I’ve been banging on for a while now that Android tablets are done for and will be replaced — someday — by Chrome OS tablets. Over the past couple of years, it’s gone from a weird theory that enraged Android partisans to conventional wisdom. This is despite some fairly decent, yet ultimately not very popular, Android tablet offerings from Huawei and Samsung.
That’s all fine in theory — in fact, it’s great, in theory. Chrome OS has the advantage of running a full, true desktop-class browser that is much more capable than Safari on an iPad (or even Edge on a Surface). Combining that power with Android applications and other conventional Android subsystem bits seems like it should be easy. And if you add in the fact that Chrome OS is already dominant in education markets, it’s a slam dunk.
So this is supposed to be a review of the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, a tablet that was designed explicitly and exclusively for the education market. Acer and Google say teachers really wanted a tablet form factor for the classroom, and they really don’t want to have to figure out how to manage an entirely new operating system when they’re already all in on Chrome OS. And so here it is, finally: an honest-to-goodness Chrome OS tablet.
Here’s the review: it’s a good thing you can’t buy this tablet everywhere because you wouldn’t love using it anywhere. For $330 apiece (hopefully less with bulk purchasing), schools will get a straightforward device that is guaranteed to work well with Google Docs and other web applications. They’ll get the benefits of a tablet form factor without having to refactor their entire device management stack. It will run Android apps in a pinch and do some cool Google Expeditions AR stuff with its laughably bad cameras. It will come with a stylus docked in for drawing and marking things up.
The Acer Chromebook Tab 10 can do all those things, but it can’t do too many of them at one time. With an underpowered Rockchip processor, it struggles to multitask. As a piece of hardware, it’s thicker than you’d think but also doesn’t feel too precious. It feels durable; you can knock this thing around.
Compared to other sub-$300 education Chromebooks, it’s probably about on par. (But those devices have a keyboard.) I don’t want to forgive this device’s faults because it’s “just for students,” but I’m also cognizant that it’s much easier for a lot of schools to deploy this thing than the superior iPad.
It’s not a consumer device, and it’s not meant to be. So I wanted to use it for my own nefarious purposes: see if it offers a glimpse into what some future consumer Chrome OS tablet might be like. Unfortunately, what I saw is that the future is still awfully murky.
If you’re not familiar with Chrome OS, you should know that there are three different tracks you can run Chrome OS on. There’s “Stable,” which is what most people should use. It’s the build I mostly used while testing this device and coming to the conclusions you see above. Then there’s “Beta,” which is a little on the edge but has been pretty solid for me. Lots of people run it to get slightly earlier access to new features. But because I wanted to see what the future of Chrome looks like, I also looked at the “Developer” build. Most people shouldn’t do this. It’s buggy and maybe a little less secure. Here be monsters.
On a tablet, Chrome OS looks and feels a lot like it does when you have a keyboard. There’s a button to get to your apps, a task bar along the bottom, and a system menu in the lower-right corner. In the Developer build, you’ll find more squarish tabs and a system menu that’s been “Android-ified,” so it looks like the Quick Settings you’d see on an Android phone.
By default, all apps in Chrome OS go to full screen in tablet mode. Recently, however, split screen was rolled out. You tap the multitasking button on the lower right, drag one window to the left, then pick another open window to fill the right (or vice versa). You can then drag the divider to set up a one-third / two-thirds split screen if you like.
That’s all well and good, but it’s the next steps that make this whole thing feel not quite baked. If you rotate the tablet 180 degrees, everything flips. So if you had a notepad open on the left and Chrome open on the right, when you flip it, the notepad ends up on the right. I found it disconcerting, but perhaps that’s just a matter of it being different instead of it being broken. Different UX strokes for different OS folks.
What I can’t forgive is the lack of predictability when you hit the multitasking button a second time. When you do, it brings up all your open windows in half of the screen while leaving the other half “docked.” Which half? Why, the half you “docked” second, of course! Do you remember which is which?
One of the remarkable things about Chrome OS is how much insight we all get in its development through these developer builds. We’re watching the sausage get made right before us — and sometimes eating it at the same time.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the lagginess I experienced because it’s unfair to judge software that’s still in development. But I did experience a lot, even on the more stable builds. That’s a particularly egregious problem when there’s no physical keyboard. If there’s one thing that will drive a user crazy, it’s input lag. And I saw much too much of that, even on the Stable build, which is what most educators will experience with this tablet. I also felt at times that I was struggling to hit buttons with my finger that would have been no problem if I had a mouse.
This experience of using a still-in-development operating system can mess with your head. It can color how you feel about it, especially when you run into bugs. I wonder if that’s a particularly acute problem with Chrome OS, which struggled with Android apps through a prolonged beta period before they quietly slouched their way into some semblance of stability in the past year or so.
That extended period of weirdness didn’t do the operating system’s reputation any favors, which is too bad because the experience of using Android apps on a laptop is pretty good now. They still don’t compete with full-fledged desktop or web-based apps, but they successfully do a thing that Microsoft has struggled with and Apple is just beginning to grapple with: transplant a vibrant mobile app ecosystem onto a desktop operating system.
It’s such a good idea, in theory. But before Chrome OS can be ready for consumer tablets, it needs a little more practice.
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3 June 2018