Chrome OS has come a long way in 6 years that it has been around. The platform has infinitely more features and functionality, has a robust ecosystem of extensions and now Android apps, and is no longer a “cheap” OS for “cheap” hardware. It has grown up, a lot.
But if there is one area that it still has lagged when comparing it to the likes of MacOS or Windows 10, it has been in the User Interface. Yes it has changed a bit, most notably with the introduction of a task bar in 2012, but fundamentally it has always been a browser-based platform with a clunky but functional UI. But that changed in a big way this week with the released of Chrome OS build 61.
Build 61 brings the most dramatic changes to the User Interface to date. It brings an all new app launcher, significantly improved support for Android apps and a much more polished lock screen. These many not sound like big ticket items but these changes bring the platform as a whole more into the mainstream look of an Operating System and out of the “geeks only” look that the platform has had to this point. It also points to the never ending work that the Chromium team within Google perform to not only keep it as a secure and reliable OS but also bringing features that users are expecting in a desktop or laptop platform. With more improvements on the horizon, this new look UI will only improve over the course of 2018.
New Lock Screen and Launcher
The biggest changes to this release of Chrome OS are the new Lock Screen and App Launcher. The Lock Screen has shed its sign-in box for a translucent screen with your account avatar in the center and a simple, single line to input your password. It looks far more polished and less utilitarian.
Perhaps the bigger change in this new build is the App Launcher. Gone is the pop-up box style launcher and instead, you have a panel that raises up from the task bar. The panel has a omnibar at the top, allowing you to search for apps, URLs and files that are on your Chrome OS device as well as Google Drive and, of course, Google Search. It gives you one place to truly launch whatever it is you need at that moment – an app, a file or search information. While this type of search was in previous builds, in Build 61 it has been cleaned up and is far faster.
Below the ominbar you will find your most recently used apps or services. These can be Android apps that you have installed but also could be links to services (like Google Docs for example) that you recently used. Below this is where you will find a down arrow so you can full expand the app drawer to show all of the apps & services you have installed. The app drawer is now full screen so it is bigger and easier to navigate and/or find the app you are looking for over the previous pop-up box.
As you would expect, all of these changes to the app drawer are aimed at making navigation easier on touch devices. The down arrow to expand the drawer, for example, is large and easy to tap (or click on a non-touch device). Google clearly sees touch as a key part of Chrome OS going forward as Android apps becomes the norm for users on the platform. These changes take advantage of those features to make touch navigation feel natural.
All of this, to a large extent, falls under the guidelines of Material Design. Google wants apps to all look and function in a reasonably similar way for a good user experience. Chrome OS is getting this same type of makeover too. Starting back with Build 58, we started seeing Material Design slowly creep into Chrome OS. It started with Settings and the overall look of the browser itself but has now expanded to almost every part of the platform. Indeed we will likely see even further expansion of Material Design in Chrome OS Build 62 at the end of this year to include the Flags page.
Not sure what Flags are? They are various, often experimental, features or functions you can enable in Chrome. Go to chrome://flags to check them out (and they work in the Chrome browser too!)
Android App Support Greatly Expanded
In April, I posted an update on the number of Chrome OS devices that could run Android apps in the Stable Channel. For those new to the platform, the Stable Channel is the mainline production build of Chrome. There is also a Beta Channel and a Developer Channel which is best considered as Alpha. At the time, only 6 devices could run Android apps in the Stable Channel and and additional 2 were in the Beta Channel.
Fast forward to today and Build 61. Fully 34 devices are now able to run Android apps in the Stable channel while another 3 are in beta. 65 devices remain in the “Planned” phase but that is down from 84 in April. Great progress has been made in six months but there is still great work to do clearly.
The good news is that Google has mandated several key features for all Chrome OS devices starting this year. USB-C is required along with the ability to run Android apps. It is not optional. The question remains on if all of the older devices that are “Planned” will actually ever see Android app support. Google insists it will but plans change the longer it goes. But what is clear is that the future Chrome devices of the world will have to run them.
The onus is now on developers to assure that their apps will run and behave on Chrome devices. While Google has made it easy for developers to get their apps to run on Chrome – it is literally a change to the app’s manifest – getting it to run well actually does require some work. Even Google needs to sort their scene in this regard but it will happen as more devices – old and new – are running Android apps.
Finally, and it may seem odd to think about it, but the question of which version of Android is running in Chrome OS is important. In March at the Google Cloud Summit, I was able to confirm that Android Nougat would be coming to Chrome as the baseline Android framework. That’s now happened with Build 61. What does this mean for you as an end user? It means that apps run far better in window mode and are able to keep some background tasks running. It’s just a better experience and makes Android apps far more useful and functional.
Security is Still The Top Priority
While all these changes are good to see in Chrome OS, the fundamental principle of security remains the top priority for the Chromium team. The platform is arguably the most secure out there but Google continues to push to keep it there with a constant flow of updates that protect users and their data. Indeed they still have the offer of $100,000 to anyone who can compromise a Chromebook in Guest mode. To date, they haven’t had to pay it out.
Back in my Windows days, I was often asked “when should I upgrade to the next version?” My answer was always the same: The day that updates quit being developed for the version you are on.
I still stick by that saying, especially for Windows devices and MacOS devices. But Chrome OS is different in that it is constantly updated. Every month there are security patches and other updates along with major builds. Sure, there comes a point where an older device won’t run the latest build – and we are approaching that point fast – but until then, Google will continue to keep things secure for users. Security remains job #1.
Give Chrome OS a Serious Look
I’ll close with a simple request: If you have not looked at a Chrome OS device seriously, now is the time to do so. Chances are the vast majority of your data is already online, making the security of having very little of your data on a device appealing. The hardware running the devices has increasingly become sophisticated and beautiful and looking at the UI itself doesn’t make you feel like you are looking at an engineering project.
Chrome OS is now as beautiful as it is secure.