Not all of your files are stored in the cloud. Learn how to move files between your Chromebook and an external hard drive, thumbdrive or SD card.
Chromebooks are built with cloud storage in mind and offer a pittance of local storage — usually only 32GB or 64GB. So, instead of storing a bunch of Word docs and Excel files on a Chromebook, for example, you are meant to use Google Drive or Dropbox. Instead of a large music library stored locally in iTunes, you are meant to use Google Play or Spotify. Same deal with photos — instead of storing photos locally, Google Photos, Flickr or another cloud service.
Chromebooks feature USB ports and SD card slots, however, which let you connect to external storage devices for those times when you need to access a file that you have saved not to the cloud but an external hard drive, thumb drive or SD card. When you connect an external drive or SD card to your Chromebook, however, nothing happens. You won’t see a helpful prompt or a new desktop icon that, A. lets you know the system has recognized whatever it is that you connected to it, and B. provides a quick way to view its contents.
Using an external storage device with a Chromebook takes a little more work on your part. I’ll show you how to view and download files on an external drive and which types of files types and file systems Chrome OS can recognize.
Supported file systems
Chrome OS supports a wide range of file systems for external drives. It can read and write to the NTFS file system that Windows PCs use, read (but not write to) the HFS+ file system that Macs use, and cross-platform FAT16, FAT32 and exFAT file systems. It also supports the MTP file system used by digital music players and ISO9660 and UDF used by CDs and DVDs.
Supported file types
According to Google, these are the types of files Chrome OS supports:
- Microsoft Office files: .doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt (read-only), .pptx (read-only).
- Media: .3gp, .avi, .mov, .mp4, .m4v, .m4a, .mp3, .mkv, .ogv, .ogm, .ogg, .oga, .webm, .wav
- Images: .bmp, .gif, .jpg, .jpeg, .png, .webp
- Compressed files: .zip, .rar
- Other: .txt, .pdf (read-only)
How to read files
When you connect an external storage device to a Chromebook, you’ll need to do a little legwork to access its contents. Click the Launcher button in the lower-left corner of your Chromebook’s display and then click the Files app. If you don’t see it listed, it means you haven’t used it recently and will need to click All Apps and find the Files app listed among all of your Chromebook’s apps.
With the Files window opened, in the left panel you should see your external drive listed directly below the Downloads folder. Just as you can in Windows Explorer on a PC or Finder on a Mac, you can view the drive’s folders and files here. Just double click a file to open it.
How to transfer files
If you want to move a file from an external drive to your Chromebook, you have two options: drag and drop or copy and paste.
More Chromebook news
The Downloads folder is where all of your Chromebook’s local files are stored. You can copy a file from the drive to your Chromebook by dragging it from the external drive and dropping it on the Downloads folder listed in the left panel. You can select multiple files by clicking the tiny, circular thumbnail to the left of the file name; the thumbnail turns into a blue checkmark icon to indicate it’s been selected.
The other option is to copy a file by right-clicking and choosing Copy or using keyboard shortcut Ctrl-C, opening the Downloads folder, and then pasting by using the right-click menu or Ctrl-V.
You can also choose to cut instead of copy, of course, if you want to move the file instead of just copying it. You can also move in the reverse direction and move files from your Downloads folder to your external drive (or Google Drive) to free up drive space on your Chromebook.
Last step: Eject
Like Windows and MacOS, ChromeOS will scold you if you remove a drive before ejecting it. To eject a drive, click the little eject button to the right of it in the left panel of the the Files window.
It’s tucked out of the way and doesn’t offer much capacity, but your Chromebook does offer local storage space. Learn where it’s hiding and how to put it to use.
Chromebooks are built and sold with the idea that you’ll use cloud storage for most if not all of your files. A Chromebook’s files are likely stored on Google Drive. Music is likely played on Google Play. Photos are likely viewed on Google Photos. (Or alternative cloud services such as, say, Dropbox, Spotify and Flickr.)
This web-centric view of the laptop makes Chromebooks easy to operate and inexpensive to acquire, but Chromebooks are not without some local storage. Typically, a Chromebook supplies either a 16GB or 32GB solid-state drive, but ChromeOS treats this local storage as a cache and may delete older files to make room for new files.
I wouldn’t keep the only copies of treasured photos on my Chromebook’s SSD, but it is useful as a temporary storage spot for downloaded files. (For example, to set a custom image for your desktop wallpaper, you first need to download an image from the Web.) Because local storage is deemphasized on a Chromebook, finding it isn’t as straightforward as locating your C: drive.
With this guide, I’ll show you how to access your Chromebook’s local storage, find out how much free space remains and how to save, delete and move files.
Find your Chromebook’s local storage
To view the files stored locally on your Chromebook, click the Launcher button in the lower-left corner of your Chromebook’s display (it’s ChromeOS’ version of the Windows Start button). A window will open showing the apps you have used recently. Look for the Files app. If you don’t see it, click All Apps and find the Files app listed among all of your Chromebook’s apps.
From the Files window, click Downloads from the left panel. The files in this Downloads folder are stored locally on your Chromebook.
Find out how much free storage remains
To see how much of your meager allotment of local storage remains free, open the Downloads folder and then click the triple-dot button in the upper-right corner. This opens a small panel that show’s how many GBs you have left.
How to save files
Any file you download from the Web to a Chromebook gets saved to your Downloads folder. If you find an image online you want to save, for example, you can right-click on the image and choose Save image as and it gets saved to the Downloads folder.
How to delete files
To delete a file, open the Downloads folder, click to select a file or files and then click the trashcan button in the upper-right corner.
How to move files to the cloud
Instead of deleting a file, you can free up local storage space by moving a file from the Downloads folder to the cloud. Actually, you can’t move it as much as copy it and then go back and delete it.
From the Downloads folder, click on a file and drag it to Google Drive listed in the left panel. This copies the file to Google Drive, leaving the original in the Downloads folder. But once you have copied it to Google Drive, you can then go back and delete it from the Downloads folder to free up your local storage.
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For nearly a decade, Chromebooks lacked any cross-device synergy with Android smartphones. Google attempted to bridge the gap between its devices with its suite of Better Together features, but it felt like an afterthought compared to Apple's Mac-to-iPhone integration. That all changed when Google introduced Phone Hub in its big Chrome OS 89 update, and with OS 91, Google finally made it easy to share family memories, documents, and files between Chromebooks and Android devices with Nearby Share. Here's how to use it to transfer files seamlessly between your Google devices.
First impressions are everything, and Google continues to knock its onboarding experience out of the park. Nearby Share's setup UI helps get the ball rolling by offering an engaging experience. To get started with Nearby Share, open your Chrome OS device's settings. On the first page, under Connected devices, you'll see Nearby Share. Click Set up.
Google loves to integrate its simplistic interface everywhere — Nearby Share is no exception. The onboarding UI acts as a compass to help you set up Nearby Share on your Chromebook. It's dead simple to use, and the Google-y illustrations help you stay engaged during setup.
After assigning your Chrome OS device a name, you can customize your privacy so that all or some of your contacts can see your laptop. Selecting "hidden" will keep your device invisible unless you enable it from the shelf. Once the setup is complete, it'll drop you into Nearby Share's settings for review. Before transferring files, both of your devices should be nearby with Bluetooth and location enabled.
When you want to transfer something to your Chromebook, sending it can be unwieldy. Nearby Share simplifies the process and cuts down the time spent trying to share the file. For this how-to, we'll be using Google Photos to share an image with my Chromebook.