It wasn’t long ago that Google decided to announce to the world that it was getting out of the tablet hardware game all together. Doing this within 7 months of releasing a tablet (the Pixel Slate) feels like an odd move, but as I’ve explained in that linked video above, I’m not terribly upset about it. There are many reasons why I’m not really concerned, but one of the biggest reasons for my lack of concern is Google’s continuing dedication to developing Chrome OS for other tablets made by other manufacturers. The update we’re seeing right now in Chrome OS 78 in the Developer Channel shows Google is far from done with Chrome OS tablets.
So, what exactly are we looking at, here? Perhaps not as big of a UI overhaul as we saw with Chrome OS 70’s completely-new tablet mode, but the change is a big one. In general, one of the main duties of a tablet UI is providing the user with a confident, attractive, and smooth way to move between open applications. Users need to be able to navigate the UI with ease and the device needs to be able to keep up with all the moving parts from a basic performance standpoint.
One of the reasons the Pixel Slate was widely panned by reviewers and users alike was the sloppy implementation of multitasking in tablet mode. The overview animation was choppy, the split screen was slow, and the overall jank made even the Core i3 and Core i5 models of the Slate feel slow and under-powered. That wasn’t actually the case and much of that animation stutter has been cleaned up, but you never get a second chance at a first impression and the Slate’s sales were hurt badly by this misstep on Googel’s part.
My guess is with all the tablets and detachables coming this fall, Google wants this all sorted in plenty of time so we don’t have the same pitfall happen again when manufacturers begin getting their new devices on shelves before the holiday season. So, to fully fix up the oft-buggy tablet UI interface, a new way to handle open apps was needed. As it stands right now, when you go into overview mode – whether in tablet mode or desktop mode – you see every open window and app all at once. While this works for laptops with 13 or 14-inch screens, cramming all those little windows on one 10-inch screen gets really cramped really quickly; never mind the massive overhead that comes with rendering all those windows and apps into thumbnails every time you change apps.
This change is only for tablet mode since you generally don’t use overview mode in desktop mode as often as you do in tablet mode. With open windows floating around the interface in desktop mode, overview just isn’t as frequently necessary as switching apps just means moving a different window into view. For tablets, though, people are used to using the multitasking button or gesture on a regular basis to simply move between tasks. On our phones we use this type of function constantly and that is the behavior we fall into on tablets as well. But if you think about multitasking on a mobile device, you never expect to see all those open apps all at once. Instead, you fully expect to see a few and scroll through all of them to find the one you need.
And this is exactly what is happening with Chrome OS in 78. Instead of hitting the overview button or gesture and seeing every single open window, you are now met with 4-6 of the most recent and you can easily scroll through the rest. If you’ve used an iPad in the last year, this interface will feel very familiar. On top of making things a bit easier to see and navigate, this also clears up much of the rendering overhead for Chrome OS tablets. Instead of having to render out 20 open windows or apps all at once, the tablet will only need to render the 6 most recent ones and the rest can lazy-load in the background.
My guess is the majority of the time, you’ll be bouncing back and forth between the last few windows or apps and you won’t even need to scroll around that often. When you do need it, the scroll works great, but the reduced pressure on the processor should go a long way to making the entire multitasking experience much, much smoother for users across the board. What we’re seeing is still clearly in development, but I fully expect to see this cleaned up and ready to go in 6-8 weeks when Chrome OS 78 hits the Stable Channel of Chrome OS just in time for the holiday shopping season. Google may be done with the hardware part of tablets, but they are clearly not done with Chrome OS as a tablet OS.