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Aftab Javed

Opinion: Chrome OS is buggier and more poorly designed than ever

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I've used Chromebooks off and on for years. I used the first Dell Chromebook 11 for much of high school, then I purchased an ASUS C302 last year. The C302 is still one of the best laptops I've ever used, and that's mostly thanks to how Chrome OS has evolved over the past few years. It's no longer a browser-only thin client — it can run Android apps, Linux programs, and powerful web applications.

 

In all my time with Chrome OS, it has always been an incredibly stable operating system.

In all my time with Chrome OS, it has always been an incredibly stable operating system. Google is definitely not known for bug-free software — the Pixel 3 is a good example of that — but Chromebooks were seemingly always the exception. Maybe it was because Chrome OS was relatively simple for so many years, or because schools (still the largest market for Chromebooks) valued stability above all else. Whatever the reason, I honestly cannot remember a glaring software bug that went unfixed for more than a single release.

However, that has now changed. A massive redesign of Chrome OS was in testing for the better part of 2018, and it was finally pushed to everyone with the release of v69 in September. The new paint job does improve some aspects of the operating system, like the app launcher, but it's a downgrade in many other respects. The redesign also introduced many bugs that still remain unfixed in Chrome OS 71.

The app shelf

Many of Chrome OS's current problems (in my opinion, at least) come from the 'app shelf' — the taskbar/app dock. Before the redesign, it was very similar to the Windows taskbar. It had a single search button on the left, which opened the app shelf and a search bar. On the right was an indicator for how many notifications you had, the clock, and other status icons. Clicking the status area would open a quick settings panel, with options for audio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on.

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The old Chrome OS design

The app shelf was completely reworked in Chrome OS v69, mostly to make it more touchscreen-friendly. The shelf itself now takes up more space, and the icons are centered — like the macOS Dock. The notification center was merged with the quick settings, much like how Android has worked for years.

I think the idea to combine the quick settings and notification center was incredibly dumb. It works well on Android, because phones have a large amount of vertical screen space, but Chromebooks are almost always used in landscape mode. Instead of notifications filling the entire vertical space of the screen (which isn't much to begin with), they're now pushed above the quick settings.

Even when the settings panel is collapsed, you don't get as much space as before. This is especially noticeable when you take a screenshot or download an image, as the full size preview can take up a third (or more) of the available vertical space. The combined UI is more irritating on Chromebooks with low-res screens — like the sub-$300 models that schools love to buy. Why not move the notifications to the right of the settings panel?

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Another problem is the button for clearing all notifications — many people can't find it. Seriously, there are tons of forum posts from Chromebook owners who couldn't find where the button went. It now only appears when you swipe to the bottom of the notification center. On devices without a touchscreen, like Chromeboxes and some budget Chromebooks, you have to swipe up with two fingers on the touchpad.

Beyond the functional issues, there are several minor UI quirks with notifications and the dock. Chrome OS now adds curved borders to the notification tray, but sometimes the curves disappear. The color behind the curved notifications is often white or black, instead of the intended gray color. The app shelf sometimes becomes two shades of gray when a window is filled. You get the idea.

Death by a thousand paper cuts

There are other bugs in Chrome OS that are unrelated to the new design, but have still persisted for several releases. The Pixelbook has a screen tearing bug that has remained unfixed for at least a year. Animations in tablet mode often stutter. Stylus input is laggy in most apps, even on the Pixelbook. Bluetooth has had issues on certain models for years. Android applications have their own set of problems and limitations.

Chrome OS has always been an exercise in compromise. If you were willing to sacrifice the ability to run legacy desktop software, you could have a speedy computer with no bugs and excellent battery life. Chromebooks still can't run traditional applications, unless you count non-accelerated Linux apps, and they now have to put up with a perpetually-buggy operating system.

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The Google Pixel Slate

The best example of this is Google's recently-launched Pixel Slate. It was intended to show the world how Chrome OS tablets could compete with iPads. On paper, it seemed like no competition — the Pixel Slate has the full Chrome browser, USB Type-C ports for connecting traditional PC peripherals, and support for Android apps.

However, the Pixel Slate is one of the buggiest hardware products Google ever shipped. Many reviews (including our own) pointed to Bluetooth connectivity issues, screen tearing, extremely laggy animations, and buggy external monitor support. In its current state, the Pixel Slate is simply embarrassing, especially given the $600 starting price.

As long as Chrome OS has been around, there have been multiple development branches — Canary, Dev, Beta, and Stable. New functionality is supposed to be introduced in Canary, then the bugs get worked out in Dev and Beta, before it finally rolls out on Stable. This development cycle is designed to keep average users on the Stable branch from ever seeing major bugs, and yet, all of the issues described in this post are present in the latest stable version.

Conclusion

We can only make guesses as to why Chrome OS seems to be buggier and more poorly designed than ever. Perhaps Google really wanted the Chrome OS redesign to be released alongside the Chrome redesign on other platforms, no matter how unfinished it was. The added complexity of having two extra OS containers — one for Android and one for Linux — likely makes development and bug testing much harder as well.

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The new Google Assistant on Chrome OS 71

It's worth noting that Google isn't completely ignoring these issues. The company is working on a fix for the Pixel Slate's poor animation performance, and the half-baked Google Assistant is being replaced with a fully native version.

I hope Chrome OS can one day return to the rock-solid operating system it once was, but I'm not sure when that day will come.

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