How Chromebooks Just Got a Lot More Interesting
It’s no secret that we’re fans of Chromebooks as general purpose computers and would definitely recommend them — especially to users looking for a secondary device that makes it easy to multitask or convenient to stay connected when they travel. But for many people, a Chromebook has still been a tough sell. Chromebooks are web-centric, and are built to run just web apps, not the native apps and software you’re accustomed to on your smartphone or traditional laptop. But that’s changing, according to a major announcement that Google made at I/O 2016.
As explained on the company’s Chrome blog, Google has listened to customers who want to run more apps, use Office files more easily, and do more when they’re offline on their Chromebooks. So Google is bringing the Google Play Store to Chromebooks, which means that Chromebook users will “be able to download and use Android apps. . . make a Skype call, work with Office files and be productive offline — or take a break with games like Minecraft, Hearthstone or Clash of Clans.” The same apps that you’re accustomed to running on your Android smartphone or tablet will be able to run on Chromebooks.
It’s been rumored for quite some time that Google would do more to bring Android and Chrome OS closer together, and at one point, rumors indicated that Google’s efforts could result in laptops that run the Android operating system. While that’s not exactly what’s happened, at least not yet, Google notes that “Chromebooks have always been about making computing more accessible for everyone, and by bringing together the best of Android and Chrome OS, we are taking a big leap forward.”
Dieter Bohn reports for The Verge that Android apps “are just what Chromebooks needed,” noting that the announcement makes Chromebooks “a lot more compelling to users who might have shied away from using a device that could only use the web and web apps.” Bohn reports that while most of the apps that will be available to Chromebook users were originally designed for smartphones, they run well on the Chromebook Pixel 2 on which he tried the system.
In fact, the Android apps that Bohn tested on the Chromebook were fast and felt “fully integrated” with Chrome OS, and the apps should run well on virtually any compatible Chromebook — even low-end devices with limited specs and resources, since Android apps are developed with a wide range of smartphones in mind and even the cheapest Chromebooks still have more power than many current Android phones. Bohn reports that Android is intelligently integrated into Chrome (and the version of Android that’s baked into Chrome will be Android N). Apps appear as independent, separate, resizable windows instead of showing up “inside some weird Android zone,” and their notifications appear inside Chrome OS’s notifications area.
He explains that even complex features show up as you would expect, and Google “seems to have made all the right decisions with the UI, but more importantly it’s also made the right decisions under the hood.” For instance, Android “isn’t run in emulation or as a virtual machine, it’s essentially fully native on the laptop. It has full access to the Wi-Fi, processor, RAM, and other components that it will need. Both Chrome and Android will be able to access the same local file system.”
Additionally, the integration with Chrome OS solves some of the traditional problems with running Android on larger screens. While apps on Android tablets or even phablets simply run full-screen, and make it obvious that they weren’t designed for large displays, you’ll be able to run Android apps in smaller windows on your Chromebook.
As far as the Google Play Store is concerned, your Chromebook will just be another Android device, and when you set it up, it will sync all of your Android apps as if you were setting up a new Android phone or tablet. You’ll be able to browse the full Play Store in Chrome and install any app, and when you hit Chrome OS’s search button to call up the search box and app launcher, both Android and Chrome apps will appear. And if Android developers take advantage of the new base of Android users, you’re likely to begin seeing “desktop-class” native apps for Chrome OS in the near future.
The Google Play Store for Chromebooks will be available to developers early in June, then a month or two later will hit the beta channel, and then will be ready for all users in the fall. According to Google’s list of Chromebooks that will support Android apps, the first Chromebooks to be able to install Android apps will be the Acer Chromebook R11, the Asus Chromebook Flip, and the Google Chromebook Pixel 2015.
These three devices will gain access to the Google Play Store in June. A wide variety of Chromebooks from Acer, Asus, Dell, Haier, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Toshiba, and other manufacturers will be able to run Android apps “later in 2016,” and Google notes that it will update the list as more devices are added. The idea is to add compatibility to the vast majority of Chrome OS devices, including both Intel and ARM-based devices.
However, Ars Technica’s Andrew Cunningham notes that some older devices, including the original Google Pixel, Google’s list of Chromebooks that will gain access to the Google Play Store in 2016 doesn’t include most Chromebooks that are more than two years old. Google says that that’s intentional, and while Android apps should be supported on all new Chromebooks going forward and older hardware from 2015 or late 2014, “hardware older than that isn’t likely to run them.” Cunningham reports that the cutoff is mostly age-based, and isn’t influenced by the device’s OEM, capabilities, speed, price, or CPU architecture.