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How to Use the Chrome OS Desktop on Windows 8 (and Why It Exists)

chrome-desktop-and-windows-desktop-snapped[4]

Chrome 32 now offers a new feature on Windows 8: A full-screen, Chrome OS-style desktop mode. The Chrome app launcher can bring Chrome OS to the Windows desktop, but Chrome can now replace the Windows desktop entirely.

Rather than create native Windows 8 apps, Google is choosing to shoehorn the a Chromebook-style desktop into Windows 8. Of course, you can continue to use Chrome on the desktop just like before.

How Does This Work? Doesn’t Microsoft Restrict Windows 8 Apps?

When Microsoft announced Windows 8, they said that there were three types of Windows 8 apps. “Metro apps” have very restricted capabilities and must be distributed through the app store. Windows desktop applications function normally, but can’t run in the new Metro (now “Windows 8-style”) interface. The third type of app is a “Metro style enabled desktop browser.” Such browsers can run as desktop applications with full access to anything a desktop application could do. However, when they’re set as your default web browser, they can present themselves as full-screen, Windows 8-style apps.

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Prior to Chrome 32, Chrome’s Windows 8 interface was simply a full-screen version of the Chrome browser window. Google has now replaced this full-screen browser window with a Chrome OS-style desktop, complete with window management, a taskbar, an app launcher, and integrated Chrome notifications. They’ve done this using the “Metro style enabled desktop browser” capability Microsoft provided in Windows 8.  Microsoft has no way of stopping Google from doing this, short of changing the “Metro style enabled desktop browser” interface.

Other browsers can also take advantage of this. Firefox will soon gain its own Windows 8-style interface, which will be more like a typical browser. The Windows 8-style version of Internet Explorer is a different interface for the desktop version of Internet Explorer.

Accessing the Chrome Desktop on Windows 8

This feature won’t work on every system. You must have Windows 8 or 8.1, as this feature relies on the new Windows 8 app interface. You also need hardware graphics acceleration enabled, which the vast majority of computers should have no problem with. Lastly, this feature doesn’t yet work well on high-DPI displays. On our Surface Pro 2, the menu option is entirely hidden, preventing us from accessing the new Chrome desktop for now. If your computer doesn’t support this, you won’t see the option in Chrome’s menu.

The first thing you need to do is set Chrome as your default web browser. Only your default web browser can function in Windows 8′s new app environment. To make Chrome your default web browser, click Chrome’s menu button, select Settings, and click the Make Google Chrome my default browser button under Default browser.

make-chrome-default-browser

You can now access the new Chrome desktop by clicking Chrome’s menu button and selecting Relaunch Chrome in Windows 8 mode.

relaunch-chrome-in-windows-8-mode

Using the Chrome Desktop on Windows

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The Chrome desktop will now appear, taking up the entire screen like any other Windows 8 app. To launch apps — or open new Chrome browser windows — use the app launcher at the bottom-left corner of your screen. It’s just like the Chrome app launcher you can install on the Windows desktop to integrate Chrome apps with your Windows taskbar.

chrome-app-launcher-on-windows-8-desktop

One advantage of the new interface is that its lets you have multiple Chrome browser windows on screen at the same time and manage them in a windowing environment. You can use both standard Chrome browser windows and Chrome apps here. Each window will appear on your Chrome taskbar — but not on your Windows desktop.

You can easily snap a window to the left or right side of your Chrome desktop by clicking one of the buttons at the top-right corner of a window.

chrome-desktop-window-management

TheWindows 8 version of Chrome has limited plug-in support. You can only use Pepper API plug-ins such as Adobe Flash, Chrome’s PDF viewer, and Google’s Native Client. You can’t use Java or Microsoft Silverlight, so Netflix won’t function in this mode until Netflix enables HTML5 video support for Chrome. This is similar to the Windows 8-style version of Internet Explorer, which only allows you to use its built-in Flash plug-in.

chrome-desktop-on-windows-no-plugins

You can leave the app like you’d leave any other Windows 8 app — move your mouse to the bottom-left corner of the screen and click the “Start tip” that appears. You can also use the app switcher at the top-left corner of your screen or the charms at the top and bottom-right corners of your screen to leave the app. Note that Google Chrome isn’t integrated with the charms at all, so you won’t find its settings under the Settings charm and you can’t share anything using the Share charm. Google clearly wants to pretend the new Windows 8 interface doesn’t exist.

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As the Chrome desktop functions as a Windows 8 app, you can even use Windows 8′s new Assigned Access feature to restrict a Windows user account to the Chrome desktop, effectively turning a Windows 8 PC into a Chromebook.

chrome-desktop-charms

You can also snap the Chrome desktop alongside one or more other Windows 8 apps. In fact, you could snap the Chrome desktop alongside the standard Windows desktop and use them side-by-side.

chrome-desktop-and-windows-desktop-snapped

To get back to Chrome on the desktop, click the Chrome menu button and select Relaunch Chrome on the desktop. If you don’t see the menu button, you’ll need to open a Chrome browser window on the Chrome desktop first.

relaunch-chrome-on-the-desktop

Why Would You Want to Use This?

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It’s easy to see why Google wants you to use the Chrome desktop. They don’t want you to become invested in Windows 8 apps, and they also don’t want you using Windows desktop apps. This new environment encourages you to use Chrome, web apps, and Chrome apps rather than Microsoft’s new Windows 8 apps. It also gives Windows 8 users a way to see what Chrome OS would be like and get more comfortable with the idea of buying a Chromebook.

Compared to the previous “Windows 8 mode” Chrome offered, this solution is much more functional. It adds multiple browser windows provides a way to switch between them. But, when you can use Chrome and Chrome apps on the Windows desktop, why would you bother with the new interface? Google probably wants to convince you that the new interface is simpler, just as Microsoft wants to lure you away from the Windows desktop with Windows 8 apps. The Chrome desktop is competing more with Microsoft’s Windows 8 apps than the Windows desktop — if you still rely on Windows desktop apps, this probably isn’t for you. If you want a simpler environment — well, Google wants you to use the Chrome desktop instead of Windows 8 apps.

In the end, at least Google is providing some choice. If you don’t like the Chrome desktop, you never have to see it and you can use Chrome apps on the Windows desktop. You can’t use Microsoft’s Windows 8-style apps on the Windows desktop without ModernMix, a third-party application that costs money.


When this interface gets some better touch support, it could even compete with Microsoft’s Windows 8 apps for attention on tablets. Google has grand plans for Chrome and Chrome apps — they’ve also announced that “Chrome apps” that run within Chrome will be coming to Android and Apple’s iOS in the future.

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 01/18/14

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