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How to Access Shared Folders, Network Printers, and VPNs on a Chromebook

chromebook

Connect a Chromebook to a Windows network and you may be in for a surprise. Your Chromebook can’t access shared folders or network printers, whether they’re shared from a Windows, Mac, or Linux system.

Chromebooks can connect to VPNs, file shares, and printers — but only if these resources are provided in a certain way. If the network resources are configured properly, this should be easy.

Access Network File Shares

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Chromebooks don’t have integrated support for browsing Windows file shares (known as SMB or CIFS shares), or NFS shares from other operating systems. This may seem a bit silly, as Mac OS X and Linux can both access Windows file shares — even iPads and Android tablets have apps that can access standard shared folders! It should be possible for developers to create Chrome apps that can access such files, but these apps haven’t been created yet.

If you have a file server and you want to make its files available to Chrome OS systems, you’ll have to make those files available in a way the Chrome web browser can understand.

Any sort of server software that allows you to create a web interface accessible over standard HTTP or HTTPS will work with a Chromebook. For example, the ownCloud server software provides file access via an HTTP web interface, so you can easily access that via a Chrome browser. Even standard HTTP servers like Apache can list the contents of a directory in a browser and make files available for download, although you won’t be able to upload files.

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Chromebooks also have integrated support for browsing FTP sites, so an FTP server can also make your files available to a Chromebook. You could set up an FTP server with FileZilla or another FTP server program. Just enter the FTP server’s address beginning with ftp:// in Chrome’s address bar.  (Note that Chrome OS only has integrated read-only FTP support, so you’ll have to find a third-party “FTP web app” or a use Chrome app like the $2.99 sFTP Client.)

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Be sure to set up any server software in a secure way. Avoid security headaches by only allowing access to these servers from your local network, not over the Internet.

You could also just dump your files into Google Drive and they’d be accessible in the Chromebook’s Files app. If you stored them in Dropbox, OneDrive, or another cloud storage service, you could access them on the service’s website. This obviously isn’t ideal if you want to manage a local file share.

Add Network Printers

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Chromebooks also don’t support standard network printers. If you have a printer shared from Windows, Mac, Linux, or Linux, Chrome OS won’t be able to communicate with it. You can’t even use USB printers you connect directly to a Chromebook, so this isn’t much of a surprise.

The Chrome OS printing solution is Google Cloud Print. Many new Wi-Fi printers support Google Cloud Print as well as Apple’s AirPrint and other printing protocols. A Google Cloud Print-enabled printer will work without any special configuration — just configure it normally and make it available to your Google account. Click the Change button under Destination when printing and select the printer.

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If you have an older printer that doesn’t support Google Cloud Print, you’ll need to register the printer with Google Cloud Print.

To do this, install Chrome on the Windows, Mac, or Linux computer connected to the printer and plug chrome://devices into your address bar. Connect your printers to a Google account from here. As long as the computer is powered on and Chrome is running, you’ll be able to print to the printer from your Chromebook.

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Connect to a VPN

Google’s Chrome OS has integrated support for VPNs. Note that Chrome OS currently only supports L2TP over IPsec with PSK, L2TP over IPsec with certificate-based authentication, and OpenVPN VPNs. Chromebooks can connect to Cisco AnyConnect networks, but the Cisco ASA device must be set up to support L2TP over IPSec.

That’s all a bit of mouthful, but connecting to a VPN should be easy if you know the VPN’s details.

Open the Settings screen, click Add Connection under Internet connection, and click Add Private Network.

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Enter your VPN’s details here. If you don’t know these details, you can get them from your employer or whoever else provides your VPN.

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If you need to install certificate files, you’ll need to do this on another page. The organization that operates the VPN will provide these files if you need them. First, Download them to your Chromebook. Next, type chrome://settings/certificates into your address bar and press Enter. You can also search the Settings page for “certificates” to locate this screen.

Use the Import and Bind to Device button on the Your Certificates tab to import any .pfx or .p12 files (user certificates), and the Import button on the Authorities tab to import any .crt or .p7b (server certificate authority) files.

When you add the VPN, you’ll be able to chose from among your installed certificates.

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The Developer Mode Option

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If Chrome OS is too limiting, there’s also the developer mode option. Enable developer mode and you can install a desktop Linux system on your Chromebook. You can then connect to other types of VPNs, browse Windows file shares, and print without Google Cloud Print. Anything a typical Linux distribution supports should be possible.

This is more work, of course. Chromebooks are appealing because they’re simple and provide a PC-style desktop that needs little configuration. Enter developer mode and you’ll have to use terminal commands to get things working and use a more complex desktop interface.

Developer mode is intended for geeks. Don’t get us wrong: it’s great for geeks! But, if you’re just a typical Chromebook user who only wants to access a shared network folder, you should probably stay away from developer mode.

And, if you’ve been provided with a Chromebook by a school or employer because it’s secure and easy to manage, they probably won’t be thrilled if you enable developer mode and start tinkering with the internals.

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If you need to access VPNs, file shares, or network printers provided by an organization — especially one that provided you with a Chromebook — you should contact that organization. Ask them to configure their server software so important network resources are accessible from a Chromebook.

Image Credit: Michael Saechang on Flickr

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 06/25/14