Last week we were introduced to Ambient Mode on a few Android tablets from Lenovo. The feature quickly went from being a bit of a head-scratcher to a potential game-changing move in just a few minutes as we verbally processed the news in real time during our weekly podcast. My initial reaction to Ambient Mode on Chromebooks has been negative if I’m being perfectly honest, but my tune has quickly changed as I’ve thought through the benefits that could be leveraged by such a feature on a Chromebook.
Briefly, Ambient Mode for Android is a new feature Google rolled out at IFA Berlin last week that allows tablets to function as a sort of Nest Hub-like device when docked in Ambient Display mode. This mode can be triggered by things like wireless charging or being connected to a particular docking peripheral, but the end result is the same: smart display features from your mobile Android device. At first, this feels pedestrian and maybe almost useless, but let me take you through a few thoughts that might change your mind as well.
I’ve spoken pretty candidly about my thoughts on tablets and why the use case for them has grown so narrow over the past few years. For me, the best tablets are still in that 10-inch range, but that is too small to do a day’s work on as a laptop replacement and too large to be my phone replacement. If the screen is much larger than 10-11 inches, the ease of use as a tablet diminishes. Smaller than 10 inches starts getting too close to my phone’s size and makes it feel redundant. What is a tablet to do, then?
Ambient Mode from Google is the answer to that conundrum. Imagine something as helpful as the new Nest Hub Max being in a form factor where you can just snag it and take it with you to the office and then drop it off again when you get home. Imagine the tablet serving you as a personal assistant during the work day when it doesn’t really have much of a place, but also being there for you to get info at a glance and to control other connected devices with. Imagine seeing an article pop up on your smart display and, instead of going to look it up on your phone, simply being able to grab the tablet right off the dock and take it with you to read that article.
Now, image doing all this with a tablet that also runs Chrome OS. With that setup, you would have a small, portable device with you at all times that is your quick-glance assistant, news reading device, and desktop computer all in one. If you don’t want to use it as your main device at the office, simply drop it in a dock to act as your Nest Hub during the times you don’t need it. For some folks like myself, most days it could be my all-in-one solution if I’m not working from a mobile setup. Even on days when I am out and about, a second USB-C monitor could make working from a tablet like this a viable solution as well.
For me, this feels like a new lease on life for tablets. For all those scenarios where I wasn’t quite sure where a tablet fits in, this new Ambient Mode gives the tablet a new task and a fresh job to accomplish. Imagine docks made specifically for wirelessly-charging tablets like the upcoming MediaTek 8183 devices. A simple, universal cradle with Qi charging could be all you’d need to turn one of these Chrome OS tablets into a functioning smart display for those times when a 10-inch tablet may be unnecessary.
I’ve honestly battled the desire to carry around a Chromebook and Chrome tablet together, wondering what the point would be. We’ll see plenty tablets with Chrome OS on them in the coming months, but I’ve not been able to see what I would even do with such a device even though I really want one. With Ambient Mode, I feel like I’ll be able to make sense out of tablets again and give them a viable place in my bag. Where I was at one time dismissing the idea of Ambient Mode on Chromebooks, I’m now thinking that I missed the entire idea behind this new feature and am honestly looking very forward to trying out this new mode on one of the new ARM-powered Chrome OS tablets as soon as I possibly can.