Android apps for Chromebooks: The essentials
- 27 October, 2017 21:00
We've heard plenty about how Android apps on Chrome OS are a big deal, but when you first find yourself staring at the Google Play Store on a dual-purpose device, it can be tough to know where to begin.
Chromebooks were already quite capable without Android apps in the equation, after all, and many of the Play Store's most popular titles are also available in web-app equivalents. Sure, you could install the Google Docs Android app or the Twitter Android app onto a Chromebook, but you'd get better and more complete experiences by using either service's web-based counterpart. So why bother?
The trick is to figure out which Android apps actually enhance Chrome OS in a meaningful way — either by filling in a gap in the platform or by adding something new and practical into the experience. But in a sea of overlapping titles and mobile-specific utilities, singling out such a selection isn't always easy.
That's why I'm here to help. I've spent countless hours living with Chromebooks and using them as both productivity and entertainment tools. I've explored the available Android app options and pinpointed the programs that expand a Chromebook's capabilities in measures that matter. I've even gone on business trips carrying nothing but an Android-app-enabled Chromebook for all of my work and (ahem) procrastination needs.
Start with the titles below — all free, unless otherwise noted — and watch your Chromebook transform from a cloud-centric laptop into a platform-defying all-purpose device.
We'll kick things off with the most obvious of the bunch: If Google Docs doesn't cut it for you and Microsoft's Office Online offering is equally inadequate, the Android versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint are precisely what you need. They're fully featured and fantastically familiar, as long as you have an Office 365 subscription — and they fill a formerly unaddressable void left by Microsoft's lackluster web options.
Need a desktop-caliber office suite without the recurring fee? MobiSystems' OfficeSuite Pro is the next-best thing to Microsoft's standard-bearer. The app costs $15, plus an additional $10 for a font pack you'll probably want. (And remember: Once purchased, you can use the program on any Android device as well.)
Evernote users, take note: The Android version of the app boasts offline access and a more touch-friendly interface than its web counterpart. It also has some nice additions like the ability to create a quick note via an optional persistent notification.
OneNote's Android app one-ups its web-based equivalent by providing offline access to your notes along with enhanced handwriting support. What more do you need to know?
If you've got a Chromebook with a stylus, you're gonna want this $3 note-taking utility. The awkwardly named MyScript Nebo gives you a powerful set of tools for writing and drawing on your device's screen. You can format text and even draft diagrams, and the app will translate everything you do into plain text, HTML or a fully formatted Word document.
Communication and time management
For many people, Chrome OS's long-standing Achilles' heel was its lack of a video-call-capable Skype client. This shortcoming is fixed by way of the Skype Android app, which keeps face-to-face conversations a couple taps away.
I know, I know: Hangouts? In 2017?! Google's messaging strategy may be a mess, but its ever-pivoting Hangouts platform provides one super-useful function for any Chromebook user: the ability to make and receive actual phone calls, from your own number, using only your computer (and a regular data connection). Just install both apps, make sure you have either a Google Voice account or a verified phone number and then open either app and tap the phone tab to get going.
If you rely on Facebook's Messenger system for any sort of communication, using the standalone Android app is infinitely better than keeping the full Facebook website open all day (or picking up your personal phone every time a new message comes in). Just note that you may want to go into the app's settings and disable "chat heads," as (a) they're kinda distracting in general, and (b) they don't work consistently well on all Chromebooks.
Stuck living in Microsoft's email universe? Leave Outlook's lackluster web version behind and give yourself the pleasure of using the Android app instead. It provides offline access to your email and is noticeably faster than its browser-based brother.
Google Calendar's web interface may be sporting a fresh facelift, but the Android version of the service still has the more contemporary and touch-friendly UI. Especially if you're accustomed to using Calendar on your phone, it's well worth having the app around on your Chromebook.
If you use Trello for project management, trust me: You'll want the Android app for any touch-oriented work. It'll feel like you're working on a tablet instead of clumsily trying to claw around a website with your finger.
Google's excellent Trips app automatically compiles itineraries based on info present in your Gmail inbox (flight confirmation emails, rental car receipts and so on). It's available only as a mobile app, but now that you have a Chromebook, that restriction's irrelevant.
Maps' web interface is no slouch, but the Android app gives you a slew of time-saving touch gestures as well as useful extras like traffic alert notifications.
Next stop: maximum productivity.
Image and video work
Let's be honest: Web-based video editors are a bit of a letdown. And most of the options on Android are either overly simplistic or so clunky and complicated you'll never want to use 'em. Goseet's VidTrim achieves an admirable middle ground: It's simple to use, and it handles all the basics most folks will want from an on-the-go video editor. Equally important, it works flawlessly with Chrome OS. (Consider the $2 Pro version if you want to nix the ads.)
Google's mobile image-editing app is really good — and also ridiculously easy to use. Throw it on your Chromebook and prepare to polish photos like a pro (and in a way that was previously impossible on the platform).
Ever need to sketch out ideas for an important company presentation (or, y'know, maybe just your own in-between-meetings amusement)? Autodesk's popular SketchBook app has your name written all over it — especially if you have a Chromebook with a stylus. If you're really serious about your sketches, a $5 in-app upgrade will get you a ton of extra tools for making the perfect creation.
The truly artistic among us can illustrate concepts at a professional level with the aid of Infinite Painter. This is another title designed to take full advantage of a pressure-sensitive stylus (and another one that goes to heights no web-centric tool can achieve).
Streaming and reading
Heads up, Netflix subscribers: The Android app lets you download content for offline viewing — a feature you won't find on the regular website. Load up some videos before your next business trip, and watch your MacBook-toting colleagues ogle with envy.
Like Netflix, YouTube offers the option to download videos via its Android app — a fine reason to keep it handy on your Chromebook. There's just one catch: You need an active YouTube Red or Google Play Music subscription for offline viewing to be enabled.
Keep up with your favorite podcasts on your computer with Shifty Jelly's exceptional Pocket Casts app, which automatically syncs your favorite shows and listening progress across all your different devices. The app costs $4 (and saves you from having to pony up an extra $9 for the standalone web player).
Using Amazon's Kindle service to keep up with your reading? The Android app puts Amazon's Kindle Cloud Reader to shame with swipe-based page turning, a bevy of advanced options and a better overall user experience.
If Play Books is your reading service of choice, you'll find the Android app to be noticeably nicer than its web equivalent thanks to the presence of page-turning animations along with a variety of touch-friendly options. The app also lets you highlight and select text with a stylus.
You don't technically need the Play Music Android app for offline access to your tunes, but you'll almost certainly want it. Unlike the web app, which simply lets you download the music you own in MP3 form, the Android app lets you pin any albums, songs or playlists available in your collection onto your device for offline enjoyment. You can even pin stations, provided you have an unlimited listening subscription. And regardless of what type of arrangement you prefer, you can use the app's regular interface to browse all of your downloaded audio and control playback.
Here, too, the big draw for subscribers is offline support, available only with Spotify's mobile app. Because sometimes, the right song is practically a requirement for getting work done.