How to manage downloads and files on your Chromebook

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Chromebooks are designed from the ground up to work “with the cloud” and they do a fine job at it. But they also work just as well with locally stored files if you want to keep things close. Even if you regularly work from the cloud, you might want to keep a local copy of that thing you’re currently working on in case you get stuck somewhere away from Wi-Fi for a bit. Your Chromebook doesn’t really care where you store your files, but because most devices have 64GB internal storage or less, you’ll want to take a bit of care how and where you put the important stuff.

Your Chromebook is a lot like your Android phone when it comes to downloading and storing files. You have a dedicated Downloads folder, or you can choose another spot in the user-accessible portion of your storage drive to place a file when you’re downloading it, and you can move files and folders around as you like as long as you stay out of the system files. On the surface, things look super simple and if you’d like to keep them that way you really only need to remember a couple things.

  • Files won’t be mirrored or stored in your Google Drive account unless you put them in the Google Drive folder through the file manager.
  • Files kept in the “Downloads” folder can be deleted when you get low on space.

But you don’t have to keep things that simple as there are plenty of other options when it comes to storing files on your Chromebook. Things like SD cards and other removable storage devices are a great option as are cloud-based services like Google Drive or Dropbox. You can even store files on a home network device like a NAS box and access them as if they were local. That’s part of what makes a Chromebook great — they are built for networked storage to act seamlessly.

Removable storage

You’ll see an SD card or USB hard drive listed as its own “folder” in Chrome’s built-in file manager. Once you click or tap on its icon, you’ll notice it is exactly the same as your physical storage space when it comes to the look, and it acts the same when you use it, too.

More: Best SD cards for Chromebooks

What you’ll need to remember is what you already know: these files are only there if the media — the SD card, thumb drive, or hard drive — is in place. That’s not a problem if you stick an SD card in the slot and never take it out, but if you use other storage remember to keep the things you often need in a local folder. I have a hard drive at my desk that I attach to my Chromebook when I “dock” it for work. It has music stored on it so I’m not likely to need any of the files while I’m away from my little office space. If I did need to have some documents on hand all of the time, that hard drive isn’t the best place to store them.

Right now, Android apps aren’t installed to the removable storage in Chrome. That should be soon changing and when it does, you’ll need to have your SD card in its slot to use any app you’ve installed that way. A thumb drive or hard drive isn’t going to be a great option if you let Android apps use the removable storage on your Chromebook.

The cloud

You get free Google Drive space when you set up a Google account and most Chromebooks also get you a bit of extra storage free for a year. This makes using Google Drive a no-brainer when it comes to the cloud, but you can use any service that lets you interface with it through a web browser.

Google Drive just works but you can use other cloud services through the Chrome file manager.

Some, like Dropbox, also have extensions that bundle them into the Chrome files app the same way Google Drive is. That’s super-handy because it’s seamless. you can use your Google Drive space (or Dropbox or OneDrive or local Samba shares with the right extensions) just like it was a local folder. You might have to wait a few seconds for things to upload properly once you place them in the Google Drive folder, but it makes for an easy way to store a lot more than you can locally.

Advanced users with a home network with attached storage can set up Windows or Samba sharing and use the Chrome OS Files app the same way through an extension. This gives the same benefit of “unlimited” storage space but allows you to keep files out of the cloud if that’s how you would rather work.

Backups

If you keep everything in Google Drive, you don’t have to worry about backups. That’s what I would recommend, especially if you’re not really a “computer person” and just want to make things simple. Open the Drive storage space in your file manager and create any and all folders for things like photos and music inside of it, and use it. No muss, no fuss.

You only remember backups twice — when someone reminds you and when you wish you had one.

If you don’t use Google Drive for all things you’ll want to remember that you should always have at least one backup of every important file you own. Two backups of every file is even better. You have a couple of great options available to you when it comes to backing up files from your Chromebook.

You can back up important files to an SD card or removable USB storage device. Just plug it in and wait for a second or two for your Chromebook to see it and set it up, then copy things over like you normally would. All you need to do then is remove the card or drive and store it somewhere safe.

You can back up important files to Google Drive, even if you normally don’t use the service. It’s just like copying files to any local folder, just choose the Drive storage space and create any folders you need for backups. Even if you have extra space for a year and decide not to renew it after, anything you store in Google Drive is always available. You just can’t add any new files once it’s full.

Setting up Dropbox or OneDrive with the file manager is as easy as clicking a button.

To use another online storage service, you can upload files through the company’s web interface. When given the opportunity to choose a file for uploading you’ll see the Chrome files app and it works exactly as you would expect.

You need to keep backups because everything is erased when you “Powerwash” your Chromebook. In other operating systems you can reinstall the whole OS without losing your user data and files. Chrome OS doesn’t work that way — when you reset a Chromebook through what’s called Powerwashing, everything is erased forever. You’re probably never going to do this by accident, but if you lose your Chromebook or it gets stolen, everything is gone forever. Back up your stuff.

About the Downloads folder

The Downloads folder in Chrome is not a regular folder. It’s a place where you can dump any file and any other app has access to it, but it’s managed by the OS itself. You can keep files in the Downloads folder and access them normally, but when you reach the point where 80% or more of your local storage is used the OS will randomly delete files in the Downloads folder to free space.

Chrome OS doesn’t have a Recycle Bin. When a file is deleted it is gone forever unless you have the means to rebuild it from a forensic check of the storage. Make it a practice to never keep any large file in the Downloads folder and to regularly move out any files you’ll want to keep.


Managing files and folders on a Chromebook isn’t hard, especially if you’re used to doing it on another operating system like Windows or macOS. All you need to know are a few extra details about the special way Chrome can work with the cloud and you’ll be a wizard in no time!

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