Most Chromebooks produced over the past few years can run Android apps, but there was always one big catch — you couldn’t install apps from APK files, only from the Play Store. This could be fixed by placing the Chromebook in Developer Mode, but that means wiping the device and having to press a keyboard shortcut on every boot. Thankfully, this is finally being addressed.
Chrome OS 80, currently in the Dev and Canary channels, adds the ability to sideload APKs without placing the entire Chromebook in Developer Mode. However, the process is a difficult one, and won’t work on every model (at least for now).
To get started, you first have to set up the Linux environment on Chrome OS, because apps have to be installed through ADB. Not every Chromebook that supports Android apps also supports Linux — the Asus C302 is one such device — so that’s a major roadblock. It’s not clear if Google will eventually allow APKs to be installed through the Files app, like you already can with Linux packages.
Once you do that, you have to install ADB in the Linux environment, either through the software repositories or through an installer like Nexus Tools (disclaimer: I made that installer). Then you have to open the Android Settings app (accessible by searching for ‘Android preferences’ in the Chrome OS settings), go to Developer Options, and enable ADB. Finally, run this command in ADB to connect to Android:
adb connect 100.115.92.2:5555
You’ll get a pop-up on your Chromebook asking to confirm ADB access. Finally, you can install APKs by copying them to the ‘Linux apps’ folder and running a command like this (replacing “app.apk” with the file name):
adb install app.apk
While this isn’t a difficult task for developers who already use ADB, it’s not so easy for everyone else. That might be the point, as allowing easy installation of APK files opens the door for more Android-based malware on Chrome OS. Granted, there is already malware in the Play Store, but still.
On top of that, enabling ADB access adds a message to the lock screen that reads, “This device may contain apps that haven’t been verified by Google.”
While it’s definitely nice to see Chrome OS allow APK installations outside of switching the entire device to Developer Mode, it’s still an incredibly tedious process. Here’s hoping it gets a little easier over the coming weeks and months.