The Chrome OS and Android Convergence
The announcement that Android applications were coming to Chrome OS in 2016 has generated a significant amount of excitement, both in the tech press and with existing Chromebook owners. People have been speculating for years that there would be a so-called convergence between Android – Google’s mobile phone and tablet OS – and Chrome OS, Google’s desktop and laptop OS.
By leveraging the massive library of applications in the Google Play store, merging Android and Chrome OS together would significantly change the Chromebook landscape, adding a wealth of productivity and entertainment options into the Chrome OS world. This would especially benefit Chromebooks that were operating offline, where Chrome OS has much more limited functionality due to its reliance on web apps. It might also solve some of the challenges Google has in the consumer space, such as difficulty with certain types of files (like PDFs), with printing, and an absence of entertainment options, particularly while offline and with regard to games.
At least, that’s been the general line of thinking, and one that I’ve mostly shared. If I were able to install games like Minecraft and apps like MS Word and Amazon’s Kindle app, that would make my Chromebook much closer to a full-fledged laptop, truly eliminating my need for a Windows laptop or Android tablet. This is even more true if Limelight game streaming, PDF apps, audiobook apps, retro game emulation, and easier Printing functionality all come into play.
Obviously, there are many varied reasons why one might be excited to have Android apps on their Chrome OS device. Owners of the Chromebook Pixel 2015, Acer R11, and Asus C100P “Flip” get the first crack at Android apps on a Chromebook.
First Impressions, Mixed Bags
Unfortunately, we’re still very much in the alpha days of this convergence, and the actual experience of using these apps isn’t quite as effortless as I had hoped. Partially this comes down to how Android apps are running in Chrome OS.
Google’s solution of running the apps in a “container”, where they have some shared resources but the app itself has extremely limited access to the Chrome OS file system, protects Chrome OS with regard to stability and safety. That’s a key mantra for Chrome OS, and one reason why it has done so well in the education market.
Unfortunately, this also means that at present, these apps aren’t running like an integrated part of the operating system, but rather feel isolated not just in terms of system access, but also in how they can be used. I think that many people hoped this OS merger would come close to an official Google-supported version of Remix OS, but that isn’t the case at all thus far.
An aside for the curious: Remix OS is a heavily customized version of Android that adds a full desktop launcher, and desktop-familiar functions like multitasking through multiple windows, and window resizing and movement. You can learn more about it here in my review of the Remix Mini.
Compared to Remix OS, the current version of Android apps running on Chrome OS via Google’s solution feels, and is, more limited and less integrated.
Most Some apps will reset and launch from scratch if you go from full-screen to partial screen or vice versa [Note: the most recent update as of 7/31 has set most apps to pause when users click outside of the app, though some still reset], and windows can’t be resized to user-selected dimensions. Some don’t resize at all, and lack fullscreen support. Because apps freeze or reset if you click out of them and into a Chrome OS web app or Chrome tab, you can’t effectively multitask or run most Android apps in the background. The container approach also means that Android apps, at least at present, can’t utilize controllers via USB or Bluetooth, which majorly impacts some of the hoped-for gaming options that this merger would bring. [As of 7/31, the controller support issue has been fixed in most apps, such as Geometry Wars 3 and the EMU emulation apps]
And, reliance on the app developers to patch in mouse and keyboard support along with bug fixes and so on, may be unrealistic.
Because Google is always updating Chrome OS, some applications will go in and out of functional and non-functional statuses from update to update. The Play Store itself has had some bugs following certain OS updates. Still, I thought it might be interesting to go through my experiences with a variety of apps thus far; just keep in mind that these results may be totally different after Google’s next OS update.
Google Play Store
Having access to the Google Play Store is definitely a rush when you first do it from a Chromebook. Over my seven years with Android, I’ve accumulated a fairly large library of software and games, both free and paid.
The overall experience of the Play Store on a Chromebook is uneven. I occasionally will have crashes in the Play store; this seems to come and go depending on the current version of Chrome OS, and whatever tweaks Google is making behind the scenes. That’s frustrating, and something that they need to fix; I’m concerned about this, since Google has allowed some ridiculous Google Play Services bugs to linger for long periods of time in Android.
Still, when it is working, the experience is just like what you’d see on a phone or tablet. You’ll be able to display and update your installed apps, and navigate to your full library of apps. Those that aren’t supported won’t show as available to download.
Amazon Kindle App
Having the Kindle app available to replace Amazon’s mediocre web version was high on my wish list, and thankfully, it works extremely well. This is especially true on the Flip, where the smaller form factor makes it much easier to use as you would a tablet for reading; the R11 makes for a very large and uncomfortable faux-tablet.
I’m not sure how great the experience of reading books or graphic novels on a regular Chromebook will be, but on the Flip, this is a must-have app.
Crashlands is one of the best Android games of the past 12 months, and one that I strongly recommend you purchase. It is a sci-fi Survival / Action RPG hybrid, and it was also released on Steam, so its user interface works well both with a mouse and with a touchscreen, in theory making it an ideal game for Chromebooks.
The game itself installs fine and runs perfectly, and it looks great on a larger display as well. I was able to access my Cloud saves, which was awesome. Unfortunately, resizing the app causes it to reboot, so you have to be very careful not to click outside of the app while it is running. This is a common issue with multiple apps; more generally, you can tell that Google’s own apps are much better positioned to work correctly on a Chromebook than 3rd party software, which shouldn’t surprise anyone at this early stage. In addition, while there is touchpad and mouse support, the keyboard doesn’t work, so any typing you do has to be via on-screen keyboard.
All that said, this is one of the better games available for Android-enabled Chrome OS devices.
One of the biggest apps that people want on Chrome OS is Hearthstone, and the Android version appears to run flawlessly on Chrome OS. It has fullscreen support, and performance is decent on the Flip, but quite good on the R11. Thankfully it also does not crash or reboot when you work outside of the app.
This one is a big win for Google.
I think at this point everyone is familiar with Minecraft, and the Pocket Edition has dramatically improved since Mojang was acquired by Microsoft, in terms of catching up features to its PC and console versions. Having access to Minecraft in Chrome OS would be a major victory for Google.
Unfortunately, this is very much a mixed bag at the moment. The app loads, but there’s no fullscreen support. That in and of itself isn’t so bad, but when I first tried it, there was an issue with navigating the touchscreen, where taps (or clicks via mouse) are “off” by some degree on the screen, such that you’re always hitting the menu option above the one that you want. That appears to be fixed as of 7/29/16, though there’s still no fullscreen support.
Mouse support is poorly implemented in gameplay as well, so you can navigate via WASD, but instead of the expected mouse input, the cursor is just emulating touch on the screen, so it is a bizarre way to play. Using the onscreen keyboard is very uncomfortable and just not an ideal experience at all; this is especially disappointing knowing that Pocket Edition has perfect XB360 controller support built into the Android and Windows 10 versions. The controller is detected as of 7/31, however it isn’t functional due to some sort of issue with phantom inputs from the left analog stick. This will hopefully be fixed in a future update.
Performance isn’t all that well optimized, either, considering how light the Pocket version is. It does appear to run better on the R11; the comparison isn’t completely fair, as my R11 has 4GB of RAM compared to 2GB of RAM on the R11, but it is also worth noting that the Intel 3160 quad-core GPU is also just flat-out more powerful than the RK3288 Rockchip in the Flip.
Definitely a lot of work needed on this one.
Fallout Shelter is a fairly decent free-to-play title that was released by Bethesda to hype Fallout 4. It is somewhat shallow, but still entertaining in short sessions because it nails the aesthetic of the Fallout world so well. How’s it play on a Chromebook?
On the R11, Fallout Shelter opens up, can run in fullscreen mode, and has great mouse support.
Unfortunately it also crashes after the loading screen once you select your three-digit vault number, so it isn’t functional. As of 7/31, it is working perfectly on the R11 and the Flip. Thankfully, the same bug isn’t an issue on the Flip, where the app works without issue, and I have to say it looks fantastic. This is the only app I’ve found so far that may have an issue due to the Intel process in the R11 vs the ARM processor in the Flip. As a point of comparison, This War of Mine runs on both devices.
One of my favorite games of 2015, Downwell is a retro-inspired platformer/shmup/rogue-like hybrid. I particularly like it on Steam playing with a controller, but the touchscreen versions for Android and iOS are also good fun, and highly recommended.
Unfortunately, Downwell isn’t ideal to play on Chrome OS. It has no keyboard support, and mouse support isn’t really useful for playing the game. As of 7/31, controller support has been added, and works perfectly. This makes Downwell one of my go-to games for Android going forward!
On the C100P, you can fold the keyboard all the way back and use the device as a tablet, and this works fairly well, though the applications lacks fullscreen support. On the R11, you can try to do the same thing, but the larger size of the Acer Chromebook makes this fairly uncomfortable, and on either device, the experience is poor. Note: as stated above, this is really no longer valid except for those who are trying to play without a controller.
NES.emu, GBA.emu, SNES9x Ex+
These emulators are among my favorite Android applications, providing a stable and really great experience with classing Nintendo games. All of them run fairly well on both the R11 and C100P, though there’s some issues with menu navigation, and fullscreen doesn’t always work successfully.
That said, there’s no controller support at this point in time for Android, so you’re stuck playing these applications via physical or on-screen keyboard. With regard to the physical keyboard, this is functional, but pretty far from ideal for most games of the 8- and 16-bit genre. The on-screen keyboard is pretty miserable to use. Without controller support, these are all a bust as far as I’m concerned.
As of 7/31, the controller support issue appears to be addressed. Using an OEM Wired Xbox360 controller, I was able to plug-and-play with these; all three listed Emulation apps auto-detected the controller. Fullscreen support isn’t really there at this time, but all of them run extremely well.
YouTube / Netflix / fiosMobile
Having access to video content consumption apps was another item high on my Android wish list, and yet another that I’m finding to be a mixed bag. Google’s YouTube app is definitely great to have, as it brings the full functionality from Android over, inclusive of saving content if you have YouTube Red. Netflix and fiosMobile function just fine, and in fact I feel that navigation in all three apps is faster and easier than in their web-based versions.
Unfortunately, the issue of having apps reboot if you resize them or click out of them is a huge pain in the rear, and makes them feel less convenient than watching on the web versions. This is especially true if you’re used to using Panel Tabs to pop video windows into a panel, where you actually get far more flexiblity than you’re getting here in Android.
Again, a mixed bag. The YouTube app is a big win for me as the easier navigation and familiar interface combined with easy offline content saving, will allow me to use this as a tablet replacement for my son. For me, I appreciate the better performance, but the give away in terms of being able to watch and listen while doing other things, is usually more than I’m willing to put up with.
This app installs and loads, but video content is displaying in the wrong resolution on the Flip in fullscreen mode. I haven’t been able to figure out how to resolve this. Note: still an issue as of 7/31.
MS Word has an impressively stable and feature-rich version available on Android, and it works perfectly in Chrome OS. While I think that most Chrome OS users should, and will, still default to Google Docs and its integrated Google Drive support, for the times when you absolutely need MS Word, it is great to have it available.
I’m not quite sure how Microsoft will handle the issue of mobile versions of MS Word or other Office apps being available in Chrome OS, but I suspect they’ll disable it for Chrome OS devices and require an Office 365 subscription or software license purchase.
Google Docs / Sheets / Slides
Regardless of what Microsoft does, the application versions of Google’s free productivity suite are available through the Play store; truthfully, though, their isn’t a huge difference between these and the web versions, and given the better stability and ease of moving and resizing windows in Chrome compared to the Android application containers at this point in time, I don’t see any benefit to using the app versions over the web app versions users are accustomed to.
Geometry Wars 3
The first time I loaded this up, it crashed, but it worked perfectly thereafter and has automatic detection and support for XBox360 gamepads. I mention the crashing only because this is fairly typical with Android apps at this time; for some reason they’re prone to crashing out when first loaded, but working fine after, so don’t be surprised if you run into this issue.
As you can see, there are a wide range of results thus far, with some apps working perfectly, and others being a broken, buggy mess. Beyond my disappointment with any specific applications, there are a few things I think Google needs to address before taking this project out beyond the initial three devices (the Pixel 2015, Acer R11, and Asus C100P “Flip”):
- Figure out a solution for applications needing to relaunch when users resize or click outside of the application; as things stand, multi-tasking between Android apps, or a mix of Chrome OS web apps and Android apps, really isn’t possible. UPDATE: As of 7/31, significant progress has been made on this front. For instance, I was able to have Hearthstone open, and switch over to a Chrome window and back, and the app just paused while I was working in another window. Not as ideal as having apps still run, so you can dual-window for productivity, but progress regardless.
Add controller support to allow Android games and emulators to be useful. It may sound inconsequential, but adding a gaming element to Chrome OS would be a big win for Chrome OS in the consumer space.This one is already resolved. Kudos, Google!
- Create a go-forward compatibility requirement that establishes functional mouse and keyboard support for applications that will be available on Chrome OS, so that even if developers don’t go back and make their apps work, at least we know that going forward past whatever the cutover date is, new apps will work.
For now, I’ll continue to check back in periodically with these and other applications, to report on progress. I’m still excited about using Android applications in Chrome OS, but it is also becoming clear to me that in the past two years, web apps have closed a lot of the functionality and performance gap that used to exist between them an their locally stored counterparts, and additionally, that there may not be an elegant way for Google to maintain the security and stability of Chrome OS and merge in Android application support.
And for those of you looking to get in at this early stage, I’ll have a compare/contrast review article up shortly comparing the Asus C100P Flip to the Acer R11, to help you determine which of the two you should purchase.
In the interim, you may want to check out my review of each device:
Written Review – Click here
Asus C100P “Flip”:
Written Review – Click here