Using CrossOver Android to Run Windows Apps on a Chromebook
Switching from a Windows laptop to a Chromebook is only possible if you can live without any Windows programs.
But Chrome OS’s new support for Android apps from the Google Play Store has opened a loophole: a Codeweavers program called CrossOver Android creates a Windows compatibility layer in Chrome OS, allowing users to install and run the software. Traditional Win32.
As a proof of concept, this is an exciting development for future Chromebook owners. But CrossOver is still at the beginning of its development. As I discovered while testing a preview build, running your favorite Windows programs involves an unfavorable roll of the dice.
Switch to Windows
CrossOver Android is based on Wine, the decades-old software that can run Windows programs on Linux, Mac, FreeBSD, and Solaris. Codeweavers, the company behind CrossOver Android, is currently building user-friendly features on top of Wine and selling the product to Linux and Mac users.
Development of the new Android version of CrossOver began earlier this year, but the software is not yet widely available. To access the preview, you must request registration through the Codeweavers website, providing the email address associated with your Google Play Store account. This invitation may take several days to arrive.
Even if you have an invite, you still need a Chromebook that supports Android apps from the Google Play Store. Currently, this includes the Asus Chromebook Flip, Acer Chromebook R11 (or C738T), and Google Chromebook Pixel (2015 model). Many more Chromebooks will get Android app support later this year or next.
Fortunately, there are no tricks to installing CrossOver Preview on a supported Chromebook. Clicking the invite link in your email takes you to a Google Play Store listing, where you can sign up for the beta program and then download the Android app like you would any other.
As with Wine itself, CrossOver does not require a copy of Windows. Instead, it opens up a Windows-like environment that vaguely resembles Microsoft’s operating system, with a Start menu in the lower left corner and a desktop for application icons. A notepad, file explorer, and command prompt are built-in, along with a simple control panel for adjusting internet settings, configuring game controllers, and removing programs.
On startup, you’ll see a prompt to install one of several applications: Steam, Office 2007, Office 2010, or WinZip. Steam and WinZip download and install automatically, along with any related software needed to run them. For Office, you must provide your own installation files.
However, you are not relegated to these apps alone. In the software installation menu, you can uncheck Only known good applications and choose from a long list of other programs. CrossOver also includes a file browser, from which you can launch any .EXE or .MSI installer file you’ve downloaded to the Chromebook.
This is where things start to go off the rails.
Some successes, mostly failures
I tested CrossOver Preview on a 2015 Chromebook Pixel, which immediately presented a challenge: Google’s luxury laptop’s 2560×1700 resolution display resulted in small app windows with tiny text, sometimes offbeat. Although CrossOver includes some settings for window management and display resolution, adjusting these settings did not solve the problem for all programs. (I guess: the programs that didn’t look right aren’t optimized for high-DPI displays. On my Surface Pro 3, for example, the Steam window size looks right, but the text looks blurry.)
The biggest problem, however, is that many of the programs I tested didn’t work at all. Here’s an overview of what I tried and what happened with each:
- Steam: Installed successfully, although a “steamwebhelper.exe” error appears after opening the program. Steam also didn’t recognize the desktop PC on my wireless network for home streaming and wouldn’t open in Big Picture mode.
- Steam games: I was able to install and play the indie platformer Limbo. Other games I tested—Fez, protea, At gunpointand Mercenary Kings– either failed outright or required additional software such as Microsoft’s .NET framework, which I was unable to install successfully.
- WinZip: Successfully installed and successfully extracted a ZIP file.
- LibreOffice: Installed and working like a charm.
- GIMP: crashed during installation due to an “access violation” error.
- Paint.NET: Install screen disappeared without explanation.
- Diablo III: Requires Blizzard’s Battle.net software, which installed but crashed on launch.
- League of Legends: The install screen only displayed a black window that prevented further progress.
- LiveScribe: This note-taking program, which I rely on a lot for interviews, installed successfully, but crashed immediately every time I opened it.
To recap: of the eight programs I tried to install, only three of them worked. And if you count the individual games in Steam, the success rate is only four out of thirteen.
Why the Windows Flaw Matters
In all honesty, CrossOver Android is still in its infancy, so we can forgive the fact that many programs do not work. If Codeweavers charged money for this software, as they do for the Mac and Linux versions of CrossOver, that would be a different story.
But assuming Codeweavers can give shape to its Windows emulation, it could be a big boost for people hesitant about Chromebooks. While the Google Play Store already has plenty of apps for productivity and file extraction (including mobile versions of WinZip and Office), some users still need special features from the desktop version.
There are also many Windows programs that don’t have mobile versions at all. Personally, I can’t do all my work without LiveScribe, whose microphone-equipped stylus allows me to take interview notes with synchronized audio. It’s the only program preventing me from taking a Chromebook on a work trip, which made its failure to work in CrossOver all the more tragic.
Why not just use a Windows laptop? The best thing about Chrome OS is that it has none of Windows’ bad habits (like automatic restarts that erase all your work). The idea of a lighter operating system might be appealing if you spend the vast majority of your time in a web browser, especially if you can still call on the occasional Windows program when needed.
The challenge for Codeweavers will be to support not only successful programs like Photoshop and Office, but also the kinds of niche apps that keep people tied to the Windows ecosystem. With that extra kickstand, Chromebooks could become a whole lot more attractive.