Welcome to the brave new world of Android apps on Chromebooks

Android app support for Chromebooks is now a reality. Here's what you need to know about this exciting new feature.

acer chromebook 11 n7 c731 front
Acer

The line between Google Chrome and Android operating systems is becoming less distinct. This is great news for Chromebook users, and as Google rolls out the ability for more Chromebooks to use Android apps, the future is looking bright for these inexpensive notebooks. This will go a long way toward minimizing criticism that Chromebooks are just low-power laptops running a web browser.

While that observation is true to a degree, the explosion of cloud-based applications over the past few years has turned that criticism into little more than a glib comment. Chromebooks have become an inexpensive web portal that allows users to perform many daily tasks that don't require powerful and expensive hardware, and things are just going to get better now that Android application support is a reality.

Chromebooks access to Android apps is not yet universal, although that is changing, as all new Chromebooks that are released in 2017 will include Android app support.

If you have an older Chromebook, hope is not lost. While not all older Chromebooks will support this feature, a number of existing and legacy models will also feature Android app support. It requires that Chome OS version 53 or later be installed on your machine, but with the rapid updates to the OS that are a hallmark of these little laptops, that shouldn't be an issue for most users.

Currently, the following Chromebooks can run Android apps in addition to all 2017 Chromebook models:

  • Asus Chromebook Flip
  • Acer Chromebook R11/C738T/CB5-132T
  • Google Chromebook Pixel (2015)

Note that Google intends to expand this list, although a definitive timeline has not been released. A full list of Chromebooks that will run Android apps at some point can be found at The Chromium Projects website.  

This is a welcome development for consumers and developers that will improve the functionality of Chromebooks as we move forward. If your Chromebook currently supports Android apps, all you need to do is go to Google Play while on your Chromebook, click on the settings icon in the upper-right and enable the Google Play Store on your Chromebook. After that, just follow the instructions to get started installing apps.

This new functionality does raise some questions, however. I've narrowed those down to the top three concerns below.

Can Chromebook models that support Android applications run all Android apps?

No. There are some hardware limitations that prevent some Android apps from working on Chromebooks.

Not all Chromebooks include GPS and accelerometers, for example. If an app requires those sensors, obviously that's a problem. If the developer specifically required touchscreen use when they created the app, that is also an issue, and the app will not work properly.

In addition to applications that are excluded by hardware limitations, there are some types of apps that simply don't transition from Android to Chromebooks. These include app launchers and widgets, custom IMEs and live wallpapers. These types of apps make up a relatively small percentage of those available on Google Play, so don't be discouraged by their omission.

Are the Android apps modified to run on Chromebooks?

That is up to the developer. There are guidelines provided by Google on how to optimize Android apps to run on Chromebooks. A Chromebook-optimized app will obviously need to account for keyboard, trackpad and mouse use. In addition, Google strongly encourages developers to keep Chromebooks' relative lack of on-device storage in mind and utilize cloud backups as much as possible.

There are also issues with screen size compatibility and the use of multi-window display on Chromebooks. While unmodified Android apps may run on a Chromebook, they may not always run well if they haven't been optimized.

How does the lack of a touchscreen on most Chromebooks impact app use?

The lack of a touchscreen is the most obvious difference between an Android phone or tablet and a Chromebook, but it is not as big of a problem as one might initially think. Google has thought of this and Chromebooks that will run Android apps support the "faketouch" feature.

In a nutshell, this allows the touchpad or mouse to take the place of the touchscreen. How well this works may vary from app to app, but it shouldn't be too much of an issue for most apps. This newly added Chromebook feature should add to its appeal for people in the market for an inexpensive laptop, and should make ownership more pleasant for existing owners.

If enough developers put in the effort to optimize their Android apps to run well on Chromebooks, this could be a game changer and dramatically increase the flexibility of these laptops. It could also expand the target audience for new Android apps and lead to unexpected innovations as cross-platform app support becomes the new normal.

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