Can two operating systems coexist? The Pixel Slate thinks so
Chrome OS didn’t have tablets in mind when it was first introduced. There’s no question about that. But to account for the Pixel Slate (and a recent cropping of other Chrome tablets), Google has introduced software changes to support touch-only controls and make the Pixel Slate more than a laptop with a touchscreen.
Some of these new features are still buggy, but that can always be fixed. The larger issue is a philosophical one that no other device attempts to address. Can two operating systems functionally coexist on just one device – and do we even want them to?
The evolution of Chrome
Let’s start with these new touch-friendly features built into the new version of Chrome OS. They represent the bare bones of what we could call a “tablet mode,” so don’t expect the fancy gestures and animations you get in iOS. Still, the way they’re implemented between laptop mode and tablet mode often feels disparate or inconsistent. On their own, our complaints may seem minor, but together they disrupt the feel of using Chrome OS day-to-day.
I can’t imagine ever seeing a public version of Android this half-baked.
The most obvious new feature is the app launcher, which automatically replaces the desktop when the keyboard is disconnected. In no other situation is it more obvious that Google is unsure of what to do with the two worlds of web apps and Android apps. A web app icon, which is just a shortcut, can live side-by-side with the corresponding Android app icon, only differentiated by a small Chrome badge. Should you use the Spotify web player or the Android app? Which is better to use in tablet mode? We don’t like being told what to do with our computers, but a little guidance wouldn’t hurt here, Google.
Split-screen multitasking is another example. It’s a feature people use on both laptops and tablets, so you’d assume they would work the same in both modes on the Pixel Slate. It doesn’t. In tablet mode, you can drag apps to the side in the app switcher, which will automatically split the screen between the current apps you have open. In laptop mode, though, you need to select the apps manually — and once split, change the ratio of the split.
Notifications, which now appear above the settings panel, are yet another example. They’re every bit as helpful as they are on Android, allowing for in-line replies of messages or quickly clearing the slate. However, they look horribly out of place where they’re located. Instead of fitting the visual style of Chrome OS, the notifications are pulled directly from Android, the “Clear all” button awkwardly tucked behind other toggles.
While a lot of these features feel awkward and confusing, some are smart. The placement of the back arrow on the bottom-left corner and the app switcher in the bottom right are both particularly convenient. We wouldn’t be surprised if Google not only fixed these software oddities, but also added more helpful controls in the future. The larger issue remains around Android apps themselves, and it’ll take a lot more work to fix the problem.
Android apps, for good or for bad
The idea of running Android apps on your laptop is undeniably cool, and fills the holes created by Chrome OS’ unflinching focus on the web browser. However, it’s not an app paradise yet.
The larger issue is the Android apps themselves.
Most Android apps have been ported over to Chrome OS in an emulator. These two operating systems do share some DNA on the backend, but there’s little optimization happening. That means Android apps that run in Chrome OS often suffer strange glitches or performance issues.
Consider the “back” arrow in the top left corner of many apps such as Slack and Spotify apps. Like they would on an Android phone, this closes the app. That doesn’t make any sense in a desktop operating system, when the back arrow has always stood for, well, back – as in going back a step in the app. It doesn’t even appear consistently. Some apps have the arrow, others don’t.
Many apps don’t work well with the cursor, and aren’t designed for large displays. Menu bars don’t match the ones you see in Google Chrome – they’re quite a bit smaller and more difficult to use. The Instagram app was among the worst experiences. It couldn’t be minimized into a window and didn’t allow two-finger scrolling on the touchpad. As it is, you’ll find web apps function better than the corresponding Android version.
Even Google’s own apps aren’t optimized for devices like the Pixel Slate.
Games suffer problems, too. Asphalt 9 works great with the keyboard, but doesn’t recognize when it’s removed, so it can’t be played in tablet mode. PUBG Mobile has the opposite problem. It won’t recognize the keyboard and is stuck at its lowest graphics settings.
Does that mean Android apps are useless? Well, no. When you’re using the device in tablet mode, the touch-friendly, full-screen apps are more enjoyable to use than poking around in a web app. We learned to stick to the web browser when in laptop mode, and apps while in tablet mode.
Google isn’t leading the way
Google can only do so much to convince third-party developers to make their app work with Chrome OS, but if the company wants that to happen, it must lead the way. Unfortunately, even Google’s apps aren’t optimized for the Pixel Slate.
Open the Google Play Store in a full-screen window and you’ll see what we mean. App profiles don’t fill out the screen, and if you move your cursor outside the shape of smartphone, you won’t be able to scroll down the page. Need another example? Google Docs, an application that works perfectly in the cloud, doesn’t function at all like that as an Android app. Documents don’t fill the entirety of the screen and you can’t even select text by clicking and dragging.
This isn’t a matter of a few small tweaks. Google has a long way to go, and that starts with its own apps. Why not launch the Pixel Slate with ten top-notch apps that everybody needs?
Impressive, but there’s much work to do
A lot of these problems are the exact reason Apple refuses to port over iOS apps to MacBooks or add mouse support to the iPad Pro. It creates a problem that demands thousands of app developers get on board and solve tricky UI problems.
However, Google is the perfect company to embrace the mess, and the result is the potential to unify the worlds of mobile and desktop in a way that’s never been done before. Over the past year or so, we’ve watched the clean, single-minded purpose of this operating system transform before our eyes. First it was touchscreen capability, then it was Android apps, and now, a tablet mode complete with touch-friendly icons and navigation. It’s not fully baked yet, but the recipe is clear.
Having used the Pixel Slate, we’ve seen where Google is going. The stakes are high. If the company can sort out the mess of these two operating systems, it just may have the ultimate 2-in-1 device on its hands. If not, its Chrome OS tablets will fade away to join Android tablets in our memories.