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Chromebook Pro: life in beta

The nightmare before the dream

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Let's talk about dreams.

As a technology reviewer, I have weird ones — both literally and metaphorically. I spend a lot of time testing a wide array of gadgets, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. So the temptation arises to look at them and wish that this tablet could have that laptop's browser or this smartwatch could have that phone's connectivity features.

The engineers at Google apparently dream the same way, because they have been spending the last six months or so bringing Android apps to Chrome OS. Android phones have a ton of great apps, but their web browsers pale in comparison to what you can get on a Chromebook. And vice versa: web apps are great, but there are times when it's just not enough, you need a "real" app.

This new hybrid system that Google is creating is not a full merging of the two operating systems (which is starting to look less realistic and less desirable by the day), but it could provide all the benefits people dream of when they ask Google to merge Chrome OS and Android.

The new Chromebook Pro is the convertible laptop that's supposed to be the first true manifestation of that dream. It's a $549, Intel-based device coming out in April. And maybe by then, it will be the dream made real. But because its software is still in beta right now, it's not a dream at all. It's the other thing. It's a nightmare.

This is not a review of the Samsung Chromebook Pro. It's not a review because the Chromebook Pro is not ready to be reviewed yet. What you're about to read is just a story about what technology is like when you're living on the bleeding edge, a tale about software that will (hopefully) ever only be inflicted on tech reviewers and engineers.

Beta software is a funny thing. The default advice I give people is to avoid it, but sometimes the siren call of something new and exciting is too much, and often betas are totally usable. Early betas of iOS are too unstable for daily use, but the later ones generally aren't that bad. Same applies for Android betas lately. And heck, once upon a time even stalwart apps like Gmail kept the beta label on for five years. For consumer use, there are good betas and there are bad betas.

There are good betas and bad betas. This is a bad beta

Another example of a pretty good beta is the software on the Chromebook Plus, the companion device to the one I'm writing about here. It, too, features Android software, but since it has an ARM processor that software is a little less buggy. And since the Plus is theoretically a lower-end device and getting released with that beta software, its foibles are slightly more forgivable. I've reviewed the Chromebook Plus in full here.

I'm belaboring all this because what I'm about to describe to you is an experience that you will hopefully never have as a consumer — assuming Google gets its act together. Again, this Chromebook Pro isn't coming out until April, and between now and then Google has insisted to me that everything I'm about to describe is both a known issue and will be fixed.

Luckily, Google is working off a very good foundation. Samsung has manufactured a great Chromebook. The Chromebook Pro has a gorgeous touchscreen, a thin metal frame, and an accurate trackpad. The keyboard is good — but sadly not backlit — and it comes with a stylus. The only real difference between the Chromebook Pro and the Chromebook Plus is that the Pro has a more powerful Intel processor. There's one cosmetic difference, too: the Pro will be black when it's released; the photos and video you see here are of a silver preproduction unit.

Taken just as a Chrome OS device, running the Chrome browser and web apps, I think the Chromebook Pro is going to be great. It can handle running nearly 20 tabs before it starts to slow down, and has a battery that just won't quit. What slowdowns I have experienced have come because there are problems with the Android software that can sometimes affect the rest of the OS.

So let's get into the Android app situation. The way Android on Chrome OS works is something like this: Android apps expect to see Android hardware, so Chrome OS acts as a software layer that provides those Android apps everything they need: Wi-Fi, RAM, time from the processor, etc. It's not really emulation, it's more deeply integrated than that. So, for example, Android notifications are fully integrated into Chrome OS's own notification tray. You can also copy / paste from Chrome tabs into Android apps and vice versa.

Android can run on both ARM and Intel processors, but the vast majority of Android apps expect to have an ARM processor. That means that the more complex apps — like games — are optimized for ARM and have to be translated on the fly to run on Intel. Chrome OS does that work for them, but it's not really good at it yet.

Google itself suggested we try out a game that is pretty commonly used to see if Android devices can display graphics well: 2013’s Asphalt 8. So I dutifully did and the Chromebook Pro dutifully did its best to run the game. But it couldn't keep up with the game engine. The game sputtered along with so many frame rate drops that I literally couldn't steer the car. I kept crashing in the game.

The apps crashed, too. Games like Final Fantasy 7 simply wouldn't load. Other apps would open, hang, and die. There are some memory leak problems, too — which means that Android apps would go rogue and start taking up more RAM than they're supposed to, bogging the whole system down.

I also ran into performance issues with a key new feature of the Chromebook Pro: the stylus. The input lag borders on unacceptable. It's not just that opening up the main app designed for stylus input — Google Keep — is an invitation to take a break and get a cup of coffee. It's that when you start writing or drawing, the digital ink can sometimes be as much as a second behind where your stylus is on the screen. Stylus input should be measured in milliseconds. Google is working on this, too, and will release a version that uses machine learning to mitigate that lag by predicting which pixels are getting drawn on the fly.

The problems go beyond performance, though. There's also the user interface. Right now, Android apps can't be resized like other windows. They can only be displayed in one of a few different sizes: full screen, phone size, or tablet size. Switching between them is kind of a hassle, and I would spend agonizing seconds watching each app reposition and reorient itself.

The reason behind the weird window size thing is that this beta is running the last version of Android, Marshmallow. Google is working furiously to get the latest version of Android, Nougat, running on Chrome OS. When it does, you'll be able to resize windows to whatever size you want — provided developers have updated their apps to support it.

Once Nougat arrives, both Android apps and Chrome OS itself will be able to pull off tricks they can't now. The clearest example is tablet mode. Right now, when you flip the screen around every window automatically goes full screen. There's no way to put things in windows or into split screen. There's also a bug where Chrome windows don't remember where they're supposed to be on the screen when you reopen them after closing them.

Will Android apps ever be good on big screens?

I'd like to tell you that everything will be hunky-dory once Nougat arrives, but the problem goes much deeper than that. The real problem is that the thing we've been complaining about with Android apps on big screens for literally five years now is still a huge problem. Most Android apps — including many apps that are made by Google itself — look absolutely atrocious on a large screen.

Again, Google is promising that this problem will be mitigated or fixed with Nougat, because there will be more tools for developers to resize their apps and because Google is making a big push to get them to do so. I'd like to believe Google on this, but I'm also five years into hearing these kinds of promises without results. Perhaps Chrome OS with Android will be popular enough to entice developers into doing it. But I’m not confident it will be.

Last but certainly not least, Android apps were designed for a phone world, where resources are scant. There are a few standout apps that feel a little more desktop class than others (specifically, Microsoft's Office suite and a few of Adobe's newer apps), but most of them feel and act like what they are: phone apps on a laptop. If Google wants Chrome OS to take on cheap Windows laptops, it needs to do better.

I spent an hour talking with the engineers behind Chrome OS about every single one of these and plenty of other issues. In every single case, they told me they were aware of them and actively working on them. I believe them, and because the Chromebook Pro isn't getting released until April, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that this will all be resolved upon release.

I'll give the Chromebook Pro a proper review then, so again, don't take this cavalcade of complaints as a indicative of what consumers will experience. What you should take away from this experience is that it's not always a great idea to put beta software on the devices you use and depend on every day. Also: that the merging of mobile apps and true desktop web apps may sound wonderful and maybe even inevitable, but, for lack of a better phrase, it’s complicated.

I like cookie dough, but it can make you sick. Usually, it's better to wait until everything is fully baked.

Video by Tyler Pina, Vjeran Pavic, and Tre Shallowhorn / The Verge

Photography by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Shot on location at Beacon Coffee & Pantry