About a year ago, I wrote a column suggesting what the major tech companies should try and accomplish in 2016. For Google, I said: “It would be pretty great if Chromebooks could, out of the box, run all Android apps — provided that, unlike on the recent Pixel C tablet, the Android apps were able to adapt better to a bigger screen.”
I’m happy to report that the first Chromebook designed from the ground up to run Android apps out of the box has arrived, albeit a little past the end of 2016. It goes on sale this week for $450. It’s called the Samsung Chromebook Plus, and it runs on an ARM processor, the same type of processor that powers the vast majority of smartphones and tablets. It was designed in close cooperation with Google.
Alas, in my tests of the Plus over the last few days, I found the Android execution frustrating.
The Android app feature is still in beta, not all apps work, and too many of those that do run seem like awkwardly blown-up phone apps, not software that’s tailored for the Chromebook's 12-inch screen. And there are other issues.
I found the Android execution frustrating
Of course, the Plus, which has a touchscreen and comes with a stylus, is still a Chromebook. That means it runs the Chrome OS along with Android apps. And, purely as a Chromebook, it’s very nice. Chrome OS, which is basically a browser that runs everything, including web apps, does fine on this model and its ARM processor.
But if you’re looking for a laptop-style, bigger-screen version of your favorite Android phone, I can’t recommend the Plus now. Optimizing a large number of Android apps for the Chromebook is “going to be a long process, to be honest,” one Google official conceded, noting the beta label on the Google Play Store for the Chromebook.
A second, very similar, new Samsung Chromebook, the Pro, is due out in April. The only significant difference between the two is that the Pro runs on a low-end Intel processor and costs $100 more. I tested it briefly, and found it to be even buggier in its current, very prerelease state.
purely as a Chromebook, it’s very nice
I won’t say much about the otherwise identical hardware on these two Samsung machines, since I think it’s the Google-driven Android / Chrome OS combo software that’s their key claim to fame.
Their screens are vivid, sharp, and responsive. As on many laptops, you can rotate the screen around so that the relatively thin, light, 2.4-pound laptop becomes a relatively heavy, thick tablet. The stylus fits nicely in a slot and works well for things like screen capture, taking handwritten notes, and annotating images. The overall design isn’t especially sexy or sleek. The keyboard lacks a backlight, and the touchpad is a tad small. In my tests, battery life was just shy of eight hours, even with heavy web and app use and streaming a full-length movie.
For a better understanding of the hardware (as well as his own take on the software), I recommend my colleague Dieter Bohn’s reviews of the Plus and the Pro.
Android Writ Large. Um, no.
Compared to running apps on a smartphone, or, more aptly, an iPad, the app experience on the Samsung Chromebook Plus is distinctly subpar. There are likely several reasons for this. Even though this laptop uses the same processor family most Android devices use, the apps are running atop Chrome OS. Google deserves credit for making this work at all, but it’s still a bit laggy and buggy.
For instance, in one case I ran into, two Android apps on the Plus were open, but unusable, because they kept blinking and jumping in front and in back of each other rapidly. This happened while I was on the phone with a Google exec who worked on the project. He said it was a known bug that will be patched this week. And there are other bugs.
Android apps crashed or froze multiple times a day
In my tests Android apps just crashed or froze multiple times a day on the Plus. Even a hugely popular app like Facebook only loaded into part of the screen with an endless spinning circle in a blank right rail. And Google’s own Gmail crashed when I was attaching a photo to a message.
But there’s a larger, more fundamental problem: Android apps, including Google’s own, are almost never designed to look right and run right on a large screen — even a standard-sized tablet, let alone a laptop.
There are two elements to this. One is visual: many Android apps look like blown-up phone apps. Some, like Google News & Weather and Google Docs, don’t seem to resize for the bigger screen, so they present a relatively narrow column of text swimming in unnaturally large borders. Others, like Facebook Messenger, stretch the text horizontally to fill the space, in a weird way that makes the type tiny.
The other is functional. Most Android apps I downloaded to the Plus didn’t use the larger screens to add helpful extra panels or other UI elements, but still had the narrow, cramped UI of a phone screen.
This is in stark contrast to the way iOS apps behave on larger iPad screens versus iPhone screens. For instance, on the iPad, Facebook Messenger has two panels — one for contacts and one for conversations. It doesn’t look like the single-column version on iPhones or Android phones — or on the Plus.
That’s because Apple has long given developers the tools and the encouragement to do dual (or “universal”) versions of their apps, and its app store installs the bigger-screen versions on iPads.
Google has been saying it’s working on better tablet apps for years
Google says it is working hard to do this, but it has been saying that for years. The company says it’s optimizing its own apps for the Chromebook, and urging third parties to do the same. But, judging from the 20 or so well-known Android apps I tested, this process is just starting.
The company conceded it had done special work to make several of its most popular Android apps, such as Gmail and Google Calendar, look and work well. But it also says that it believes most Chromebook users will still use many productivity apps like these in the browser.
Another issue: in tablet mode, apps are always full screen. You can’t create the multi-app views or even narrow sidebar views of apps that you can on an iPad or a Windows tablet. Google says this will be possible in a future release.
If you buy the Chromebook Plus and intend to use it mainly as a Chromebook, I expect you’ll have a good experience. But if you plan to rely heavily on Android apps, you’re basically buying into the start of a journey, replete with odd-looking presentations of familiar apps, bugs, and crashes. You can certainly go along with Google and Samsung on this journey, but I can’t recommend that for a mainstream Android lover who just wants things to work right.