Android apps have arrived on Chrome OS. Right now they can be run on three Chromebook models, a number that will increase during the rest of 2016 and into the start of 2017 (Google has a full list). To save you the wait, we got hold of an Asus Chromebook Flip to show you how the Android experience works on a Chromebook.
First, depending on when you’re doing this and which Chromebook you’re using, you may have to put your Chromebook into developer or beta mode. To do this, go to About Chrome OS in the Settings pane, then click More info and Change channel. Pick the developer channel, the least stable.
After a quick restart you’ll be ready to go. A new Play Store icon appears in the launcher and on the bottom shelf next to all the usual web app shortcuts, and after you confirm you agree to Google’s terms and sign in with your account you can start downloading apps.
Browsing and installing apps is much the same as it is on a phone, with clicks replacing taps, unless you have a touchscreen Chromebook like the Flip. The usual Chrome OS notification bar shows which apps are installing and which ones need updating. When an app is installed, it appears in the launcher like any of the regular web apps, and can be pinned to the shelf as well.
Most Android apps launch in a phone screen-sized window. You can maximise the window if you like, but plenty of apps don’t like this much and become more unstable as a result. Remember this is still early, beta test days for Android apps on Chrome OS. Many can simply switch to tablet mode, while some apps have an extra menu button that lets you manually switch between Portrait and Landscape modes.
We were able to get Dots & Co and Snapchat up and running, though unfortunately Apple Music brought up the message “Your device isn’t compatible with this version.” The same message appeared for Instagram. Spotify has a decent web interface but we installed the Android app anyway, and found it functioned perfectly well, even down to caching playlists for offline listening.
While we wait for developers add all of the necessary tweaks and edits to their apps, this is still a pretty buggy experience, with apps occasionally crashing and just not working properly. We noticed a lot of apps crashed or paused when other apps (or websites) were loaded up alongside them.
In general, though, the apps run exactly as they would on your phone, and even at this early stage it’s a pretty natural and intuitive experience. It’s like having another Android phone to your name, with a full-sized keyboard and screen, and no cellular connection.
Notifications appear inline with other Chrome OS notifications, which works well, and some (like Hangouts) even have the same interactive notifications that are available on Android devices (so you can reply to a message without having to open up the app).
Meanwhile at the top left of every window is a Back button that works exactly like the Back button on Android. Obviously the Home and Overview buttons aren’t needed.
In the Chrome OS settings, there’s a new link for Android preferences that takes you to a limited version of the familiar Android Settings app (it lists 6.0.1 as the version number). You can change notification settings, uninstall apps, check the available storage, and not much else.
It does make you think about which apps this is going to work best for though: obviously for Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs and so on, the websites in Chrome OS are superior to the mobile apps. And for the apps built specifically for mobile — Snapchat, Instagram, Uber — the Chromebook experience is largely pointless.
What does that leave? Games, obviously, as well as productivity apps that can give your Chromebook more offline functionality. Plus any kind of messaging or word processing app where a physical keyboard is helpful (and where a web interface isn’t available).
Overall, even at this fledgling stage, the whole Android-on-Chrome-OS experience works rather well and better than we expected — the signs are good for when the feature rolls out for everyone later this year.