Making Chrome Netbook Awesome!
Or Making Your Netbook Awesome with Chrome: With more than a little help from StandaloneStack.
Screen real estate is at an premium on any Netbook, whether it is the increasingly rare 7 inch, the run-of-the-mill 8.9 inch, or the increasingly common 10 inch. (I, personally, refuse to call anything with over a 10 inch LCD a Netbook, no matter what processor it has inside.) The same small form factor that makes the Netbook easy to carry, cramps the visual experience, and diminishes the ease and effectiveness of many web sites and web pages…not to mention web apps.
Firefox has, for several generations now, had a full screen mode. Press F11 and the navigation and bookmark bars at the top of the page sort of melt up to the edge of the frame, giving you a significant increase in viewing area. Maybe not so essential if you are just checking your GMail, but often appreciated when viewing images on Flickr or SmugMug, watching video on hulu, or working with an on-line image editor like Sumo-paint or a web app like Google Docs.
At first glance the best Chrome can do is to hide the bookmarks bar (Control B). True the header and and tab bar are pretty small compared to Firefox or Explorer, but they are there, and they are taking up screen space that is unnecessary while you are navigating a relatively closed site like Flickr, or using GMail as a mail client.
You would think Google would have thought of that. I have seen the “where is my F11 toggle” question more than a few times on Chrome discussion blogs, and I am sure it is a frequent feature request at Google.
Of course, Google did think of that, at least in a manner of speaking…and actually took the concept one better.
Chrome has the ability, through Google Gears, to take any web page, web site, or web app and make it into what amounts to a stand alone desktop application. Under page controls in the upper right corner of the browser window (the little page icon next to the wrench), you will find the first entry is Create Application Shortcuts. Choosing it gives you options for creating application shortcuts on your Desktop, in the Start Menu, and/or in the Quick Launch Tray. (Assuming you have Google Gears installed and activated.)
When you make your choice, and for purposes of this article my choice was always just to create a Desktop icon, the page you are viewing will pop out of the browser and into a window of its own…a fully functional Chrome window, but without the header, navigation bars, and bookmarks bar. All you will have at the top is a thin blue band with the name of the running application and the mandatory minimize, full/tiled toggle, and close buttons. You can, if you need and want, click the full/tiled button to expand the page to take up the full screen. Full screen!
I imagine Google had applications like Mail, shown above, in mind when they created this feature. Afterall, many people keep their mail client open in a window all the time, floating in the background, and there is no need for GMail to be floating in a Chrome tab in that case. Much better that it behave like a stand alone app, in an window that you can resize at will, independently of any Chrome window and tabs that you might have open at the same time.
And, of course, real web apps, like Sumo-paint or Google Docs, are ideal canidates for the Gears app treatment. Opened from a Application shortcut, they behave just like any stand alone application.
More than that though, you may have noted that I said Google and Gears can take any web page, any web site, and make it into a stand alone app. Take SmugMug or Flickr for instance. Both of these sites can be challenge on a netbook, as the amount of screen real estate limits the size at which you can view work, and the number of thumbnails on a page that you can work with comfortably. On the other hand, once you are in a SmugMug gallery, or surfing someone’s photostream on Flickr, you are pretty much in a self contained universe and don’t really require more than one of Chrome’s tabs. Turning SmugMug or Flickr into a stand alone app provides a significantly different experience of gallery and photo viewing.
So this stand alone app Google Chrome idea has potential. You can create shortcuts and icons for each of your commonly frequented web sites and web apps that you visit often, or at least the ones where you are relativley self contained, and screen real estate is at a premium.
By the way, in the properties dialog for your shortcut icons, you can set the shortcut to open the window in normal, minimize, or maximize (full screen) modes, depending on your work habits.
An asside here on one of the vagaries of Chrome. Chrome does not yet have full support for Greasemonkey scripts…or rather, it does, but there is no easy or elegant way to turn it on yet. Personally, I use one Greasemonkey script all the time in my work with Flickr. Super Invite and Comment Improved is a Greasemonkey script that adds dropdown menus for a set of award groups of your choosing to every comment box on Flickr, one for Invite and one for Award. Choosing a group’s name from the dropdown, automatically places the code for the invitation or award in your comment box, so that the graphics and group links appear under your comment like magic. Considering that the only other way to get the code is to go to the group page, copy the code, return to the image you want to comment or invite, and paste it in to the comment box, SICI is a huge time saver, and I would not willingly live without it.
That means that, at least when working with Flickr, I need Greasemonkey enabled in Chrome. To accomplish this I had appended ” -enable-greasemonkey” to the target path for my Chrome shortcut in my Quick Launch tray, by going into the shortcuts property dialog and pasting it in after the last quotation mark in the existing target.
However, now that I have a Flickr stand alone shortcut, that means going in and appending it to the target of that shortcut too. Easily done. But what if I open chrome by clicking on my GMail stand alone application shortcut and then navigate out to Flickr. That means going in and enabling greasemonkey for every stand alone application shortcut icon. A pain, but easily done, and necessary only until Google provides a toggle for Greasemonkey in the Options dialog (soon please!).
On the subject of navigating out to another web site from within any of your new Chrome stand alone apps, Google has you covered. In the upper left corner of the stand alone window you will see the icon for your app. There is a dropdown menu under there (click it and see), and one of the choices is “open browser window”. This will open a new Chrome window, with header, tabs, navigation bar, and your bookmarks so you can go wherever your heart desires. It is independent of your stand alone app window, and can be resized, or closed without effecting your stand alone.
So far, so good. We have created a set of stand alone application shortcut icons for all our frequently used, and space hungy, web sites and web applications, but that brings up the issue of what to do with all those new shortcut icons. Will they clutter up your desktop, turning it into, well, a messy executive’s desktop while his secretary is on vacation?
The ideal place for them would be the Quick Launch tray. Once there, a single click opens the stand alone version of your web site. (One of the things (call me lazy) that I hate about shortcut icons on the desktop is the fact that your have to double click them to activate.) However, on a netbook, that Quick Launch bar can quickly fill to overflowing, and leave little or no room for running apps between it and the task bar on the right.
Enter StandaloneStack! I did some research on alternative arrangements for shortcut icons and Standalone Stacker stands out as the best of the bunch.
If you are not familiar with Stackers, they are add-ons for some of the popular Launcher Bar and Quick Launch programs which mimic the Apple Mac’s Leopard application stacks, by arranging your shortcut icons in creative ways on your desktop. StandaloneStack does the trick, as the name might suggest, independently, using your existing windows Quick Launch and task trays.
There was recently a good post on StandaloneStack on Lifehacker (which is where I discovered it, by the way).
You can download StandaloneStack here. You could follow the instructions on the web page to create your first Stack. I did. But it turns out the instructions, like most instructions written by someone who already knows how to do it, leave more than a few things, as they say, to the imagination. Let me walk you through it.
Here is the goal:
To accomplish this, you download the StandaloneStack zip file from the site above. Unzip it to a newly created folder on your C: drive, called something like “standalonestacker”. For ease in what follows, immediately make a copy of that folder, somewhere else. It turns out that if you want more than one stack, each has to reside in a uniquely named folder. You will want to keep the original standalonestacker folder as a template. So select your folder, choose Copy from the File Explorer task menu on the left, create a new folder with an appropriate name (I called my first one “InternetStack”) in the directory you plan to use, copy, and then navigate to the new folder wherever you put it. I have an “Tools and Applications” folder in My Documents where I store all this kind of stuff.
Open your new Stacker folder. Left click on the StandaloneStack application icon and choose “create shortcut” from the drop-down menu. Select the new shortcut and change its name to whatever you want. In my case I called it “Internet”. You can do this by left-clicking, choosing “renane”, or by just clicking on the existing name to highlight it, and typing in your new name.
If you want to get fancy, and if you are planning on having more than one Stack, you might as well get fancy right now, then left click on the newly named shortcut icon and open the Properties dialog. You will see an option to “Change Icon”. Click it. This provides a dialog to select another icon, but unfortunately there is only the Stacker icon in the box. To get another icon, decide which application icon you want to be the representative icon for this whole stack. In my case I chose Chrome. Find a Chrome shortcut on your desktop (or make one). Open its properties dialog. Click Change Icon, and select and copy the complete text in the Look Here box. Go back to your Stacker shortcut icon properties dialog and past the location into the Change Icon dialog for that shortcut. Hit return. Presto, the icon for Chrome (or whatever you chose) appears in the selection box. Select it and apply or close. Your Stack shortcut will now have the Chrome (or whatever) icon.
Now, before you go any further, navigate to an appropriate folder (I used My Documents again) and create a folder to store the shortcuts for this Stack. Name it something appropriate. I called my “Internet”. Drag, copy, or move the shortcuts for this stack into this new folder. At least one shortcut at this point. You can add others later.
Okay. Now back to the Stacker folder. If this is your first stack, you can open the StandaloneStack settings dialog by double-clicking the icon you just created for it. If not, or to be safe, hold down the shift or control keys while double-clicking the icon.
In the dialog that pops up, for the Folder box, browse and navigate to the folder you just created to hold your shortcuts. Select it and the folder path will appear in the folder box. Choose Grid from the Mode dropdown, and whatever Sort method you want. Close the dialog.
Now, drag your new Stack shortcut to the Quick Launch tray. When you click it the grid view stack will open right above it, in its semi-transparent backgound as shown above. From here on out, when you want to add shortcuts to this Stack, just choose the Open Folder shortcut right in the grid view itself. Drag in your new shortcuts, close the folder and you are good to go.
To create another Stack, go back to your standalonestck folder on the C: drive, make a new uniquely named copy of the folder, and follow the steps above. You can put as many Stacks in the Quick Launch tray as you want.
I just have two so far. One that contains all my new stand alone Chrome apps, and one that contains the shortcuts for my graphics programs and folders (with it’s own unique icon, borrowed from Lightroom). That means that I can delete all my Internet and graphics Quick Launch shortcut icons, and all the shortcuts that littered my desktop! Neat. No really, neat…no clutter. Easy to use. Organization itself.
Chrome stand alone apps and StandaloneStack create, really, a whole alternative work space for the netbook, allowing you many options and maximum use of the available screen space. You can always run Chrome in its standard mode, when you need the tabbed browsing feature (for instance when copy and pasting urls from one site to another, as in when writing a blog, etc.)
By the way, if you have more Chrome stand alone apps open at the same time than will fit in the running apps space on your task bar, they will group into a single pop-up menu (provided you have your taskbar set to group like).
Chrome stand alone apps and StandaloneStack will not be to every netbook user’s taste, or match every work-style, but I am finding the combination a very worthwhile investment in more efficient computing.