At its I/O conference in June this year, Google finally confirmed plans to bring Android apps to Chrome OS products. That means that soon you'll be able to fling Angry Birds from a catapult on your Chromebook and download a shedload of other apps you'd normally find on your smartphone or tablet.
What is it?
Put very simply, it's the ability to download and install apps from the Google Play Store onto your Chromebook. Once enabled, Chromebooks with the capability to support Android apps will have a Google Play Store app. Opening that reveals an app store that looks virtually identical to the one on your phone.
Which apps can I install?
Once the Android app support for Chrome moves out of its beta/development phases, you'll be able to download and install almost any Android app. Some apps, of course, are restricted by hardware and won't run on a Chromebook. SMS apps or any apps that need access to carrier-provided text messaging (WhatsApp as an example) won't run on a Chromebook. Neither will apps that need GPS or apps that need a rear camera. Thankfully WhatsApp does have a web version which you can access from any browser, which connects to your phone.
Still, you'll be able to download apps like Microsoft Word, Netflix, Skype and many others that don't run natively on Chromebooks currently.
There are perhaps a couple of downsides here. In its current state, Android apps can't be resized onscreen, so you end up with a full screen single app a lot of the time, just like you do with most Android smartphones. Secondly, Chromebooks aren't known for having much storage space, so having apps installed will undoubtedly take up some valuable space on some of the lower capacity models.
Which Chromebooks are compatible?
As of right now, the only Chromebook with Android app support is the Asus Chromebook Flip, and even then it's only supported if you are on the developer channel of Chrome OS and have the latest version installed.
Within the next few weeks, Google will add support for the 2015 Chromebook Pixel as well as the Acer Chromebook R11. Later on this year, and on to next year, support will be added for dozens of other Chrome OS powered laptops. You can find the entire list here and it contains Chromebooks from all of the most popular manufacturers - including Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, Toshiba and HP among many others.
How do I get it?
If you're a regular consumer running the public version of Chrome OS on your Chromebook, the short answer is: you can't, not yet.
Android apps on Chromebook is still very much in its development stages and you can only get access if you have a specific Chromebook running on the developer channel of Chrome OS. You can switch, but it's not recommended for someone who uses their Chromebook day-in and day-out for the majority of their computing work.
If you're a developer and you have Chrome OS version 53, you just head to the "About Chrome OS" page in your settings and make sure the "Android Apps" option is selected.
How do I join the developer channel?
As mentioned, the only way to get access currently is by joining the developer channel on Chrome OS. Before doing so, remember that developer channel software is pretty unstable. It's very experimental, and is what comes before "beta", meaning there is a much higher chance something won't work properly.
If you want to switch to the dev channel despite the likely instability, you can do so by heading to the bottom right corner of your home screen, and open up the settings. You'll see a small link on the settings page that says "About Chrome OS".
On the About page, if you look closely, you’ll see a "More info…" link, you should click that and then you'll see new options show up on screen. One of the new buttons says "Change channel…", click that and select the "Developer - unstable" option, and click "Change channel" to confirm.
Once you've gone through all these steps, the Chromebook will begin downloading the latest developer channel version of Chrome OS for your device. It takes a couple of minutes, and then you can reboot.
Once again, the developer channel is unstable, so please be sure you're okay with the risk. If you'd rather have a stable, completely consistent Chromebook, just wait until the apps are supported on the stable channel. You may have to hang on for a few months, but it’s worth it if you like things to work properly.
If you try it and find that it is too unstable for you liking, changing it back to the stable channel is achieved by following the same instructions as above, but select "Stable" instead of "Developer - unstable".
It's clear from looking at the current state of Android app support on Chrome OS that we're still some way from it being a publicly available, consistent feature. It's not ready for the public and only works on one device running a very temperamental version of the operating system. It's probably going to be a few months at least until you get your hands on it, but it'll soon come around, and when it does, Chromebooks will suddenly become far more useful.