback for Google Play, the company’s app and media marketplace. Any content you’ve purchased through the service can now be saved locally–at least if you’re using a Chromebook. Just look for the small, gray download icon at the bottom of a listing; clicking it saves the film for offline viewing. Note that you’ll need to install the separate Google Play Movies & TV app to see the option.

There’s one thing to remember when you’re saving any files for offline use, but especially space-hungry movies and TV shows: Chromebooks were designed to lean on the web. After all, who needs a big hard drive when you’re living in the cloud?

Stingy storage specs help keep prices lows, but you’ll want to keep an eye on your available storage, and be diligent about removing movies you’ve already watched. If not, you’ll quickly run out of space. Going into the Play Store app’s settings and unchecking the “Prefer high quality audio” button can also help somewhat.

Literary fans will want to check out Amazon’s Kindle Cloud reader. This app automatically downloads the book you’re currently reading so it’s available offline. You can also manually save books for offline reading.

Chromebooks currently have one glaring offline entertainment weakness: Music. While my fingers are crossed that Play Music will offer something like Google Play’s offline video playback sometime soon, for now, your only real offline option is manually loading up your laptop with MP3s.

Open the offline floodgates

The offline capabilities in Google’s own apps and services are just the beginning of the web-less revolution for Chromebooks, thanks to the Chrome Packaged Apps Google introduced a year ago. Now simply dubbed “Chrome Apps,” these apps are infused with proprietary Chrome APIs, which grants them access to your laptop’s hardware and essentially transforms them into traditional desktop software, complete with discrete out-of-browser windows, full offline capabilities, and the ability to utilize local storage and resources.

Sure, it somewhat contradicts the Chrome OS philosophy of a cloud-only-powered world, but there’s no doubting that Chrome Apps supercharge the offline capabilities of Chromebooks. Chrome Apps help Chromebooks become the Windows XP replacements Google so dearly wants them to become.

The Chrome Web Store’s “For Your Desktop” section houses the available Chrome Apps, augmented by an even larger offline-enabled section. We’ve compiled a list of the best offline apps available here. Of particular note, the offline Pixlr Touch Up app provides beefier photo-editing tools than the native tool baked into Chromebooks, and the Pocket read-it-later app is a stellar resource for folks who loathe saving whole web pages for offline viewing. There are offline games galore, as well, including–of course–Angry Birds.

So there you have it: Chromebooks are stuffed with all sorts of offline functionality, provided you know where to look–and now you do! And while Googley laptops will never be able to run the breadth of traditional software available for Windows, what I’ve shared above is just the tip of the disconnected iceberg. Google recently mandated that all legacy Chrome apps must become offline-enabled Chrome Apps by December 2015 to continue being featured in the Chrome Web Store.