Dark mode has been a popular feature request among Chrome OS users for a long time. Although the OS uses a "light" theme by default, it has some random splashes of dark elements, including the launcher and the shelf. Last month, I explained in detail how bringing consistency to the current "light" theme would improve usability, but at the time, there was no information about when a true, system-wide dark mode would ship. Sure, the launcher search bar got a bit darker recently, but what people want is to turn off the lights and minimize eye strain when using their computers over extended periods. The developers at Google realized that, so they decided to do something about it.
As spotted recently in the Chrome OS Canary channel, Google is bringing back the system-wide dark theme to your Chromebook. If you're eager to try it out, you can copy and paste chrome://flags/#enable-force-dark and chrome://flags/#enable-webui-dark-mode into the URL bar and enable both flags from the drop-down menu. To make Chrome OS darker, I also recommend enabling chrome://flags/#dark-light-mode. Here's a quick look at the end result.
The dark theme applies to Chrome and system web apps.
We can immediately see the difference as soon as the OS applies these flags. The browser and system apps transform into a sleek, near-black color that fits nicely with the default theme. The wallpaper picker looks the most polished so far as its title bar matches the dark aesthetics, unlike other apps. Some parts of the UI are still not themed yet, but overall, the new theme looks a lot more polished than when it briefly appeared about a year ago.
Why dark theme is a big deal
It's been about 6 months since Microsoft unveiled a full dark theme for Windows, and Apple's macOS got the feature a couple of years ago with Mojave. Some of you might remember that Google had attempted to bring it to Chrome OS in the past, but an unfortunate situation forced a long delay before its release.
A little over a year ago, Google introduced chrome://flags/#force-dark-mode in Chrome 78, which forces web content to use a dark theme on all platforms. Although this flag was working great on Windows, Android, and macOS, enabling it on Chrome OS caused webpages to crash. Even worse, the Chrome flags, file manager, and Chrome OS settings page failed to load, meaning you couldn't revert the flag to default and access your files. You were forced to powerwash your device, which erases everything stored on your Chromebook. Google promptly pulled the flag out in a hotfix update, and it was not seen again. We knew it was still on Google's radar, but we weren't sure when it would come back. With the most recent Canary update, Google seems comfortable enough to allow users to test it again.
Adding a system-wide dark mode to Chrome OS will make a massive difference when working behind a screen for a long time. Although a light theme generally offers better usability and readability due to the higher contrast, the dark theme's reduced luminance offers safety in dim environments and lowers eye strain. That last part is a big reason why app and web developers often use a black background when staring at a long code list. Most video streaming apps like Netflix also use dark UIs to relax your eyes while you scroll through a list of content to pick from.
Personally, using a dark theme allows me to comfortably write my long research assignments for school, especially at night. Although the black text on a white background helps me research and read content on screen, my eyes start to feel heavy after looking at the display for a long time, breaking my concentration. The lack of a dark theme on Chrome OS is why I use my Windows desktop at night to work, but this update changes that.
The system-wide dark theme is still very early in its development and needs a lot more work before it's ready for the Chrome OS Stable channel. For example, the title bar remains white in many apps and screens. You can also apply a custom dark theme from the Chrome Web Store, but it doesn't fix the white title bar. Plus, various UI elements haven't adapted yet, such as a few icons in the Chrome OS settings page and the Explore app's illustrations. The biggest thing missing is support for Android apps, but I imagine it will come when Google upgrades the subsystem to Android 11 (which should be soon). I hope that Google will someday accompany the dark theme with a similarly dark boot screen.
Despite its rocky development, I'm happy Google is finally putting the "where's Chrome OS dark mode" question to rest. Whether using the theme for minimizing eye-strain or cosmetic preference, bringing a system-wide toggle to Chrome OS will undoubtedly change the way we work on our Chromebooks.