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Chrome Brings Apps to Your Desktop: Are They Worth Using?

chrome-apps

Do you use Windows, Mac, or Linux applications? Google wants you to replace them with Chrome apps in the future. Google Chrome is now an app platform, complete with a Chrome app launcher for Windows and Mac.

Chrome apps run in their own window, are installed locally, run offline, and come from the Chrome web store. They make the most sense on Chromebooks, where they’re the closest thing to native apps, but have spread to other operating systems.

Installing Chrome Apps

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We wrote about Google’s plans to bring Chrome OS to your current computer before. Google wants to replace native apps with Chrome apps written in web technologies, which would then make it easy for you to switch to a Chromebook. On traditional operating systems, Chrome apps will run side by side with whatever other apps you’re running on your desktop.

To install Chrome apps (formerly known as Chrome packaged apps), visit the For Your Desktop section in the Chrome Web Store. You’ll see all the currently available packaged apps. Just install them as you would any other app from an app store — they’ll be downloaded to Chrome and show up with your other installed Chrome apps.

chrome-apps-desktop

Using the Chrome App Launcher

Google provides a Chrome App Launcher that gives you quick access to Chrome apps. Install it from the Chrome App Launcher page and it will appear on your desktop taskbar in Windows or your dock on Mac OS X. Google hasn’t yet released a Chrome App Launcher for Linux, although they say they will soon. You can still use Chrome apps on Linux, though.

Once it’s installed, you can click the Chrome App Launcher icon to view and launch your installed Chrome web apps and perform Google searches. Apps with a shortcut icon overlaying their icon are simply old-style apps that function as glorified shortcuts to websites, while apps without the shortcut icon are full Chrome apps.

chrome-app-launcher-for-windows

Using Chrome Apps

Installed Chrome apps can be launched from the Chrome App Launcher, the Apps section on Chrome’s New Tab page, the Start menu (you’ll find them in a “Chrome Apps” Start menu folder), or even a pinned taskbar icon or desktop shortcut.

chrome-apps-start-menu

These apps will run in their own windows and have their own taskbar icons. They have no traditional “browser chrome” — that is, no address bar or navigation buttons. They run offline and sync with online services, so they’ll open quickly and be available even when you don’t have an Internet connection.

Sample Chrome Apps

Pocket offers an official Chrome app. Like its mobile apps and Mac app, Pocket for Chrome downloads offline copies of web articles you’ve saved to Pocket. You can then read them offline. Thanks to the native app, it’s now possible to read Pocket articles offline on the Windows desktop.

pocket-for-chrome

Google also offers a Chrome app for its Google Keep note-taking service. This app runs offline and syncs with Google Keep online, which means you’ll always have access to any notes you save in Google Keep. If you write some notes while offline, they’ll sync when you go online. The Google Keep window is also small and unobtrusive, so it’s better for taking notes than having to navigate to a full notes website in your browser.

google-keep-desktop-app

Any.DO and Wunderlist are two to-do apps that are becoming fairly popular on mobile platforms. Chrome apps bring them to the desktop complete with offline access, offering streamlined access to your task lists outside of the browser. They’re ideal if you already use the associated task app on your smartphone. Any.DO does not offer a website where you can view your tasks, so this is actually the only way to view your Any.DO tasks on a computer.

chrome-apps-for-tasks

Cut the Rope and Spelunky are two popular games now offered in Chrome app form. Both run entirely offline in their own windows. Cut the Rope will work along with touch screens or the mouse, allowing you to play Cut the Rope on your desktop without running it as a website in your browser.

cut-the-rope-for-chrome

Spelunky is an HTML5 version of the original free Spelunky that only ran on Windows, so now Linux and Mac users can play it too.

spelunky-for-chrome

Are They Worth Using?

Chrome’s app platform clearly has a long ways to go when it comes to selection. Notably absent are any apps for Google services aside from Google Keep. If Google is serious about Chrome apps, we’d expect to see apps for Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive, which would allow you to have offline access to your mail, calendars, and documents in a consistent, more reliable way. This currently requires installing the old Gmail Offline app, and then setting up offline support in Calendar and Drive separately. This would also turn Google services like Gmail into traditional windowed apps.

At the moment, only a few Chrome apps are really worth using because only a few Chrome apps are available. Chrome apps have a lot of promise, though. For example, while Pocket offers an app for the Mac desktop, they don’t offer an app for the Windows desktop or even the new Windows 8 interface. The Pocket app for Chrome is the only well-supported, official way to access your Pocket articles offline on a Windows laptop or tablet — you’d have to access the Pocket website in a browser with an Internet connection otherwise.

This seems to be the promise of Chrome apps — they will allow modern web services that neglect the Windows desktop (and Linux desktop) to create modern apps with web technologies that run offline. These apps will run on everything: Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS. It looks like they’ll even come to Chrome for mobile.

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Chrome apps are also sandboxed and distributed via an app store. Chrome is now providing a modern application platform for windowed desktop applications, so Chrome apps could be a way forward for the Windows desktop. Microsoft has created their own new application platform with Windows 8, but you can’t run such apps in desktop windows without third-party hacks like ModernMix. Google’s solution provides apps that run in windows.


For now, Chrome apps are a great way to use Pocket, Google Keep, Any.DO, Wunderlist, and a few other services offline in their own window. In the future, we may see Chrome apps become an more comprehensive application platform that runs on almost every operating system.

Of course, this may not actually happen. Chrome apps may fizzle and fail, just as the previous Chrome apps effort wasn’t very compelling. The Chrome Web Store is mostly populated with glorified links to websites, after all. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 12/18/13

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