What can you do with ChromeOS?
The Chromebook Flip runs Google's Chrome OS. If you're not already familiar with the platform, this OS basically offers the bare minimum of resources necessary to control the Flip's hardware and run the Chrome web browser (at least, it did until just recently—more on that in a sec). The underlying operating system is a custom form of Linux, but it's not possible to break into a shell or modify any of the Flip's underpinnings without a lot of work. And really, that's OK.
Living with the Flip has shown me just how little I rely on local apps to get anything done any more. Photoshop and games aside, I spend most of my time in Chrome or Firefox tabs to begin with, whether for email or writing or Slack or Facebook or Twitter. Launching an "app" from Chrome OS' taskbar just takes you to a new Chrome tab 99% of the time, where you proceed to use the web just like you might on a heavier-duty machine.
The Chromebook Flip has 16GB of local storage, but I never felt the need to do much of anything with it. It's much easier to think of Google Drive as this machine's file system. If you've used Drive on any other platform, you already know what that experience is like. Using Drive as the Flip's back end also serves as a kind of built-in backup. Lose or brick the Flip, and getting your files back is as easy as signing into Drive on another machine. Chrome OS does have a file browser, but it rarely appears outside of saving images to the machine's Downloads folder or unless you specifically go looking for it.
During the course of this review, Google began rolling out its Play Store to Chrome OS' developer channel. Three machines are eligible to start using the Play Store right now: the Chromebook Flip, Acer's Chromebook R 11, and the second-gen Chromebook Pixel. Google says it'll be bringing the Play Store to an extensive list of other Chromebooks later this year. I hope Google moves as quickly as possible on that point, because it's a big deal for filling in Chrome OS's functional gaps. Apps like Skype that don't have a good web-based equivalent are free on the Google Play Store, and folks who don't want to use the web versions of Microsoft's Office apps can grab the free Android versions off the Store, as well.
The Play Store also lets the Flip run some high-quality games. I tried the popular Hearthstone on the machine, and it ran alright once all of its assets loaded—a lengthy, jerky process. Expect some jaggies, too—the game clearly wasn't running at a very high resolution, even given the Flip's 1280x800 display. For comparison, I ran Hearthstone on my iPhone 6S Plus. Even with the iPhone's PCIe storage subsystem, Hearthstone doesn't load all that smoothly, but it does run without the jaggies of the Flip.
Parents and kids-at-heart will all be asking "but does it run Minecraft?" at this juncture, and I can report that yes, the Flip can run Minecraft: Pocket Edition. It's a testament to how rapidly this platform is developing that when I first ran MPE, it was full of UI bugs and other weirdness. Just a day later, the app seemed to be working fine. At default settings, Pocket Edition runs smoothly on the Flip, so the Rockchip SoC doesn't appear to be holding the machine back much.
I'm just hoping Google and Mojang can make controllers work with Chromebooks at some point. Plugging an Xbox controller into the Flip didn't do anything, and although a PS3 controller shows up in the machine's device list and this HTML5 controller test, Android apps on the Flip don't appear to be aware of the thing. Moving around in the world of Minecraft with this Chromebook's keyboard and touch screen is a decidedly sub-optimal experience.
Android apps on the Flip do pose a couple of problems. For one, heavy app users will probably run through the machine's 16GB of local storage pretty quick, and Chrome OS doesn't appear to be capable of using a microSD card as "adoptable storage" like Android 6.0 can. Google provides a version of Android's application settings dialog to manage installed Play Store apps, but it's hidden away in the OS's settings screen. Not every app is quite ready to work with ChromeOS yet, either, so you'll see some apps appear without taskbars and window controls. Still, Android apps feel reasonably fast on the Flip, and having the Play Store available feels like it could be a huge leg up for Chrome OS once the feature starts rolling out to more devices.
This is as good a time as any to talk about the Chromebook Flip's internals and performance, so let's take a look at some benchmarks.