4 fancy new Chrome OS features to watch for this summer

Chromebook owners, take note: Some powerful new possibilities are headed your way.

Chrome OS Features
Google, modified by IDG Comm

If there's one problem with Chrome OS upgrades, it's that they happen so frequently and with such little fanfare that they often slip by completely unnoticed. And that means your Chromebook or Chromebox might get some valuable new capability that you never even realize is there.

Chrome OS upgrades, for the uninitiated among us, happen automatically and quietly — almost too quietly, with no real announcements or indicators of their arrival most of the time. The regular stable version of Chrome OS is updated every two to three weeks with minor fixes, in fact, and every six weeks with more significant revisions. And sometimes, upgrades show up even more frequently than that (though you'd never know it unless you were actively looking for 'em).

Some Chrome OS features are under development for months before they debut — as is evidenced by the ongoing progress on several of the still-upcoming elements we talked about all the way back in February. But rest assured: The wheels are always a-turnin', and new concepts and interface improvements are practically always in the works.

Thanks to the open-source nature of the Chrome OS code and the presence of three pre-release channels for public testing of in-progress improvements, we can peer into the virtual crystal ball and get a fascinating glimpse at what efficiency-enhancing delights Google's cookin' up for us at any given moment. Here are four such treats worth watching for as the weeks wear on.

1. Virtual desktops

Okay, this first one is technically one we've already been watching for a while now — but its development has come quite a way as of late, and we're finally starting to see just how much productivity-boosting potential it could actually have.

Virtual desktops — or "Virtual Desks," as Google currently appears poised to brand the feature — is a system that lets you create multiple isolated work areas within Chrome OS and then switch between 'em with a couple quick gestures or keystrokes. That means you could keep one entire set of windows and apps open for your work-related endeavors and a second set of windows and apps open for more personal projects. Tidy separation!

Heck, you could even get more nuanced and create completely separate work environments for different areas of your work — an independent desktop for each project or focus, in other words. It's an interesting new option for organizing things and keeping unrelated areas isolated instead of having a ton of stuff smooshed together in the same place.

My pal Kevin Tofel from the website About Chromebooks put together a nice video showing the newly polished-up version of the system in action:

As of now, Virtual Desks is looking like it'll make its debut in Chrome OS 77, which is slated to land in mid-September.

2. More Android-Chromebook connectivity

Google's been working to align Android and Chrome OS for ages, as we've seen little by little over time. While much of the effort revolves around creating consistent interface concepts between the two platforms, there's also a push to make Android phones and Chromebooks work together in interesting and genuinely useful new ways.

Google stepped up the effort several versions back with a new streamlined section in Chrome OS's settings devoted entirely to "connected devices" and the ways Android phones and Chromebooks "work better together." So far, the section has mostly served as a centralized point for functions that already existed — things like Smart Lock, which lets your phone act as a security key to keep your Chromebook unlocked whenever it's present, and Instant Tethering, which allows your phone to automatically provide a data connection to your computer whenever Wi-Fi isn't available — but now, it looks like some new Android-Chrome connecting options are on the horizon.

First up: Various bits of under-development code suggest Google is working on a broad program called OneChrome, which would bring a bunch of intriguing new options to those of us who use both Android and Chrome OS — like a native shared clipboard for cross-platform devices. I can say with near-certainty that'd be incredibly handy to have, as I've long used a similar arrangement via my own third-party-app-enabled hack.

Another code addition indicates the development of a system for syncing Wi-Fi passwords among devices on both Android and Chrome OS — so any network you'd signed into on your phone would automatically be present and ready to connect on your Chromebook as well, without any work required.

And speaking of Android-Chrome-OS alignment...

3. Media playback controls for Android app notifications

Being able to use Android apps on a Chromebook is pretty spectacular — and soon, the experience will get even better thanks to a subtle but significant incoming improvement.

Google is in the midst of bringing media playback controls to Android app notifications in Chrome OS. That means if you're using an Android app like YouTube to watch a video offline (something that isn't possible on any computer without the presence of Android app support, incidentally) or using an Android-based podcasting or music-streaming app to liven up your work day and/or commute, you'll be able to control the playback right from the app's persistent notification — just like you can on an Android phone.

It's another little step that brings the Android-on-Chromebook experience closer to the traditional Android experience and makes Android apps on Chrome OS feel even more native.

And one more semi-related item in the app support realm:

4. Better Linux app performance on Chrome OS

No question about: The presence of Linux apps on Chromebooks is a transformational factor for the power-user crowd. But even so, it's a work in progress; the ability to run Linux apps on Chrome OS is technically still a beta-level effort, which means the more advanced pieces of the puzzle are perpetually unfinished. Linux apps just received the ability to play audio last month, for instance, and support for audio input in those apps is still pending.

Another such area that's about to see improvement is GPU acceleration — something that, in non-uber-geek terms, basically means apps with heavy graphical components will run much more smoothly than they were able to before.

You can see the before-and-after difference in this video, which uses a Linux-based game to demonstrate just how much of an impact the added GPU acceleration will make:

As of now, the feature is set to arrive widely in Chrome OS 76, which should hit Chromebooks worldwide in the early part of August.

And remember: This is a saga that never stops evolving. Stay tuned for more interesting Chrome OS tweaks and additions as time moves on — and keep your eye open for these four improvements, coming soon to a Chromebook near you.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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