You may or may not know this, but Chromebooks have been stuck on Android 9 for quite some time. As a matter of fact, we can trace the last major Android update on Chrome OS back to February of 2019. Yes, over two years to wait on an Android update is a bit excessive, but Google did make the choice to skip over Android 10 in favor of working on Android 11 since this version of Android has a far better way of dealing with windowed apps. Obviously, on Chromebooks, that’s a pretty important factor in how all this works together.
With this update to Android 11 finally arriving in a way that actual users can try it out, it looks like Google is closing in on a few big changes to the way Chromebooks handle Android apps moving forward. For now, this only shows up for users on ‘Hatch’ devices (10th-gen Comet Lake processors) in the Beta Channel, but it should roll out more widely in the coming weeks. Let’s start with the big change under the hood.
ARCVM is finally a thing
If you’ve not come across ARCVM here on Chrome Unboxed before, let me quickly explain this one. Right now, nearly all Chromebooks run Android apps in a container called ARC++ (Android Runtime Container). This container was the early adaptation of what Google is now far more fluent at with Chrome OS: containers of all shapes and sizes. When Android apps were first launched, they built the ARC++ container and it worked well enough to say Chromebooks ran Android apps, but future work on things like Crostini (Linux containers), Parallels (Windows via PluginVM containers) and ongoing work for Borealis (Steam via custom containers) have clearly made Google rethink how we should get Android apps onto Chromebooks.
ARCVM was spotted quite some time ago and we’ve been seriously talking its implementation for over a year at this point. We’ve known that eventually Google would replace the old ARC++ container with a tech far more akin to what they are doing with Linux apps, Windows apps, and Steam games (coming soon, hopefully): we just didn’t know exactly when the big change would occur. As we’ve been seeing signs of Google paving the way for Android 12 on Chrome OS, it was initially rumored that Google was going to again skip the current version of Android in favor of the next. We never bought into that idea, and I’m glad it wasn’t accurate, because Google’s fixes for Android apps this time around are going to really encourage a far wider use of them.
With Android 11 in place on the latest Chrome OS 90 Beta build, it was also spotted by Android Police’s Kent Duke that not only is this an upgrade to Android, ARCVM is the container running it. The screenshot of the build details from my Acer Chromebook Spin 713 is a bit ridiculous to include, here, but you can hit this link to actually see the reference in the text if you need further proof. The Android apps I’m running on this Chromebook are in the new container and though I’m not really seeing any difference in performance – good or bad – this is an important move as Chrome OS and Android continue to integrate more tightly.
For one, it should make troubleshooting Android issues on Chrome OS easier moving forward. Two, it likely makes future versions of Android far more compatible with Chrome OS. And third, it finally allows users to sideload applications onto their Chromebooks if they choose without putting the Chromebook into Developer Mode. Just like with Android, you need to enable Developer Mode in the Android settings (tap the build info a few times in the Android settings) and you are ultimately responsible if things go sideways, but dropping downloaded apps on your Chromebook no longer requires the user to put the Chromebook itself in Developer Mode and this means things are far more secure than before when sideloading Android apps. And far simpler, too.
App scaling is fixed this time
Google tried to put uniform app scaling in place back in October of last year, but things went awry. The change caused all sorts of issues and in the end, Google ended up pulling the update and holding back until now. I’d guess the scaling issues are far easier to adjust in ARCVM versus ACR++, but that’s simply a guess at this point. Either way, uniform scaling is here, controllable (in the Developer settings for Android), and it makes Android apps on Chromebooks feel so much more at home. Gone are the days of tiny text, strange menus, and under-sized elements on the screen. Instead, Android apps feel incredibly native now and I have to say I absolutely love this change. I mean, take a look at how perfectly the text and menus of the Squid app now match the system-level stuff in Chrome OS and how much more native YouTube Music looks compared to the web version.
Apps like Gmail, Google Photos and Netflix feel so much less out of place on my Chromebook now with these changes, and I love the idea that I might actually start using certain Android versions of applications here and there. Mainly, however, I’m excited for all the new users coming to Chromebooks for the first time that will get to experience a far better version of Android on Chrome OS. Will there still be hiccups with apps here and there? Sure! But at least when you launch a new app you want to try, you won’t be painfully reminded of the bolted-on nature of Android on your Chromebook. It just feels so much more at home, now.
Dark mode for Android apps is here, too
As Chrome OS gets closer and closer to seeing system-wide dark and light themes arrive, it looks like Android 11 will be up for the challenge, too. Though not enabled out of the box, in the Developer settings of Android 11 on your Chromebook you can put your device into Dark Mode with the flip of a switch. When you do so, apps will take on the dark theme they’ve been assigned just like they do on your phone. Until Chrome OS finally gets the system-wide dark and light themes in place, however, this won’t be very effective for most users as-is. Here are a few shots of it in action, though:
For now, that’s about it with Android 11. I’m spending a good deal of time with it right now and we’ll likely put out a video explaining how to get all this running and include other tidbits we find along the way, but it is safe to say that this is the most beneficial end user update for Android apps on Chrome OS that we’ve seen so far. As a guy who tends towards web apps for just about everything, it is a big deal when I actually want to try out Android apps again. For years they’ve been there as an added bonus, but it really feels like these latest changes get Android apps closer to being first-class passengers on the Chromebook train.