Google Pixelbook review: This is the Chromebook to beat
Google has form for launching flagship Chromebooks, having released two Chromebook Pixels in 2013 and 2015, and in 2017 it repeated the trick with the all-new Pixelbook. The same question remains as it did with Google's previous premium Chrome OS laptops though: Who needs a high-end Chromebook?
After all, this is the lightweight, stripped-down OS suitable for web browsing, emailing, and some light office work – you don't need a heavy-duty processor for that, or oodles of RAM, or a huge hard drive, because everything is in the cloud. Chromebooks have proved a hit at the budget end of the market and in the education sector, but Google obviously thinks it's worth aiming at the premium end too.
The answer to the conundrum, as it was in 2013 and 2015, seems to be that Google wants a flagship laptop out there – a marker that other Chromebook makers can look up to. We've spent a few days with the new Google Pixelbook, and these are our thoughts.
Pixelbook specs and design
The Pixelbook is available in three configurations, direct from Google: An Intel i5 version with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD for US$999, a 256 GB SSD upgrade on that for $1,199, and an Intel i7 version with 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB SSD for $1,649. The Pixelbook Pen stylus is an optional extra for $99.
Straight away you'll notice those specs are overkill for something just running Chrome; the prices are also more expensive than a lot of Windows laptops and a few Macs as well. The truth is that you're not going to notice much of a speed increase between these three configurations, but the Pixelbook is going to be noticeably faster than budget Chromebooks, especially on demanding webpages and web apps.
The extra processing power, RAM, and storage space does come in handy for the Pixelbook's ace card: support for Android apps. That additional room means more apps, more synced movies, more cached Spotify playlists, and so on, while the improved performance ensures no lag or stuttering.
We would have liked to have seen a happy medium around the $600-700 mark, bridging the gap between budget and premium, but Google is obviously happy to focus on the very top end. The Samsung Chromebook Pro, for example, perhaps the Pixelbook's closest competitor, will set you back around $600 online.
Some of that cost must be going into materials, because this is hands-down the best-looking Chromebook we've ever seen, making the previous Chromebook Pixels look chunky and inelegant by comparison. From the softly textured palm rests to the two-tone glass backing on the lid, this screams quality. From a distance, no one will know that you're just running a web browser (and a few Android apps) on your laptop.
The Pixelbook follows the familiar 2-in-1 laptop design, so you can reverse the screen right round, propping the device up in a tent-like fashion, or even using it as a rather bulky but fully functionality Chrome OS/Android tablet. The 12.3-inch, 3:2 touchscreen runs at a resolution of 2400 x 1600 pixels (235 ppi), and you get two USB-C ports plus a 3.5-mm headphone jack around the sides.
Weighing in at 2.4 pounds (1.1 kg) it's a light enough laptop but fairly hefty for a tablet – this isn't something you're going to want to hold in one hand for very long. When closed, the Pixelbook is 0.41 inches (10.3 mm) thick, which again is slim for a laptop but chunky if you're going to compare it with something like the iPad Pro.
Rounding out the specs, you've got a 720p webcam for all your video calling needs and two rather basic speakers sat underneath the keyboard. They'll do for movies and TV shows at a push, but if you want to actually enjoy your audio and music, you're going to need some wired or Bluetooth headphones with your laptop.
Pixelbook user experience
The Pixelbook is a pleasure to use: razor-sharp screen, a keyboard with just the right mix of softness and a mechanical feel (although the backlighting seemed slightly off), and textured, rubberized palm rests that add to the feeling of quality. The glass trackpad is smooth and silky, responding to taps and swipes without a hitch.
Move the laptop between its various modes and it never feels likely to snap or pull apart, and the rubber pads underneath the keyboard are a nice touch, helping the laptop to feel solid and secure when it's placed on a surface. Perhaps the screen bezels might look a little chunky by today's standards, but it's really a small niggle in what's otherwise a very well-made machine.
Chrome OS is Chrome OS, as ever – if you've never used it before, it's perfect for those lightweight web tasks and has consistently got better down the years at working without Wi-Fi (Gmail and the Google Drive office suite are two of the apps that now work offline). You don't get access to hefty desktop applications like Photoshop or iTunes, but a lot of people can now live without them.
And the Android apps certainly help here too: Microsoft's Office apps for Android, apps like Netflix and Spotify, Adobe's basic image editing apps ... these all help to make the Pixelbook more useful and versatile than it would be running Chrome OS alone. Google still hasn't quite worked out all the kinks – so you might find yourself occasionally opening the Android app when you meant to open the web app – but for the majority of the time everything works well.
We also tested the Pixelbook Pen, which seems to work better as a stylus to select menus and options than as a serious drawing tool. Latency was just slightly noticeable on apps like Adobe Sketch and Autodesk Sketchbook, which would frustrate serious digital artists, but for some casual doodling it's fine. You can also highlight items on screen and get the Google Assistant to search them.
Speaking of Google Assistant, this is the first Chromebook to have it on board, and it gets its own dedicated button on the keyboard too. You probably aren't going to buy these for the Google Assistant integration alone – a lot of the time you can simply type the same queries into Google anyway – but it's a nice extra to have, and it helps to go some way towards justifying that extra expense.
With no need to install antivirus software, or to regularly run maintenance tools, or to clean up clutter that's accumulated on the hard drive, Chrome OS has a lot going for it. The question is though, do you really want to pay $1,000 and up for the privilege? It's a tricky question to answer, but if you think (or know) Chrome OS is right for you, and your budget can stretch, we'd say the Pixelbook is a worthy investment. That extra horsepower and memory really helps when you start to pile on the apps and browser tabs, even if you're not editing video or powering through the latest games.
Price aside, the Pixelbook represents the best Chromebook you can buy right now, a laptop that gives the Microsoft Surface and Apple MacBook lines some stiff competition. With its Android app support, the multiple modes of use, the optional stylus, the excellent design, and the top-level specs, it's very much the Chromebook to beat in 2018.