Alt-Tab is an often overlooked keyboard shortcut on Chrome OS that allows you to cycle recent applications without using a mouse. Despite the productivity potential, the Alt-Tab switcher is mediocre because it lacks interactivity. For example, you can’t use the arrow keys or your cursor to select and launch recent applications, making them frustrating to access if they’re placed towards the end. The developers at Google realize that the Alt-Tab experience can be better, so they tackled the interactivity issue head-on to help you quickly open your recent applications.
As spotted recently in the Dev channel, Chrome OS uses a combination of shortcuts and gestures to help you quickly launch recent applications in the Alt-Tab switcher. For instance, you can finally navigate using the left and right arrow keys or move your cursor to select and focus applications. Other small changes include adding a three-finger touchpad swipe to scrub applications and pressing the enter or space key to focus the application chosen. Here’s how the new interactivity features work.
Using your cursor
Selecting a recent application with your cursor is a notable addition that Chrome OS surprisingly didn’t have until recently. While pressing the Alt and Tab keys and holding Alt down, you can move your cursor to any window you want to open and click it. It’s incredibly useful if you’re going to quickly select and focus an application without having to press buttons on your keyboard.
Using the arrow keys
Did you know that Alt-Shift-Tab navigates the Alt-Tab switcher in reverse? I sure didn’t. In contrast to Alt-Shift-Tab, the arrow keys are much easier to remember. The left arrow key navigates the switcher backward while the right arrow key moves the selection forward.
Enter and Space key
The Enter and Space keys aren’t as handy as the other Alt-Tab improvements coming to Chrome OS, but they may help ease the learning curve. If you want to maximize a recent application you selected, you can either hit the Space or Enter key.
You can quickly scrub through running applications in the Alt-Tab switcher using three fingers on the trackpad, just like Chrome tabs. Three fingers to the left will move the selection backward while three fingers to the right will navigate forward. Despite the productivity potential, I feel that the trackpad gesture sensitivity is too weak to be practical. I often misselect windows when I try compensating for the lack of responsiveness. Also, there’s a weird quirk where scrubbing windows with the trackpad gesture also affects Chrome tabs in the background, but I imagine this will be fixed in the future.
Alt-Tab still needs work
Adding interactivity to the Alt-Tab switcher makes a huge difference to my workflow. As a student, I often juggle through several Chrome windows at once while writing research documents for school. I was surprised I couldn’t navigate the Alt-Tab switch using my cursor or the arrow keys like Windows. Because of the interactivity limitations, I never used this feature since it was not productive for my Chrome OS workflow.
There is still work that needs to be done for Alt-Tab to be a useful productivity tool. For example, I wish Chrome OS would offer a close button in the Alt-Tab switcher to close a recent application without focusing its window first. My Pixel Slate also struggles to maintain an acceptable framerate when I navigate several windows, especially when using the three-finger swipe gesture. But by far my biggest gripe with Alt-Tab on Chrome OS is the awful layout when more than three applications are opened.
It’s a pain to cycle through multiple windows.
As you can see, the Alt-Tab switcher overflows past the right side of the screen. If you navigate past the third window, the switcher scrolls from the screen’s right side. While it allows a larger window preview to be seen at a glance (thus making it easier to recognize), I cannot see my other windows, meaning I have to cycle through several applications before getting to the end. Google can easily fix this usability issue by exposing all of the active windows in the Alt-Tab switcher (similar to Windows).
I’m happy to see Google recognize the need to do something to improve the Alt-Tab switcher on Chrome OS. Despite their current shortcomings, these new interactive features are a solid improvement that will help speed up your window management workflow. They’re currently live on the Chrome OS Dev channel and should soon roll out to the Beta and Stable channel.