Google’s emerging hardware division has had a very rough week. The company’s new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were perhaps the most hotly anticipated new Android phones of the season, and early reviews seemed overwhelmingly positive. Once the phones actually began shipping, however, it became immediately evident that reviewers had either overlooked or ignored a number of problems that impacted both devices. The larger (and more desirable) Pixel 2 XL has been the more problematic of the two new Google phone, plagued with issues ranging from odd clicking noises and quality control missteps to severe display discoloration and even OLED burn-in.
As Google continues to investigate those issues and more, the company’s Pixel hardware team is in desperate need of a win. And next week, attention will turn to the new Pixelbook hybrid laptop set to be released on Tuesday, October 31st. Is this the win Google’s hardware team needs? I spent the last week and a half with a Pixelbook review unit in an effort to find out.
Google’s new laptop obviously runs the company’s Chrome OS software, but it’s unlike any Chromebook that has come before it. Even high-end models like the Samsung Chromebook Pro top out at under $600, and you can get it on sale for less than $500.
The Google Pixelbook starts at $999. It tops out at $1,649 for the Core i7 processor with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. Tack on another $99 for the Pixelbook Pen stylus accessory, and you’re now at just under $1,750 before taxes. That’s an incredibly daunting price tag for a device in a category that most people equate with low-cost laptops aimed at the education market.
Can a Chromebook possibly be worth $1,750? Can it be worth even $1,000?
We don’t typically review laptops here at BGR because, well, they’re laptops. It’s not exactly the most exciting space in consumer tech. The Pixelbook is something different though. Something new. Google’s Pixelbook drew me in and I very much enjoyed spending time with it over the past 12 days. I’m not going to pen an exhaustive “speeds and feeds” review like you’d find on a computer magazine’s website, but I do want to dive into five things that I really like about Google’s new hybrid notebook.
Google’s Pixelbook design is unconventional, even odd, but I like it. A lot. It’s a premium device through and through, with a sleek unibody aluminum housing and Google’s signature glass panel at the top of the case back. The look is unique and instantly recognizable, which is a difficult thing to achieve in a crowded notebook computer space where most devices are indistinguishable from one another.
It’s also thin. Insanely thin. At just 0.4 inches thick, the Pixelbook is an impressive 32% thinner than Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro, which itself is remarkably slim. The Pixelbook is also much lighter than the MacBook Pro, weighing in at 2.4 lbs compared to the 3-lb Apple laptop.
Upon opening the lid, we’re greeted by a 12.3-inch Quad HD display with a pixel density of 235 ppi and 400 nits of brightness. It’s a fantastic LCD screen, but this is one area where Apple’s MacBook Pro has a clear advantage. The MacBook’s display is 25% brighter, and it’s more vivid and vibrant as well.
Of course, the Pixelbook’s display has something going for it that perhaps no Apple laptop will ever have: it’s a touchscreen. It also features enhanced stylus support and 360° hinges that rotate all the way open so the Pixelbook can be used as a tablet.
The keyboard is good, but not great. The backlit keys look and feel a bit cheap, but they have a good amount of travel and resistance. A nice big glass trackpad can be found beneath them, and it’s flanked by white rubbery material that looks a bit odd at first, but provides a comfortable surface on which to rest one’s wrists.
It’s a premium device with a bold, beautiful design that looks and feels like a $1,000 laptop.
Chromebooks almost always feel fast thanks to Google’s lightweight Chrome OS software, and the Pixel is no different. Well, that’s not entirely true.
Google’s Pixelbook is different, but in a good way. Lower-end Chromebooks are nice and quick when it comes to loading web pages and doing light work, but they often get tripped up by more strenuous tasks. This is not the case with the Pixelbook. Not at all.
The Pixelbook I tested is the less powerful model powered by a 7th-generation Intel Core i5-7Y57 processor. It’s clocked at 1.2GHz and supported by 8GB of RAM. It’s a screamer. It handled just about everything I threw at it with ease, from downloading and streaming to image processing. The exception is Android apps, many of which still have trouble running smoothly on Chrome OS. Having access to Android apps is great for filling in the blanks — since there are so many blanks — but it’s nothing like running native apps on Windows or macOS.
Android app performance will likely improve with time (and software updates), but even as it stands it’s at least usable. And thanks to the Pixelbook’s power, stutters and stammers are far less pronounced than they are on other Chromebook models I’ve tested — and that’s without the optional Core i7 and 16GB of RAM that will be available down the road.
Also of note, Google quotes 10-hour battery life for the Pixelbook, which is obviously impressive. My review unit didn’t quite live up to that estimate, though my testing was often heavier than typical mixed usage.
I should preface this by admitting that I almost never use voice assistants. I don’t own an Echo speaker or a Google Home, and I can only think of a handful of things I ever use Siri for on my Apple Watch or iPhone. For me personally, voice assistants aren’t yet reliable, capable, or natural enough to bother with.
That said, having quick and easy access to Google Assistant on the Pixelbook is pretty awesome.
The ability to instantly call up Google Assistant on a laptop is useful in so many ways. For me, it allows me to stay focused on what I’m doing but quickly get answers to questions. For example, while typing this very review I was able to wake the Assistant by saying “Hey Google” and then asking questions like “what’s the display resolution of the Google Pixelbook?” My answer would quickly appear in a web search card within the Google Assistant pop-up, and I could continue writing with minimal interruption. Compare that to stopping what I’m doing, opening a new tab, clicking my Google.com bookmark, typing out my search, finding my answer, flipping back to my WordPress tab, writing out the info I was looking for, flipping back to my Google.com tab, and then closing it.
Google Assistant on the Pixelbook can be used for much more than answering questions, of course. It can control your connected smart home devices, open web pages, add events to your calendar, or launch apps (sometimes — I ran into some issues here with Assistant not recognizing several installed apps).
Also cool is the pen integration. Circling anything on the screen with the Pixelbook Pen while holding the button on the pen will open the Assistant. So, for example, you can circle an image and Google will perform an image search, or circle a word and Assistant will display the definition.
I mentioned earlier that Android apps are often janky on Chrome OS, but it’s still fantastic to have access to all those apps on the Pixelbook.
As we all know, getting developers to support an emerging platform is next to impossible. Just ask Microsoft and Nokia about Windows Phone, or Samsung about Tizen, or BlackBerry about BlackBerry OS, or whatever’s left of Palm about Palm OS. By giving Chromebook users access to the millions of Android apps in the Google Play store, tons of functionality that would otherwise be sorely missed becomes accessible.
Thanks to Android app support, I was able to chat with my team of writers in Slack, access all my logins in 1Password, and use my go-to email app Newton. Yes, there will be hiccups here and there, but I can’t imagine ever going back to a Chromebook without support for Android apps.
Last but certainly not least, I am a big fan of Google’s strategy with the Pixelbook.
There were audible gasps around the world earlier this month when Google announced that the Pixelbook would start at $999. A thousand dollars for a Chromebook!?! No, this Pixelbook won’t ever be one of the top-selling notebooks in the world. In fact, it won’t even come close. But let’s think for a moment about who Chromebooks are for, and who this particular Chromebook is for.
Chrome device adoption has exploded in the education market, and the reasons are obvious. Apple isn’t a true contender in this space since its macOS computers are so expensive. And regardless of what Apple fanboys will tell you, iPads aren’t good tools for work.
Chromebooks compete with Windows computers in the education market, and they’re generally far more affordable than comparable Windows machines. They’re also simpler and more reliable. Yes, anything that runs software will see the occasional glitch, but I’ll go ahead and say what everyone else is thinking: after all these years, Windows is still a mess. Software crashes, files get corrupted, apps freeze, mail stops syncing in Outlook, and so on. Meanwhile, Chrome OS for the most part just works.
So children grow up using Chromebooks in school, possibly having started as early as their elementary school years. But then what? What happens when they go to college and need something with more oomph? What happens when they graduate from college and want a premium, powerful computer? In the past, they had no choice but to turn to Windows or a Mac. With Google’s Pixelbook, they can now stick with what they know.