There are now three Chromebooks that can run Android apps. About a month after rolling out an update for the Asus Chromebook Flip that adds support for the Google Play Store and Android apps, Google has rolled out a similar update for the Acer Chromebook R11 and Google Chromebook Pixel (2015).
You’ll need to be on the dev channel to use Android apps, and things are a little buggy at launch. But if you have one of the three supported Chromebooks you can get a sneak peek at a feature that will be rolling out to dozens of other models in the future.
Acer recently loaned me a Chromebook R11 so I could test Android apps on this 11.6 inch convertible notebook with a touchscreen display. It typically sells for around $250.
Once the update is downloaded, all you need to do is reboot your Chromebook and follow the instructions for signing into the Google Play Store using the same account you use to sign into your Chromebook.
Not all Android apps in the Play Store are supported, but the vast majority that I looked for were at least available for download. Some were a bit buggy. Pokemon Go installed just fine, but it froze when I tried to launch it. And Google Play Books worked perfectly… the first time I ran it. The second time it wouldn’t launch at all and seemed to freeze the Android subsystem, making it difficult to close apps or launch new ones until I rebooted the Chromebook.
Update: Play Books seems to run again after a reboot… but if you close the app and try opening it again, it will freeze again.
That said, Marvel Unlimited, Amazon Kindle, Netflix, Google Play Movies, and other apps I installed all worked pretty much as you’d expect. They all recognized touchscreen, touchpad, or mouse input and they adjusted their layout and position when I switched from notebook to tablet mode and rotated the screen from landscape to portrait.
Alternate web browsers like Firefox seem to work reasonably well. So do Microsoft’s Office apps for Android, such as Excel. And I installed the Solid Explorer file manager to navigate through files downloaded using Android apps.
I installed SPMC, which is a fork of media center app Kodi, and it seems to run well, but it couldn’t recognize any shared drives on my home network and the user interface looked a bit funny in windowed mode, but seemed fine when I maximized the window and used SPMC in full-screen mode.
I was able to use FX File Explorer Pro to find files on a Windows PC connected to my home network and then open them in SPMC or other media players, but the two-step process is a bit inelegant. Keep in mind, this is a pre-release version of Chrome OS. Future versions may work better, and app developers may also release updates that improve compatibility with Chromebooks.
By enabling developer mode (which is different from running the dev channel), you can also open the Android Security settings (go to Chrome OS settings, look for the Android Apps section, and click the link that says “Manage your Android apps in Settings”) and toggle the button that says “Unknown apps” in order to sideload apps.
Using that method, I was able to install the Amazon Appstore and Amazon Video apps… which allows you to download videos from Amazon for offline viewing. Note that the Amazon Video apps doesn’t seem to fully support full-screen mode though, so videos won’t fill your whole screen.
If you just want to stream videos though, and don’t need to download them, you can always just visit Amazon Video using the Chrome web browser. While Android app support is a shiny new feature, there’s still a lot you can do with a Chromebook without Android apps.
Overall, the experience of running Android apps on the Acer Chromebook R11 is very similar to that of running them on the Asus Chromebook Flip, even though the Asus laptop has an ARM-based processor and the Acer model has an Intel chip.
The key difference may be that the Acer Chromebook R11 is a larger device. It has an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, measures 11.6″ x 8″ x 0.8″ and weighs about 2.7 pounds.
The Asus Chromebook Flip, meanwhile has a 10 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display, measures 10.6″ x 7.2″ x 0.6″ and weighs about 2 pounds.
Asus also used a metal case for its convertible Chromebook, while Acer used plastic. And the Asus model features power and volume buttons on the side of the system where they’re easy to reach when holding the Flip in tablet mode, while the Acer model has just a power button on the side, but no volume buttons.
All told, the Chromebook R11 feels more like a laptop that happens to have a tablet mode, while the Asus Chromebook Flip feels like a device that’s equally at home in laptop or tablet modes.
I haven’t tested the two extensively enough to say which is faster or more stable when running Android apps. It’d probably be silly to do that while running dev-channel software. But I will be testing the Chromebooks more in the coming days and weeks to get a better sense of what it’s like using Android on the Acer laptop.
Note that while these are two of the first three Chromebooks to support Android apps, most other Chromebooks launched in the past few years will be getting Android support eventually — although models without touchscreen displays might not be able to support as many Android apps.
And we can also probably expect a whole new crop of Chrome OS devices designed to take advantage of Android apps support. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more convertibles, 2-in-1s, and a range of Chrome OS computers including entry-level and premium models announced in the coming year.