- 1 Chrome
- 2 Chrome OS
2020 was (well, as of writing, still is) quite a crazy year, and that craziness also had a huge impact on the tech industry. The internet is gradually becoming more divided across countries, the trade war that completely changed Huawei's phone business is raging on, and the global pandemic affected both hardware and software release cycles — you might remember that Chrome and Chrome OS updates were temporarily paused when everyone started working from home.
Despite all that, there were also a lot of good things happening in tech: Foldables have matured and are headed for mainstream, budget phones don't suck anymore, Android has received tons of helpful features, and Chrome and Chrome OS have also benefitted from a lot of great developments. Here's a collection of 5 of our favorite Chrome features and 5 of our favorite Chrome OS features from 2020. It's far from a complete list, but these are some of our highlights.
Tab grouping improvements
Tab groups have been available on Chrome for a while, but they got so much better in 2020. On desktop computers, they've become collapsible, so if you're the type of person who leaves dozens upon dozens of tabs open at a time, you might be a fan. On Chrome OS, a tab search feature augments tab grouping even further, and I wouldn't be surprised if we got it on other platforms in 2021.
Better PDF viewer
Chrome's built-in PDF viewer has always been convenient but also incredibly limited. That's changed with Chrome 87, released in November. At first glance, it doesn't look too different from the previous version, but it's got a new navigation pane hidden in a new hamburger menu on the left for miniature pages and a table of content. There's also a two-page view, and the zoom buttons are now visible at all times. The new viewer is still rolling out, so if it's not available to you yet, you might need to activate it first. The PDF reader remains limited to the desktop — there's still no viewer for the mobile version of the browser. We might soon even get an option to save edited documents.
Improved safety and privacy
There's not one single safety or privacy feature that really stands out on its own, but all taken together, it's clear that Google made some strides in 2020. Chrome 86 introduced a feature that automatically monitors your saved passwords for leaks and will warn you to change it should it become public. The company obfuscates your credentials in the process to ensure they're safe on its servers. There's also new Enhanced Safe Browsing protections that do their best to help you against phishing and other malware. In a best-case scenario, you'll never know that these features have made it into the browser because you're not visiting dangerous sites, but it's good to have them in case something goes awry.
There are also improvements to cookie management — you can block third-party cookies much more granularly nowadays, which should help with both your privacy and your security. And to help you see at a glance which extensions have full access to your websites, Google introduced a new extensions interface that divides your add-ons into two categories: Those with full access and those that don't need it.
Resource-intense ad blocking
While many still dread the full deployment of the Manifest V3 API that spells bad news for content blockers, Chrome itself got into the ad blocking business. By default, the browser now blocks resource-intense ads that leech too much of your precious data or are too demanding on your CPU. As someone who works for an ad-supported medium, I think this is a great compromise and might make ad networks rethink what they're pushing on people's devices. (Of course, you can also decide to get rid of ads on hundreds of news websites including our own by subscribing to Scroll).
Native file system access and better drag and drop
Whenever you wanted to edit a file on your computer via a website, the website used to have to rely on plugins like Java or ActiveX. With Chrome 86, released in October, that's become a thing of the past. Websites can natively access your file system with a new API. That's great news for online image or text editors. There are numerous safety precautions built into the system, so you don't need to worry about a website accessing your homework folder or something.
You won't run into this anymore — images now open in new tabs by default.
A small but very welcome change in file management is the updated drag-and-drop behavior. When you drag-and-drop a file into an existing website but it doesn't support uploading that way, the website would normally make way for a preview of that file in the past, making you lose any unsaved changes. Now the file just opens in a new tab.
Overhauled tablet mode
The new tablet UI that came to Chrome OS in version 81 is arguably the biggest visual change to the operating system this year. When your Chromebook supports a tablet mode, you'll already have noticed the improved gestures that feel a lot like those Google introduced with Android 10 — swipe from the left side of the display to go back, swipe up to go home, and more gestures. There are also smaller tweaks to the UI, like bigger touch targets and tab previews.
Files app upgrade
The new Files app is another significant visual upgrade that came to Chrome OS this July. The new version ditches the blue and gray design of the old file manager in favor of an all-white interface that's more in line with Google's recent UI guidelines. Third-party cloud services also finally gained the ability to hook into the system and can now allow you to upload, download, and edit files saved to them right on your Chromebook. Dropbox has already added support, but OneDrive is still dragging its feet last time I checked.
Overview screen improvements
Hooking up your Chromebook to an external monitor used to be a rather awkward experience, but in July, we got some improvements on that front. Chrome OS 84 made it possible to drag and drop windows on a second monitor while in the overview screen. You can now also customize the refresh rate and overscan options individually, and a more intuitive UI makes setting up multiple monitors simpler than ever before. The overview screen itself has also seen improvements for single-screen users: Virtual desktops can now be renamed, and you can snap windows to the sides to quickly enter split screen.
Major Linux upgrades
2020 had some good stuff in store for those who rely on proper desktop programs on their Chromebooks in the form of Linux apps. The Debian container was updated from version 9 "Stretch" to 10 "Buster" in March, which comes with a whole slew of updated packages and further improvements (though you have to reinstall the container and start fresh to get the update). In July, Chrome OS 84 also introduced custom user names and a resizable Linux partition along with a new terminal, complete with a tabbed interface, theming options, and more.
Sideloading Android apps without Developer mode
Chrome OS has supported Android apps for a long time, but sideloading had always been a hassle: you had to turn on Developer Mode, which meant a full wipe, fewer system security measures, and pressing a key on every boot. That changed with Chrome OS 80, released in March. It lets you sideload apps via ADB commands and the Linux partition. That makes life easier for those of us who love to have the latest app updates, and it also means that developing apps on Chromebooks got a little more convenient. It's still a hassle to set up sideloading, and there are some catches, which you can read about in our original coverage.
This is only a small selection of all the great things that came to Chrome OS and Chrome this year — there's so much more. The new bottom tab switcher on Android replacing Chrome Duet bears mentioning, and it's great that we can finally take screenshots in incognito mode again. The browser also uses up less data on Android, and the company introduced an option to tap to define words, which is convenient as heck. I also like the addition of icons to the overflow menu, which make it much easier to parse entries.
On Chrome OS, we also got a better Alt+Tab switcher, a Bluetooth battery indicator for peripherals, and numerous other things our 2020 team addition Kent Duke goes over in great detail. You can also give his articles a spin if you're curious to see what might be coming to Chrome OS in 2021.
Kent Duke contributed to this article.