Google began making its Play store available for select Chromebooks last month. And now that we’re a few weeks into this limited rollout, access to apps built for Android devices seems like a game-changer for users of the tech giant’s other operating system.
Google introduced the Chromebook concept five years ago, launching cheap computers that took seconds to start up and would never get bogged down by old files because all the real action would take place remotely, in the cloud. These small, light laptops come packed with super-fast SSDs, or solid-state drives, and most will provide a full day of battery life or more. Chromebook sales grew this year (thanks largely to the K-12 school market); PC sales continued a decline that started in 2012.
But Chromebooks have a few knocks against them, one being the paucity of apps available. You can use all of the Google Drive tools, of course, and there are photo-editing and productivity apps. But on the whole, the Chrome app store just hasn't offered a large number of choices. Many are just links to websites. And Chromebook owners who wanted to use Google's newest apps, such as Allo or Duo, have been out of luck.
In contrast, the Google Play store hosts millions of productivity, entertainment, and gaming apps for Android tablets and smartphones. And, as we found out, getting access to those apps makes a big difference if you're using a Chromebook.
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After a couple weeks using Google Play apps on a Chromebook Pixel, one of Consumer Reports' recommended models, I think users will appreciate this long-anticipated move by Google.
Great lightweight photo-editing apps like Snapseed run extremely well in my experience, and those looking for an alternative browser can now download Firefox or Opera. (That in itself feels like a big change.) Pokémon Go fans will be disappointed, but games including Marvel’s Contest of Champions and Fast & Furious Legacy look great on a large display. And users who have paid for apps on their smartphone don't need to repurchase them for their Chromebook. That's not the case for users of Mac OS and iOS, whose app stores remain separate.
Not all Android apps are available. Play looks for tablet-compatible apps that run as windows on the desktop or, if optimized, full screen. Apps designed for smartphones are a mixed bag. A number of them, such as Instagram, aren't available but others, like Snapchat, open as a smaller, vertical window.
Some gaming apps, such as Badlands, aren’t optimized for a full-screen experience despite offering it as an option. And for some reason, Snapchat displays a rotated image from the onboard camera, and some filters just don’t work.
At the top of every app window is a back button that functions like those on Android devices. To the right is a drop-down menu that lets you choose between portrait and landscape orientations, alongside the typical window management buttons that can close, maximize, and minimize the app.
Despite some quirks and stumbles in the early stages of the rollout, this update breathes new life into a platform that, aside from a few minor updates, has been more or less the same since the beginning.
The availability of apps and the popularity of a platform feed off each other. JumpStart is a firm that develops learning-based kids' games for iOS and Android. “It takes investments of time and capital to build anything," says its chief revenue officer, Jim Czulewicz. "So what's being built should have as wide an audience as possible to reduce risk of an investment without returns." That's why developers have focused first on Android and especially iOS, and have left Chrome as an afterthought, he says. “It's less of a risk to build on those platforms, and the returns can be greater.”
In other words, Chromebook users could have faced a long wait before developers of many popular and useful mobile apps turned their attention to the Chrome OS. Opening up the Google Play store could end up making the platform a much more robust option for consumers.
When Will Your Chromebook Get It?
In a Chromium Projects blog post, Google says that while it “won't be able to bring Android apps to every Chromebook ever made, we're continuing to evaluate more devices based on a range of factors, like processor type, GPU, and drivers.”
Currently only a few Chromebooks support Android apps, including the Asus Chromebook Flip, Acer Chromebook R11 / C738T, and Google Chromebook Pixel (from 2015), with 64 more models getting ready to work with Android apps later in 2016 or 2017.
Even if Google Play apps do come to your Chromebook, you may have to invest in a new machine for the full experience. There are a number of convertible models and ones with detachable keyboards, but most Chromebooks feature the clamshell design of a laptop—not exactly great for smartpen input or playing a racing game. Even more important, only about 15 percent of the Chromebooks in our ratings even feature a touch screen, which is the primary mode of interaction with Android apps. (Chromebooks that feature a gyroscope or an accelerometer for gaming apps are basically nonexistent.)
That could change once consumers have a strong incentive to buy a Chromebook that can take fuller advantage of Android apps. For a full list of recommended Chromebooks, check out our buying guide and ratings.
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