Introduction, Design, Features
Not so long ago—say back in 2015 when we reviewed the $999 Chromebook Pixel or the Dell Chromebook 13 ($799 in our review configuration)—a common knee-jerk (though not entirely baseless) reaction to those pricey Google-powered devices was something along the lines of “Wait, they’re charging how much for a Web browser?”
For years, that’s effectively what Chromebooks were, as Google’s Chrome OS was essentially the Chrome browser wrapped in a pretty shell, with a desktop and offline access to some of Google’s apps for those times when you didn’t have Wi-Fi. Sure, you can install Chrome extensions and Web-based apps, but their functionality and number are limited, with the majority requiring an Internet connection to function.
All that changed this year, however, when Google began rolling out access to the Google Play Store, adding support for Android apps on Chrome OS devices. Android apps tend to offer more complex functionality, and aren’t always tied to Web access. And there are many more of them—well over three million, according to statistics site Statista.
With Google promising that every Chromebook released in 2017 will get access to Android apps, that makes these Google-powered devices more versatile, powerful, and appealing. But do Android apps make investing in an expensive new Chrome OS device, like Google’s $999 Pixelbook that we’re looking at here, worthwhile? After all, there are perfectly serviceable Chromebook laptops like the Acer Chromebook 14Asus Chromebook Flip C302CASamsung Chromebook ProLenovo Yoga 920. But there are some baked-in issues with that form factor as well, which we’ll touch on shortly.
With its silvery metal frame; 2.4-pound weight; 12.3-inch, 2,400×1,600-resolution display; and impressively svelte 0.4-inch thickness, the Pixelbook makes for a fine compact laptop. But for regular use as a tablet—the kind you hold with one hand in bed or on the subway—it’s quite heavy. That makes the Pixelbook, like a Yoga or Yoga clone, a far better laptop than a tablet replacement, unless perhaps you’re happy to do all your tablet-related tapping and swiping with the device sitting in your lap or on a desk.
We like the look of the white glass-covered inlay on the otherwise metal lid (doubtless there in part to improve wireless connectivity as much as for a design flourish). A matching rubberized white strip runs along the lower section, below the keys, and continues on the bottom of the laptop as well. But we’re not sure we like the feel of the rubber under our palms while typing. We also wonder how well the material will hold up after months and years of steady use. We echoed similar sentiment when reviewing the Windows 10-powered Microsoft Surface Laptop, which has fancy fabric over its entire keyboard area. At least it’s just the wrist area that’s covered with questionably durable material with the Pixelbook. But we’d still prefer reliable aluminum that we know won’t get dirty or wear away the way cloth or rubber might.
The keyboard feels solid, and the layout is good for a system this compact. But the key travel is quite shallow, reminiscent of the “butterfly” switches in Apple’s current-generation MacBooks. The keys don’t feel quite as shallow as those on Apple’s laptops (there’s 0.8mm of travel here, according to Google), but the feel of keys bottoming out is less pleasingly tactile than on the MacBooks. In short, the keys feel less clicky and more sticky than we’d like. We much prefer the more traditional keyboard feel of Samsung’s competing Chromebook Pro. And if you’re moving from a traditional laptop with comparatively luxurious travel of 1.5mm or more, you should definitely try the Pixelbook before buying. We do, though, like that there are five levels to the keyboard backlight (plus off), so you can easily dial in the brightness that’s comfortable for your current typing situation.
As you might guess, given the system’s 0.4-inch thickness, you won’t find any full-size USB (Type-A) ports here. Instead, you get a haeadphone/headset jack on the left edge, along with the power button and volume rocker and a USB Type-C port.
On the right edge lives a second USB-C port, and not much else, save for a charging indicator LED…
Either of the USB-C ports can be used to charge the Pixelbook via the included charger, and there’s a tiny white charging LED on the left edge behind the port, as well.
There’s no slot or door for adding storage via a MicroSD card. But that’s because the Pixelbook is outfitted more like a laptop than a traditional Chrome OS device, in that the $999 base model we tested ships with 128GB of onboard storage. We’ll dig into the internal hardware and various configuration options next.
For the $999 starting price, the Pixelbook comes well equipped with 128GB of solid-state storage, 8GB of RAM, and an Intel Core i5-7Y57 processor. The Core i5 chip here is a low-voltage model that ramps between 1.2GHz and 3.3GHz, the type which until this generation was previously labeled “Core M.” But these are still high-end components for a Chromebook, and more like what we’re used to seeing in mid- to high-end Windows-based laptops and convertibles. The powerful processor and oodles of storage (for a Chrome device) are there in part because Android apps (especially games) tend to eat up lots of space and can be more demanding than Web-based Chrome apps. We would, though, still like to see an SD card slot for adding some additional inexpensive storage.
If the above configuration isn’t enough for you, you can double the storage to 256GB for an extra $200 (which is a lot given there’s generally about a $20 to $30 difference in external SSDs of those capacities). And there’s even a Core i7-based model with a 512GB NVMe-based SSD (which in short means it should be very fast) for $1,650. The latter model was still listed as “coming soon” when we wrote this. While the top-end model is unquestionably expensive, we could almost see opting for the faster CPU and roomier storage if you were going to use this machine as your primary computing device. But considering our experience on the software front when we wrote this, we wouldn’t advise doing that yet—because in our experience, Android app support was still pretty hit-or-miss. We’ll tackle those issues soon, but first let’s look at pen support and the company’s baked-in digital assistant.
Google Assistant and Pen Input
Just as Apple did on its Touch Bar-equipped MacBooks, Google has added a dedicated button on the keyboard to bring up Google Assistant. The key sits between the left Control and Alt keys, and the Pixelbook’s far-field microphones mean you can bring up the service with your voice from across the room, similar to Amazon’s Echo devices. The company says, though, that the ability to summon Google Assistant while the Pixelbook’s screen is off will come at some point after the device’s launch.
We find Google’s Assistant generally more useful than Apple’s Siri at this point—at least in part because, with Gmail and other services, Google knows way more about our everyday lives than Apple generally does. But while we’re comfortable using Amazon’s Alexa in our home, we don’t know how often we’d talk to our laptop, especially in public. It makes some sense on a smartphone, but for the most part, with a keyboard in front of us, we can do most tasks nearly as fast as talking to the Google Assistant, without having to summon up an audible artificial intelligence.
Microsoft has its Cortana in Windows 10 as well, and we’ve never felt the urge to use it beyond testing purposes. Bottom line: if you use Google Assistant on your phone a lot, you may likely appreciate it here. But we wouldn’t consider it a must-have feature, especially if you already have an Android phone with the same service built in.
The Pixelbook also features pen support. And Google sells a Pixelbook Pen (separately, of course) to use with the the device. It’s expensive at $99, especially considering the Pixelbook itself is already $999 or more. For those who are serious about taking handwritten notes, it may be worth the investment. The pen feels well built and is well sized, although the single AAAA battery that powers it slides into the back, making the pen more top-heavy than we’d like.The Pixelbook Pen does, though, feature 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity, which artists will no doubt appreciate. But know that we noticed some very visible lag while writing notes quickly, and there’s no place to stow the pen on the device when you aren’t using it.
Those who crave pen support on a convertible Chromebook would do well to also consider the Samsung Chromebook Pro. That device includes an S Pen in the box, has a slot to house the pen when it’s not being used (so you don’t lose it), and sells for less than half the price of the Pixelbook, or about $450 when we wrote this. The Pixelbook and Pixelbook Pen together start at just under $1,100.
Android on Chrome
As we noted earlier, the Android app experience on Chrome devices wasn’t exactly a smooth experience when we first tested it on the Samsung Chromebook Pro. Several months on, we’d say things have definitely gotten better. But don’t expect your favorite apps to just work the way they probably do on your Android phone—at least for now.
On the plus side, if you rely mostly on Google apps and services like Google Drive, Docs, and Sheets for storage and productivity, and Google Photos for your image management, the experience can be pretty good. As we’d expect, Google has gone out of its way to make sure its core ecosystem works well, whether you’re using them in the Chrome browser or Android apps.
But when we tried to replicate some of the things we typically do on our Windows laptop, things didn’t go so well. The Android-based version of Microsoft Word generally worked well. But, like many apps, it needs to physically restart every time you switch between windowed and full-screen mode. That’s hardly conducive to multitasking or just a smooth workflow generally.
Worse, we tried grabbing a few photos from Microsoft’s OneDrive app (which happens to be where we store our photos and work files). But none of our images stored there would load, either as thumbnails or full-screen images. We had to manually download our images without actually being able to see them, which is a problem if you have bulk images that you’ve dumped into a folder after a vacation without sorting or naming them.
Then, while we could see the images we’d downloaded in preview mode in Adobe’s Photoshop Express app, when we tried to open one (or any) to do some edits, the app refused to open the images, instead endlessly pinwheeling and never actually loading the image. Those same images opened in the default Google image app just fine. Again, veer away from the Google ecosystem, and you’re likely to run into problems. To be fair, the Lightroom app worked much better, but we don’t normally use Lightroom to edit our photos. Again, expect to have to adopt your workflow around what works, at least until your favorite apps get updated to play better with Chrome OS.
We had similarly unpredictable experiences with games. The graphically demanding War Robots seemed to run fine, while Titan Quest, a rejiggering of a decade-old PC game, refused to run in a full screen, instead sticking to a small window in the lower-left corner, while some of the menu elements floated up top, on the left and right sides of the screen.
The puzzle title Futurama Game of Drones was at least playable, but only when holding the device in landscape orientation. When we rotated the screen to portrait mode (which is natural, as the game has a vertical layout meant for phones and tablets), the game would either refuse to rotate accordingly, or flip endlessly back and forth between portrait and landscape every half second or so, making play impossible until we turned the device back to a horizontal position.
In short, while the Pixelbook is powerful for a Chrome device, some (possibly many) of the apps that you might want to use to take advantage of the machine’s robust components might not work now. And if they aren’t being actively updated, there’s no guarantee that they’ll work at all. That’s a tough issue to dismiss for a Chromebook ecosystem where most of the devices cost a few hundred bucks. If you’re asking customers to spend $999 or more—the kind of money that could get you a very good Windows machine, or nearly a MacBook or MacBook Pro—it’s a pretty big problem. We’re not saying things won’t get better; in fact, we fully expect Android on Chrome devices to improve immensely. But until it does, if you opt for this machine, you’re spending premium PC money on a device that doesn’t feel fully baked yet.