Goodness gracious, has this been a fun week.
Early in the week, when I found myself twiddling my man-thumbs and thinking about what might be interesting to write about, I decided to summon my inner Indiana Jones and do a little good old-fashioned exploring. Digging around in apps and trying to unearth buried options is one of my favorite things to do (along with wearing dapper explorer hats, of course) — and Goog almighty, was I in for a treat.
I ventured deep into the darkest, crustiest corners of Google's Chrome Android browser expecting to find a few new out-of-sight features that might be worth sharing — and that's if I was lucky. Once I got there, though, holy hell: I stumbled onto an entire vault of sparkly, shiny, mostly unnoticed treasures.
I found so much good stuff, in fact, that I ended up writing not one but two separate guides to secret Chrome settings. The first is focused on carefully concealed options for improving your overall browsing experience on Android, while the second ventures into some spectacularly useful possibilities for smarter sharing from within the browser.
You'll find all of those tasty treats — along with a nifty little newsletter-exclusive tip on handy eyes-free reading tools for both Android and your computer — in this week's 3 Things to Try section. But bring your own Indiana Jones outfit, all right? I'm keeping this one on.
➜ THE SHORT VERSION: Google announced the first developer preview for Android 12 this week, but the more interesting info about this next Android version is still coming from unofficial leaks.
➜ KNOW MORE: In an unusual twist, this initial developer preview truly is a developer preview, with the focus almost entirely on technical, under-the-hood changes. With rare exception, there's just not a heck of a lot that's new and significant for regular schmoes like us yet. That's quite the contrast to all the unofficial Android 12 info leaking out left and right right now — including some signs of sweeping design refinements and interesting new elements like a "smart autorotate system." That system would apparently use your phone's front-facing camera to continuously detect which way your head is turned, relative to the phone, and then automatically adjust your screen's rotation in the way that makes the most sense. It's such an intelligent and Googley solution to a constant pain point of modern phone use, and it's a perfect example of how software and ongoing updates can play such an important role in the phone-owning experience.
➜ READ MORE: You can find all the official, developer-oriented info about this first Android 12 preview in Google's official announcement — and you can find the official Android 12 timeline (which includes an initial beta release in May and a final release sometime after August, by the by), on this Android 12 overview page. For more on the autorotate feature and other leaked info showing us what might be ahead, head over to this sprawling guide.
➜ THE SHORT VERSION: Continuing our "Google operating system intrigue" theme of the week, some recently published documentation suggests Google's working on a new setup for its mysterious Fuchsia operating system that'd let the software support Android and Linux apps as native, locally installed programs. Cue a new round of "ANDROID AND CHROME OS ARE DOOMED!!!" speculation...
➜ KNOW MORE: This whole Fuchsia thing is admittedly pretty geeky, but it's becoming increasingly clear that Google is up to something substantial, so it's well worth keeping an eye on. Fuchsia, in case you've forgotten, is a whole new operating system Google's been building since 2018. Lots of folks think it's destined to replace both Android and Chrome OS eventually, but Google hasn't said a peep about its actual ultimate purpose. The one thing I always try to remind everyone is that Google works on a lot of random stuff, people on individual Google teams often have ambitious goals, and things frequently don't end up being as black and white as they initially appear. Until something is official, it's best to interpret all info about it — no matter how certain it may seem — with a healthy grain of salt.
➜ READ MORE: All the latest news on Fuchsia's evolving app support situation is here. For more context on the bigger picture of Fuchsia and the breathless certainty with which it's typically covered, look back to my 2019 column: "Fuchsia, Chrome OS, and the Danger of Black-and-White Thinking."
➜ THE SHORT VERSION: From Android to Fuchsia and now Chrome OS (hey, we're covering all the bases today!), some eye-opening new data shows that Google's Chrome OS operating system actually surpassed Apple's MacOS in total sales for 2020 — and by a pretty hefty margin.
➜ KNOW MORE: Yeaaaaah. How 'bout them apples, eh? This honestly shouldn't come as a huge surprise for anyone who's been paying attention — I cited some otherwise-overlooked data that reached a similar conclusion last month, only specific to the last quarter of 2020 — but still, seeing that Chromebooks are now selling faster than Macs on a year-long level should be one heck of a wake-up call for a lot of Chromebook cynics. I can't tell you how often I hear people pooh-pooh Chrome OS as an irrelevant experiment that no one uses and is bound to fade away any day now. Well, that "irrelevant experiment" is now more popular than Apple's desktop offering. In my experience, most folks who write Chromebooks off haven't used 'em in years, if ever, and are basing their impressions on woefully outdated myths from the platform's earliest days. Chrome OS has come a long way, baby, and this data speaks volumes about its very real relevance.
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All right, first up is my collection of completely concealed options for a better browsing experience in the Chrome Android app. And man, is there some awesome stuff in this set.
My favorite item from the list (and one I'm happily now using all the time myself) is a magic page-peeking panel for your phone's browser. The next time you find yourself looking at a web page and wanting to quickly check out a link within it — without having to open the link as a new tab, go look at the newly opened page, then close it and go back to your original tab — you can simply long-press the link, choose to preview it, and...ta-da:
It'll pop up as an expandable panel atop the page you're already viewing. You can swipe it up or down to view more or less of the secondary page — and if you eventually decide you want to send the page into its own tab, you can do that with a single tap, too. But if you don't, you can just swipe it away when you're done and then get right back to where you were without any real interruption. It's like intelligent multitasking, right within the browser.
To check this one out for yourself:
Not bad, right?! And that's just one of six standout options in this first part of my secret Chrome settings series. You can find the full list, complete with detailed instructions for each and every item, in this column.
Next up is part two of my sassy little series, in which I delve into the delightful area of sharing stuff from your mobile browser — whether it's with yourself (hey, it's a perfectly natural and healthy thing to do) or with someone else (the more, the merrier!).
It's tough for me to pick a personal favorite from this collection, 'cause quite honestly, almost everything in this list has proven to be immensely practical and useful for me. My happiest discovery, though, might have to be the setting for enabling deep-link sharing from Chrome on Android. That's a feature I've treasured on the desktop side of things for a while now, as regular readers may know, but I never realized it was possible on the mobile end — until now.
In short, it's a way you can create a link to a specific section of text within a web page and then send that link to someone — like this. It lets you point the person to a precise part of a page so they'll see the exact words or paragraphs you want them to notice.
Here's the trick to revealing the option on your own phone:
Once that's done, you can just open up any ol' web page, touch and hold your finger to some text to highlight it, and tap the "Share" command in the menu that comes up — and just like that, you'll see a new "Link to text" option that'll let you create a link to those specific words and then pass it along anywhere you want.
And when anyone opens that link, they'll get taken to that exact part of the page, maybe even with the words in question highlighted for emphasis (depending on what browser and type of device they're using).
Whee! For the rest of my sharing-related Chrome settings tips, check out this second part of the collection.
Whilst I was thinking through all these handy tricks for making the most of the web on your phone, I realized I'd forgotten all about a really handy feature Google brought into the Android reading experience almost a year ago: the ability to ask Assistant to read any article or web page out loud to you on demand. It's almost like story time for adults, and it's practical as can be anytime you're driving, walking, or otherwise having your eyes occupied and yet still wanting to take in information.
All you've gotta do is open a page in your browser, then activate Assistant (using either the "Hey Google" launch phrase or whatever on-screen shortcut gesture your phone has for the function — typically swiping up diagonally from a lower corner of the screen, on recent Android versions) and say "Read this."
Right on command, Assistant will open up the page in a special window and start reading it aloud to you. You'll find playback controls along with options for increasing or decreasing the reading speeds at the bottom of the screen, and you can even move on to any other app you want and have the reading continue — with the controls moving into a standard player in the Quick Settings or notifications area of your phone.
It occurred to me that no similar sort of option exists on the desktop front, but I found a pretty solid alternative. It's a website called Natural Reader. Pull it up, then copy and paste any text you want into the box on its screen — and you can then have the site read the text to you in a variety of voices and at any speed you want. You can even save the audio as an MP3 file, if you just really love that soothing robot voice.
For an even easier and more robust experience, grab the Natural Reader Chrome extension. It'll let you read any page out loud with a single click of its button in your browser's address bar, which makes the process way faster and simpler and also opens up the door to using it on emails, Google Docs, and anything else your crazy little noodle can come up with.
(Natural Reader is free for personal use, by the way, with some restrictions that'll probably never affect you. The company also sells premium and business-aimed subscriptions, which is how it makes money and is able to provide the free version.)
I love me some creative smartphone wallpapers — and boy, am I ever in luck this week.
A couple o' Googlers have come up with a clever way to create your own original wallpaper using practically any combination of emojis, any color you like, and a variety of preset patterns.
So for instance, I just assembled this stunning creation using the delicious lineup of a hamburger emoji, a hotdog emoji, a fried chicken emoji, and a pie emoji along with the Android Intelligence mint green color and an ordered spiral pattern:
That masterpiece took maybe seven seconds to put together. The options here are endless, and while it's without a doubt incredibly stupid, it's also a lot of fun.
You can try it for yourself at the new official Emoji Wallpaper website. Just be warned: Once you get started, it's surprisingly hard to stop.
Hey, thanks for hangin' out with me for all of this week's chit-chat. It's been a fun one!
Hope you're managing to stay safe and warm wherever you are. Have yourself a wonderful weekend, and I'll see ya right back here before you know it.
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