Chrome is a hugely popular browser and ready access to a plethora of extensions is one of many things that makes it so hugely popular. And it may be surprising for some to learn that keyboard shortcuts can be used to access extensions or that those can be custom-set by end-users. But they can.
Now, Chrome and Chrome OS are already loaded with a wealth of shortcuts. Like many of the most useful of those, setting those for extensions up does require a physical keyboard. That shouldn't prove a problem regardless since mobile Chrome doesn't support extensions anyway. So this obviously isn't meant for smartphones or other small-form-factor gadgets. But it's worth noting now, well before we dive into the process itself.
With that said, here we'll go through the steps behind how those settings can be discovered and those required to set up the shortcut. But we'll also discuss what custom shortcuts for Chrome extensions can and cannot do, as well as why that's likely the case.
First things first, this won't work for every extension but that's okay
As will be shown in the images used in this walkthrough, not every extension is going to be supported by this. The feature won't, in any sense, allow users an easy way to access more passive extensions. Or stand in as a way to turn extensions on and off easily. At the very least, it won't unless turning things on or off is one of the core functions of the extension in question.
So there's no security focus behind the feature. It isn't going to be a great solution for those who want extensions to only have access to specific sites or data. To do that, users will need to find the extension icon next to the URL address bar/Omnibox. Then they'll need to right-click on the extension icon, hover over the "This can read and change site data" option, and select from the available options there. Those include options to allow reading and writing for "When you click the extension," only for the current site, or for "On all sites."
Stepping past that, not every extension will be supported either. It's not immediately clear what the prerequisites are to qualify. But, of the eleven extensions that were installed on this work machine, only two appeared to work. And only one of those was built by Google. The other is Grammarly. We'll be using Translate for this example, as seen in the image galleries embedded below.
That will, of course, limit usefulness for custom keyboard shortcuts for extensions, to an extent. But there are undoubtedly plenty of extensions that work with this. And plenty of those could certainly be improved if they were simply made easier to access. So it's still a useful feature to be aware of.
Why use keyboard shortcuts for Chrome Extensions?
The biggest advantage of using custom keyboard shortcuts to access chrome extensions is that it eliminates the need to use the mouse. The shortcuts effectively launch the extensions in-browser UI. For those who are keyboard-savvy, the "tab" key can then be used to navigate between on-page options. Then, a simple click of the "enter" key will select that option. So it can be a serious time-saver.
That also means that accessing extensions is going to be easier. Particularly if not all of the extensions that are enabled show up in the UI next to the Omnibox. So setting up custom keyboard shortcuts for extensions means ready-access to those, even when they're not in sight and easily accessed via the mouse, to begin with.
As already noted, while it could easily — and mistakenly — be assumed that turning on these custom keyboard shortcuts can serve as an easy way to turn on or off extensions, that's simply not the case. Such functionality would, of course, be desirable. Especially since at least some extensions have been caught out engaging in dangerous activities before.
So being able to turn them on or off quickly would be great for security and privacy reasons. Users could easily turn off extensions to stop them from accessing browsing data, for instance. But that's not something these shortcuts will do. The feature is, realistically, only good for the convenience and the time it can potentially save over time. And that's also likely for privacy and security reasons.
It wouldn't necessarily be impossible for Google to implement the ability to use keyboard shortcuts to disable or enable extensions. But that could potentially create an exploitable loophole or vulnerability in the way that extensions can be interacted with behind the scenes too. That's something that malicious extensions or entities could potentially use to steal data or worse.
Having said that, saving time and effort can be its own reward too.
Here's how to find the feature and turn it on
As might be expected, finding the keyboard shortcuts option for Extensions is relatively straightforward. There are, in fact, several ways to do so. But the easiest of those is going to simply be to use the Chrome UI and built-in menus. For simplicity, we won't be using the keyboard shortcuts for accessing that menu. So, of course, we'll just use the mouse instead. To turn on and set up keyboard shortcuts for their extensions, users will need to:
- Open up the Chrome browser. Again, this works on Chromebooks and other desktop or laptop platforms.
- Tap or click the three-dot overflow menu. That's located at the top-right-hand side of the UI, just below the 'x' icon that's used to close Chrome
- Click or tap on the "More tools" option, located just a few placements away from the bottom of the resulting menu
- Click or tap on "Extensions" in that "More tools" submenu.
That will cause a new window to open up in Chrome in a new tab. As expected, the resulting page will showcase all installed extensions, whether those are disabled or not. And, as a result, that serves as a great place to turn on or off extensions as well as getting more details about any given extension. But that's not the menu we're looking for.
From there, users will need to follow just a few more steps:
- Tap or click on the three-dash overflow menu at the top-left-hand side of the UI. The menu will slide out from the left-hand side. As of this writing, it only houses two options. Those are "Extensions" and "Keyboard shortcuts"
- Click or tap on the "Keyboard shortcuts" option. Extensions that support custom keyboard shortcuts will be shown automatically. All others will be removed
- Next to the desired extension, select the text box for the desired extension
- Type in the desired extension shortcut. The system is set up to only accept shortcuts using the standard "Ctrl," "Alt," and/or "Shift" keys. So one of those will need to be pressed and held, at the very least, before it will register the shortcut. The process shouldn't be too difficult. But a small message displayed below the entry box will also work to guide users through this step
- In some cases, the shortcut creation menu implies that the keyboard inputs will be applicable when typed outside of Chrome too. But the associated drop-down menu selection can be left on the default "In Chrome" for the purposes of this walkthrough
- Close the tab or adjust other shortcuts and then close the tab. The changes are saved automatically
What's the expected behavior from custom keyboard shortcuts for extensions?
Once Chrome's built-in menu for extensions has been closed — or navigated away from — the custom keyboard shortcuts are immediately usable. But that doesn't mean users should expect exactly the same experience from any and all extensions. That's going to vary, depending on how the extension responds to interaction with the mouse.
For the Google Translate extension, interactions are exceptionally straightforward. As with a click, activating the extension with the keyboard shortcut pops up a small Google Translate card at the top of the UI. The text box for entering items to be translated, into whatever the native Chrome language is set to, is already selected. So, in this case, we'd easily be able to type in the desired text, hit the "enter" key, and see the results.
Conversely, as noted earlier, the selectable items can be cycled through with the "tab" key. So it's fairly easy to move over to the "Translate this page" option too.
That's because the UI that appears upon shortcut entry is the same that appears when the extension icon in the upper section of Chrome's UI is clicked or tapped. In every case, that's going to hold true.
For example, Grammarly is a checking tool for writing. It has toggles for different options from spelling and grammar checking to searches for definitions and synonyms. As with Google Translate, all of those options appear too and are selectable in the same way. So it stands to reason, after fairly extensive testing across a few more extensions, that behavior can be expected regardless of which extension is being accessed.