As promised, Google has started rolling out an update to Chrome OS that lets you download and install Android apps from the Google Play Store.
Right now the Chrome OS 53 update is only available for the Asus Chromebook Flip, and you’ll need to be on the developer channel to run Android apps. But the update should be available for the Google Chromebook Pixel (2015) and Acer Chromebook R11 soon, and later this year it will roll out to additional Chrome OS devices.
Fortunately, Asus recently loaned me a Chromebook Flip for testing purposes, so I’ve been playing around with Android apps on a Chromebook for the past hour.
Update: There’s a newer build of Chrome OS that keeps apps from crashing when you rotate the screen and which makes it easier to distinguish Chrome web apps from Android apps.
Update 2: It’s also possible to sideload Android apps that may not be available in the Play Store.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- You can install most apps from the Play Store.
- But not all apps will behave the way you’d expect.
- All apps can run in full screen or windowed mode, but you cannot resize the windows.
- And when you maximize the window for some apps, you’ll just see big black bars on the side of the screen, because the app seems to think it’s running on a phone rather than a tablet.
- While you can open multiple Android apps at the same time, if you’re using a video app the video will only play when it’s in the foreground: you can’t play a video in one window while actively surfing the web in another, for instance. 7/19/2016 Update: That’s no longer true. More recent builds of Chrome OS allow you to watch videos using Android apps in one window while surfing the web or doing other activities in another.
That said, I was able to install Google Play Movies & TV and Netflix and stream videos from both apps. Whenever I switched to another app or Chrome browser window, the video would pause.
I was also able to install the Snapseed image editor to get a few features that are missing from Chrome’s built-in photo editing tools. I also tried Photoshop Express, but it couldn’t find pictures from my downloads or screenshots folders and wanted me to install Google Photos.
For reading, I installed Amazon Kindle, Marvel Unlimited, and Hoopla for eBooks and comic books. They all work fine in laptop mode, but rotating the screen and trying to read comics in full-screen tablet mode is a bit clunky (most of these apps freeze if you try to do that right now… but I’m hoping this is a kink that will get worked out).
Kodi media center even runs, although I didn’t test it extensively.
And yes… now that the Play Store is available, that means you can easily install Firefox, Opera, or other web browsers on a Chromebook.
Just note that you’ll end up with the mobile versions of those apps, while you still have the desktop version of Chrome… unless you install the mobile version of Chrome, because you can do that too (although I kept getting “unfortunately Chrome has stopped” error messages when I tried to actually run Chrome for Android).
Microsoft’s Office mobile apps including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint also work just fine.
In addition to the Google Play Store, Chrome OS 53 brings an Android Settings menu, which you can access by clicking the “App Settings” icon in the Chrome OS settings page. This gives you the ability to view Storage & USB details, Apps, Security, Location, Accounts, and other options.
Note that there’s no “unknown sources” option, which means there’s no simple way to install Android APKs that are not from the Google Play Store.
Update: Actually you can install apps from unknown sources. But you’ll have to enable developer mode to do it. We’ve got a step-by-step guide.
Overall Android apps are already a welcome addition to Chrome OS… although the feature feels a little rough around the edges. But that’s not surprising for an initial, developer channel-only release. Hopefully things will only get better.
I’ll share more thoughts about Android apps on the Chromebook Flip in the future. Acer is also sending me a Chromebook R11 so that I can compare the experience of two of the first (and cheapest) Chromebooks to support Android apps. Some of the key differences between the two convertibles is that the Acer model has an Intel processor and an 11.6 inch display, while the Asus Chromebook Flip features a Rockchip ARM-based processor and a 10.1 inch screen.
So far I’ve been pretty impressed with the Chromebook Flip’s performance. It may only have 16GB of internal storage, but there’s plenty of space to install a few essential Android apps (as long as you don’t consider games with gigabytes of graphics to be essential), and the Rockchip RK3288 processor seems to be fast enough for most tasks, including web browsing in Chrome or running Android apps.
The Chromebook Flip has a list price of $249, but it’s often on sale for less than that. Best Buy is currently selling the convertible Chromebook for $229.