The Samsung Chromebook Plus might be the best place to try new Android features
A Chromebook has a newer version of Android than almost every phone.
If you want to check out the latest features for Android as soon as you can you know what phone to buy: The Pixel. But you still won’t be able to check out every feature because a few are always going to be dependent on screen size. The Samsung Chromebook Plus has you covered. It’s just a better buy in 2017 than a Pixel C and offers the same level of Android support. We’re seeing this now, and it’s not likely to change unless we get new hardware from Google this fall.
Android 7.1.1 for Chromebooks is available right now if you’re willing to run Chrome Canary.
A disclaimer is in order. the Chromebook Plus only has Android 7.1.1 if you run the ChromeOS Canary build. We’re not sure exactly when it will come to more usable branches or even to the stable build, but know that Google is focusing on getting Android on Chrome to the latest version and keeping it there when Android is updated. I don’t recommend anyone who has a Chromebook and enjoys using it to switch to Canary because there will be headaches and broken things. That’s what Canary is — a test bed for things to see how broken they are and what needs to be changed. But if you’re a developer who needs to get ready for what’s next with Android TV or tablets or even other Chromebooks, having it available outside of an emulator is pretty awesome.
A look back at the Google I/O 2017 session Android Apps for Chromebooks and Large Screen Devices shows us why. ChromeOS can look at the version of Android it is running and then adjust how app windows are drawn. Apps target for versions before Marshmallow will show in a static view. Apps targeted for Marshmallow will have two views: windowed and full-screen. Apps targeted for Nougat will be completely resizable.
Cool new features need cool new devices to test them on.
This addresses a major problem that isn’t new or unique to Chromebooks — how to handle legacy applications with no support for new features. It also means the Chromebook Plus is a perfect tool for developers who want to update existing apps or write new ones that support the latest version of Android.
This will carry on when Android O becomes final. The Pixel (or whatever new device Google offers at launch) will be great for testing notification features and new ways to conserve power, but things like universal Picture in Picture are important to test on a larger device. This is all great for developers but it also means people like us — regular users who want the most from their purchase — have a better experience.
This is happening because of how the software on a Chromebook is updated. Samsung has the final say before any updates come to the stable channel, but it doesn’t get to decide how these updates are built or what features they will include. The manufacturer can install an app or extension (most don’t, but ASUS has) on top and certainly has some input on what goes into a new version but the system, including the Android version, is from Google. This is probably why not every Chromebook gets updated at the same time, but it also means that every one of them will be feature by feature identical.
We would hate this on our phones but expect it in a laptop. Every computer running Windows or MacOS has the same system software on it. Regardless of the reason, it means that the Chromebook Plus is almost a required tool for developers and the device to have if you want access to everything a new version of Android has to offer.
We expect every laptop from Apple or Microsoft to have the same features, and Chromebooks follow suit.
I also have a pretty good feeling inside that Samsung and Google are working together on the whole multi-window experience for Android, because it’s pretty important for both companies. Samsung has great support for sizable floating windows, but only for apps developed specifically to support it. It’s really improved and a cool feature on the new Tab S3, and is really needed if they want to continue development for DeX. But what Samsung needs is for Google to build in support at the system level with an intelligent way to support apps that are old. Since there are no extra hurdles when updating the Chromebook Plus, it appears to be the test bed.
Maybe we’ll see a large-format device from Google later in 2017. Maybe not. But the next version of Samsung’s Android software will be better because of the Chromebook Plus. And so will everyone else’s.