While it's still not perfect, Android on a big screen has been redefined with the Google Play store on Chromebooks.
By now everyone knows that Google is putting Android apps on Chromebooks. If you don't, you can start reading all you need to know right here. And this time, it's not a half-hearted attempt through a weird run-time interpreter that developers weren't interested in using. It's a full operating system that runs alongside Chrome and can integrate seamlessly with things like the native notification system, local files, and the clipboard. That means you can go to Google Play and download an Android app and it will probably work just fine.
This is a pretty big deal. Adding support for Android apps is a turn-key solution for any so-called "app gap" a platform has.Because it's Google that is doing it, that means the biggest Android app repository this side of the moon — the Google Play Store — is going to add a million plus apps all at once. And with "full" Android support and Google Play Services, you can have a great Android experience on something with a big screen, a keyboard, and a big battery. And a much more reasonable price than a high-end Android tablet.
This might mean a Chromebook is the best big-screen Android experience out there.
A million Google Play Store apps all at once tackles any "app gap" nicely.
I've been using the ASUS Chromebook Flip, which is the "official" testing device for the version of Chrome and Play store support, for a few weeks now. While sometimes I get frustrated at the Dev channel — Android app support is still in the experimental phase — when it comes to the Android side things work a whole lot better than I expected. You still see critical bugs and crashes from time to time, but for the most part, Android apps just install with one click and run as expected. Plenty of apps can't take advantage of the bigger screen, and the Flip lacks things like a Hall sensor or a gyroscope so some features just won't work. There is still some work to be done by both the Chrome team and the Android team, but I certainly think the end-result is going to be a winner. And I think it's going to be a better experience than a tablet for a whole lot of us.
Of course, I could be wrong when I think how people use their Android tablets, but everything I think is better on a tablet than a phone is going to be even better on the right Chromebook. I know my usage habits for a tablet like a Pixel C and my wife's on her Galaxy Tab S2, and I know what I hear you guys say about how you use a tablet. And I tell ya if you're going to have something in your hands for more than five minutes, a $250 Flip is already as good of an Android experience as either. And you get a first-class web browser and operating system in Chrome OS to go with it.
$250 will buy you an even better experience than the Pixel C.
Android apps run on a Chromebook the same way they run on a tablet. Apps that are designed for a vertical orientation are a small window that doesn't take advantage of a big portrait screen. Menus are clunky and buttons have poor placement on some older apps because they want to squeeze everything into a small space and use a static layout. Some apps are just bad because the people making them just never cared about a tablet. Others, though are pretty damn great — having the Android Hangouts app on my laptop is a thing of beauty when compared to the Chrome version.
That Android Hangouts app is a great example of why I think Chromebooks running Android nominate tablets for a spot in the desk drawer. Having a well-designed app can be a better experience than a dedicated website or a browser extension. A single window with access to the app features you'll use most, readily accessible that you can minimize to an icon works great for messenger apps like Slack or Hangouts. Other times, having a full desktop web browser complete with extensions is the best way to fly. Hello, YouTube. Hello, Facebook. The seamless integration — Android apps look and feel native on Chrome OS — means you can freely mix and match between the web, a Chrome app or an Android app and get the best experience you can tailor for yourself.
Phil and I have been talking about that. Are people going to be overwhelmed when they have multiple ways to get to the same content? With a web page, a Chrome app and an Android app that all do the same thing some people might not know which way is the best way to do it. But I think the learning curve won't be that difficult, and people who don't live and breathe tech news 24/7 will adapt easily enough. And when we do adapt, we'll be able to do things like have Facebook open in a tab in the background or a separate browser window, Slack or Hangouts or Skype minimized to the shelf, and our TPS report spreadsheet or word processor or whatever front and center so we can pretend to be working. And those can be open in Google Docs on the web or as a Microsoft document through their excellent Android apps. Mixing and matching a mobile app experience and a more traditional experience makes for an interesting future for the form factor. Especially when you need to be "productive."
Mix and match Android and Chrome apps to tailor things to your liking.
Entertaining things like Netflix or your favorite mobile time-waster will run as well or better on a Chromebook as they do on a tablet, because of the choice in how we want to view it that we talked about a paragraph up the page. But when it comes to productivity — actually doing things like working or creating — the Chromebook form factor blows any tablet out of the water.
I've witnessed folks struggling on an iPad or Android tablet because they needed to be productive. There are two major hurdles — the application you're running was designed for a mobile device and the form factor isn't nearly as friendly when you're doing your stuff. The first issue is easily solved on a Chromebook because you can mix and match between the app version or the web front end for things like Google Docs or Office 365. Just use the one that works best. The second issue is solved for you — a Chromebook comes with a keyboard and trackpad already attached.
I'll be honest — I hate the ASUS Flip. I have big meaty hands with stiff fingers and the keyboard and trackpad are tiny because it's a 10-inch device. But it's miles better than the best keyboard you can buy for the Pixel C, which doesn't even have a trackpad. And don't come at me with the line "You can use a mouse on the Pixel C!" That's great at home, but I have no desire to carry a mouse around in my pocket or drag my laptop bag along when I'm out somewhere and need to get something done. We've all seen the guy or gal at Starbucks typing on a Bluetooth keyboard case and poking at the screen because they're working on a tablet, and I've always thought "That dude/dudette should have brought their laptop" when I see it. Convertible or ultra-portable laptops are perfect for most anyone who wants to be productive on the go, and if you don't need a MacBook or Surface Book to do things like crunch numbers on applications written specifically for Windows or MacOS (or don't want to shell out $1,000 or more) a Chromebook can bridge the gap.
Things will be interesting when the new models of Chromebooks come out later in the year. With hardware features specifically added for better Android support, along with a more stable and hopefully finished version of Chrome OS that can run apps from Google Play, things can only get better in the space. I'm excited and ready for a new 13-inch Chromebook to try it all on. With a mobile experience on my big-screen phone, and a mixed app experience on my Chromebook I'll be using my Pixel C even less than I am now.