Here’s a fun game to play on any Chromebook that runs Android apps: Pick a service like Slack or Spotify, then try to guess whether you’d be better off installing its app from the Google Play Store or visiting its desktop website.
The right answer isn’t always straightforward. Slack’s Android app gives you a full window instead of a browser tab and lets you respond to colleagues straight from the notification tray, but it won’t let you copy snippets of text or drag files into chat rooms. Gmail’s Android app is better for touch screens because you can swipe to delete or archive emails, but it lacks the desktop version’s full complement of features, including extensions and cursor-friendly shortcuts. Spotify lets you download playlists with the Android app, but the website is better formatted for large screens and has helpful right-click menus for navigations.
Android apps became available on new Chromebooks last year, and are a focal point of the new Pixel Slate, a 12-inch tablet that turns into a laptop with an attachable keyboard case. In a blog post, Google talks up the Slate’s “touch-first” user interface and its ability to run millions of Google Play Store apps. But in making Chrome OS more hospitable for tablets, Google has also complicated the experience on laptops.
Click, touch, or draw
To be clear, I haven’t used the Pixel Slate yet, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with HP’s Chromebook X2, another detachable laptop-tablet that launched over the summer. The software isn’t exactly the same–the Pixel Slate has a new home screen that puts more emphasis on apps and search–but it runs the same Android apps, and its Intel Core-m3 processor is similar to that of the Pixel Slate’s $799 model.
I should also note that I was enthusiastic when the first Chromebooks with Android apps started shipping early last year. The benefits seemed obvious at the time: Suddenly, you could accomplish a lot more on a Chromebook, from syncing files in cloud storage services, to writing in your choice of text editors, to playing a vast catalog of mobile games. Sure, many Android apps weren’t optimized for laptop use then, but Google said it was working closely with developers to change that.
In hindsight, I was too optimistic. More than a year later, the things I’d expect to just work on a laptop, like right-clicking for contextual menus and clicking and dragging to highlight text, seldom work in the Android apps I’ve tried. And even when apps do support these features, the execution can be awkward. In iA Writer, for instance, you can highlight text with a trackpad or mouse, but only if you wait a moment between clicking and dragging. Drag too quickly, and you’ll end up scrolling down the page instead.
Meanwhile, the handwriting experience you get from Android apps is a crapshoot on Chromebooks. Google’s own Keep app doesn’t support pressure-sensitive styluses, and handwriting feels choppy and laggy in Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote. I had a better experience in Squid–apparently the company partnered with Google on low-latency drawing–but it’s unavailable on iOS or Windows, so you can’t pick up the notetaking on other platforms. (I also experienced severe calibration issues with the Chromebook X2, which, with any luck, might not be a problem with the Pixel Slate and its $99 stylus.)
Some apps, like Microsoft Word, do provide a glimpse of what’s possible with proper optimization. The Android app is finger-friendly, but also handles trackpad input flawlessly, and unlike with Microsoft’s Office web apps, you lose none of the screen to an address bar or other browser clutter. But in my experience, Word is the exception to the rule. (It’s probably no coincidence that the educational market where Chromebooks thrive also represents an important part of Microsoft’s Office business.) Even Google’s own Docs app doesn’t handle text selection properly with a trackpad, so you’re better off using the web version instead.
The apps themselves aren’t the only thing that needs work. The same identity crisis that applies to Android apps also extends to Chrome OS as a whole.
On the Chromebook X2, for instance, detaching the tablet mode automatically hides the top bar for closing and minimizing windows, which makes sense. But at the same time, the bottom bar for apps and notifications becomes permanent, even when you’re using an app in full-screen mode. And every time you open a new app, another icon gets added to that bar like it would on a desktop. It’s not long before you’re overwhelmed by open apps to manage.
The underlying issue is that people use laptops and tablets in different ways. With laptops, it’s totally normal to have a half dozen programs open at once, and we’re used to actively managing each window to clear up memory and taskbar space. On tablets, we’re more likely to be using just one or two apps at a time, and we expect the operating system to manage all the apps we’re not using on our behalf. I’m not sure if the Pixel Slate’s redesigned launcher offers any solutions, but using the Chromebook X2 feels like being trapped between two worlds.
That feeling is solidified by the fact that Chromebooks offer both the Google Play Store for Android apps and the Chrome Web Store for web apps. That means it’s possible to fill the bottom app bar with two versions of Gmail, Slack, or Twitter–each with their own experiences, features, and notifications–regardless of whether you’re using a Chromebook in laptop or tablet mode. You’re responsible for deciding which apps to use at any given time, and after a while it becomes exhausting.
Despite all these issues, I haven’t completely given up on the concept of Android apps on Chromebooks. With enough time, effort, and developer outreach, Google could find a better way to straddle the line between laptops and tablets.
But for now, if you’re dead-set on using a Pixel Slate or any other Chromebook, I suggest picking between tablet and web apps at the outset based on which mode you plan to use most, and only hopping the fence in emergencies. Mixing them together is more trouble than it’s worth.