Ambient Mode for Chrome OS has been a long development process. After all, we began discussing this new, upcoming feature all the way back in July of 2019, so it’s been on the radar for nearly a year at this point. The concept is pretty simple, giving Chromebooks a lock screen that feels a bit more akin to what we see on Chromecast, Android TV, and Android phones (the devices with Ambient Display) at this point. With a few, glanceable pieces of info, your lockscreen can become way more useful than simply a place to get logged in from.
Thus far, Ambient Mode on Chrome OS hasn’t been all that useful or well demonstrated. Instead, the flag for the feature has only triggered a slideshow of random photos on your desktop when you device is locked. Nice to look at? I suppose. Useful? Not even a little bit. While we can’t be hard on a feature that technically hasn’t launched, the lack of movement on it over the past few months has definitely moved it to back burner status. We’ve had hints that widget support was on the way for the Ambient Mode on Chrome OS, but up until now, the only user-facing feature we’ve seen in play is the ability to use your Google Photos as the slideshow source: but even that feature is half-baked and lacks any sort of customization for now.
What we’re seeing in the Developer Channel of Chrome OS 85, however, is the first real step forward in UI for Ambient Mode that we’ve seen since the lockscreen feature first showed up. When turning on the flag at this point in Chrome OS 85, Google Photos support works out of the box (still without customization options) and when the lock screen is triggered, two new widgets appear in the bottom-left portion of your screen: a clock and weather forcast.
If you’ve seen the basic home screen on a Chromecast or Android TV’s native sleep screen, you’ll instantly be familiar with the look and feel Google is going for. For now, it needs some work as the widgets are sat right on top of the shut down and sign out buttons. It is by all counts still a work in progress, but it is progress nonetheless. If this leads to small, snackable content on the lock screen like calendar notifications or other Nest Hub-like actions, I think this could end up being useful in a handful of ways. I still think a small dock for something like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet would be insanely useful once this Ambient Mode is fully realized. An affordable little tablet could pull double duty as a Smart Display when not needed if it had a simple dock to drop down into for those off hours.
While it is clear there is more work to be done on Ambient Mode, it is exciting to see it take a decent step forward and it has me feeling like it might be about time for Google to fully engage around this feature and get it finished up and rolled out roughly a year out from its inception. We’ll be keeping a closer eye on this feature than we have recently and, hopefully, we’ll see it fully roll out later in 2020.