Chrome OS took over schools with clamshells, but now Google is shaking things up with slabs. After a spring announcement, Acer has built the first Chrome OS tablet, the $329 Chromebook Tab 10, to give teachers and students a more flexible device to use for schoolwork both in and out of the classroom.
Some might perk up at the idea of a lightweight yet durable tablet with a 2048×1536 display and a built-in Wacom stylus running Chrome OS, but this device (like many other Chrome OS devices) will only be sold in the education market. While regular consumers may not be able to get their hands on the Chromebook Tab 10, however, there will be more Chrome OS tablets to come that will be sold to the general public.
After spending some time with this inaugural Chrome OS tablet, it would be remiss to think that it's essentially the same thing as an Android tablet—devices that are largely unsupported at this point. We may not be traditional educators or students at this point, but Ars tested the Chromebook Tab 10 with a few things in mind: how does the Chrome OS experience translate on a tablet sans-keyboard? And, perhaps more importantly, can Chrome OS bring Google's tablet category back from the dead?
Look and feel
I expected to see something that looks like the Acer Chromebook Tab 10 in a classroom. This device may be some kids' first tablet, and no doubt they will be excited to experiment with a bigger version of mom's or dad's phone in class. But with its wide bezels, textured plastic back, and affordable price, the Tab 10 is also a tablet that won't require hawkish attention from parents and teachers when kids use it. In other words, it's not fancy but it works.
The 1.2-pound slab doesn't fix what isn't broken with the traditional tablet layout. Its 9.7-inch 2048×1536 display dominates the front. Its wide, black bezels shrink the screen experience but also provide more space for kids to grab the device without closing any tabs. And the Tab 10's front-facing camera sits in the middle of the top bezel while the rear-facing camera lives on the top-right corner on its back.
This may not be the luxurious, all-metal construction we'd expect from a tablet today, but I do appreciate its textured back. Our review unit came in a royal blue color, and its back ridges added a welcomed grip to the design.
|Specs at a glance: Acer Chromebook Tab 10|
|Screen||9.7-inch 2048×1536 IPS touchscreen|
|CPU||OP1 CPU (integrated dual-core Cortex-A72 and quad-core Cortex-A53)|
|Networking||802.11ac 2×2 MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1|
|Ports||One USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 port, one microSD card slot, 3.5mm headphone jack|
|Cameras||Rear: 5MP (2560×1920)|
Front: 2MP (1600×1200)
|Size||6.78 x 9.38 x 0.39 inches|
|Other features||Included Wacom stylus|
The size of the tablet presents a small issue: 9.7 inches is a common size in the tablet world, but it's not the easiest to type on. The most obvious way to type is to set the tablet down flat on a surface and use one finger to input text. I managed to hold the device like a smartphone for a bit—holding the tablet in portrait orientation with two hands at the bottom corners. I was able to type using just my thumbs, albeit uncomfortably and not for too long.
I bring this up because this is the first Chrome OS tablet—we're all used to using Chrome OS on PCs and laptops. The Chromebook Tab 10 is only compatible with Bluetooth keyboards, but it doesn't come with one, and Acer doesn't currently make one for it.
Sure, there are plenty of Chromebooks available now at similar or more affordable prices than the Chromebook Tab 10, so students and teachers have options if they need a device with a keyboard. But users today expect most of their devices to do the most stuff possible—tablets included. While I'm glad any Bluetooth keyboard works with the first Chrome OS tablet, I would have loved for the device to come with one so users could get the fullest experience right out of the box.
A few details about the standard keyboard: it's a normal Android keyboard, and mine was equipped with the regular US and International US layouts by default. There's a "compact mode" that removes the number keys from the top bar, but I prefer the full layout that includes numbers, a wider variety of symbols, and a caps-lock key. It doesn't appear to support voice input, nor does it have split mode for easier two-handed typing.
Aside from your fingers, the included Wacom EMR stylus provides the only other input method for the Chromebook Tab 10. It's a thin stylus that's shorter than a traditional pencil and lives in a small hole on the bottom-right corner of the back of the tablet. Using your fingernail or a bit of force on its top pushes the stylus out of its home, making it easy to whip out for note-taking, doodling, and more. Wacom's technology makes it even easier to use since it requires no pairing and no charging, so you can use the stylus at any point without waiting.
The stylus is perfectly fine for what the Chromebook Tab 10 is meant for, but it's not a stylus that most power-users or professionals will want to use. It'll get tiring to hold after a while because it's short, it doesn't register tilt or shading motions, and latency depends on the app in which you're writing.
You can use the stylus to hand-write Web addresses using the pen keyboard option, and the handwriting-to-text translation is fairly accurate. However, the letters and words you write aren't translated in real-time like they are on some Windows devices. Instead, you must write out the phrase you want completely, like "arstechnica.com," and then choose from the translated text options that appear in the keyboard's top bar. These options are exactly like those that appear in Android's smartphone keyboard when you type out words using the traditional on-screen keyboard.
That said, within this device's intended classroom setting, the stylus should be more than enough for kids sketching out ideas or completing math homework, and teachers presenting lessons. The fact that it's included with the device is enough of a perk considering so many tablets and pen-ready devices (both for regular and education consumers) force you to spend extra on a stylus. Each time you eject the stylus from its holder in the Chromebook Tab 10, the tablet awakens and presents the stylus tools menu, which includes quick controls for capturing the screen or part of the screen, creating a note, and launching the laser pointer or magnifying glass tools.
The USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 port on the bottom edge of the tablet is worth a note. It's used to charge the device, but it can also be used to transfer data and connect to external HD displays. That versatility will be useful in classrooms, particularly for teachers who want to use the tablet in multiple ways. The added microSD card will also come in handy for transferring data and expanding upon the internal storage space.
Chrome OS on a tablet
While Chrome's capabilities have become more intricate over the years, it's still optimized for PCs and laptops. Similarly to the Android app experience on Chrome OS, the Chrome OS tablet experience will go through some growing pains over this summer.
Ars' Ron Amadeo talked to Kan Liu, PM Director for Chrome OS, back at Google I/O, and Liu explained that the Chrome OS tablet experience won't be complete until later this year. Since students and teachers won't get the Chromebook Tab 10 until August or September when school begins again, Google continues to work on Chrome's tablet-friendliness until that time comes and beyond. Liu said he expects a full, end-to-end tablet UI experience by the end of 2018.
As it stands now, Chrome OS on Acer's Chromebook Tab 10 feels familiar. The homescreen is nearly identical to that on a traditional Chromebook, with pinned and active app icons populating the bottom-left side of the screen along with status and settings icons on the bottom-right. A circle icon that opens the app drawer sits in the bottom-left corner, while the square multitasking icon that reveals all open app windows sits opposite of it.
Depending on how many tabs you have open, the bottom bar can get crowded quickly. In portrait orientation, the left side of the bottom bar only has space for about three to four app icons. If you have more programs open, all of their app icons collapse under an arrow icon that you need to long-press to access individual apps. You can also tap the multitasking icon in the right corner to see small preview windows of all your open apps and programs.
Split Screen should make its way to Chrome OS soon, but it currently doesn't work on the Chromebook Tab 10. We've seen demos of Google's Split Screen feature for Chrome OS and it works similarly to Split Screen on Android and iOS devices. After tapping the multitasking icon to reveal all your open apps, you can drag Split Screen-capable programs (which include Android apps and Chrome OS programs) to have their windows hug opposite sides of the screen while in landscape orientation. This will be an important productivity feature for Chrome OS going forward, particularly in schools since it will allow students to see and work in two programs at the same time.