When we reviewed Google's Chromebook Pixel in 2013, we said it was a gorgeous, well-built computer that almost no one should buy. That's also how we felt about the follow up in 2015. See, Chrome OS has been considered fine for a cheap second computer, but it was pretty much impossible to recommend anyone drop $999+ for the Pixel. Chrome OS was too limited, when a computer running Windows or macOS costs the same amount.
Google's ambitious new Pixelbook suggests that won't be the case anymore. The laptop bears no resemblance to the original Pixel, but it's cut from similar cloth. It's still one of the nicest laptops you can find -- but it's also still running Chrome OS.
But for a growing segment of the population, that might not be a problem. Google believes that as the many students who've used Chrome OS for years transition into adulthood, they'll be looking for high quality laptops that run the software they're familiar with. Moreover, Google says that premium laptops make up 20 percent of the market -- the Pixelbook is its latest attempt to get a piece of that pie.
The Pixelbook makes a striking first impression, with a design that borrows heavily from Google's Pixel smartphones. The whole computer is made up of silver aluminum matched with white accents. On the lid, it's made of glass, which helps let WiFi signals through. The bottom of the laptop (not a part of the computer we look at very often) has a matching white panel, but it's made of plastic rather than glass. Along the edges you'll find a power button, a volume rocker, a headphone jack and two USB-C ports.
Open up the Pixelbook and you'll find another white panel that makes up the trackpad and palmrests. The palmrests are raised, which keeps the keyboard from touching the screen when the Pixelbook is closed. They're also made of a soft plastic that's much more comfortable than resting your wrists on the sharp aluminum of a MacBook. It's a similar effect to what Microsoft achieved by covering the Surface Laptop with soft, Alcantra fabric. I am concerned the pure white rests will get grubby after extended typing sessions -- hopefully they're easy to clean.
Like many other Chromebooks, the Pixelbook has a 360-degree hinge that lets you use the computer in four different modes: Laptop, tablet, tent (with the hinge pointed up in the air) and "entertainment" (with the keyboard folded underneath). The latter two modes are functionally indistinguishable and not all that useful, honestly. But given the number of computers that offer these options there must be someone who appreciates it.
As with most other convertible laptops, I find using the Pixelbook in tablet mode to be... fine. At 2.4 pounds, the Pixelbook is a light laptop but a heavy and awkward tablet. I don't mind holding my one-pound iPad Pro for hours at a time on a flight watching movies or playing games, but I wouldn't do the same with this computer.
In laptop mode, the Pixelbook shines. The keyboard is totally different than the one found on the original Pixel, but it's almost as good. Since the Pixelbook is so much thinner, the keys only have 0.8mm of travel, but there's none of the shallow feeling that you find on Apple's newer MacBooks. Instead, the keys are soft but not squishy and very quiet. Despite the fact that the Pixelbook is essentially the same size as Samsung's Chromebook Pro, the keyboard on Google's machine is much, much better. Nothing is cramped, all the keys are big enough, and there's even a nice backlight. I happily typed away on this computer for hours at a time and had zero issues.
Sadly, the trackpad isn't quite as good. Basically all other laptops have a small bit of space between the end of the trackpad and the edge of the laptop's body. The Pixelbook doesn't, and I was surprised at how much that bothered me, particularly when the computer was in my lap. Compounding the problem was a feeling that the trackpad was positioned too low on the Pixelbook. I wish that the entire trackpad and keyboard assembly was moved up just a bit from the Pixelbook's edge. The good news is that the trackpad itself is very responsive, it's just not the most comfortable to use.
One of the reasons I had such an irrational love of the original Pixel laptop was its screen. Not only was it gorgeous, it also had a somewhat-rare 3:2 aspect ratio. While most laptops go for 16:9, the Pixel's screen was taller and better for browsing the web and writing. The Pixelbook keeps that ratio, but the smaller 12.3-inch touchscreen (the original Pixel had a display closer to 13 inches) means that the resolution has decreased to 2,400 x 1,600, from 2,560 x 1,700. That slight loss of pixels is enough to make the Pixelbook's screen feel a little cramped, especially when using it at the default scaled resolution of 1,200 x 800.
Otherwise, it's a very bright and crisp display with excellent color reproduction and viewing angles. It doesn't feel overly saturated, but the great contrast helps make colors pop. Some have complained about the large bezel surrounding the display, but for a convertible device meant to be used as a tablet, it's not terribly surprising.
Performance and battery life
Most Chromebooks don't use powerful processors, but the Pixelbook is an exception. The base $999 model includes a quad-core Intel Core i5 processor paired with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It's the first Chromebook with that much storage, which allows users to install more Android apps and save more files offline. The $1,199 model I tested sticks with the same processor and RAM but bumps the storage to 256GB. And if you're feeling particularly crazy, you can spend $1,649 on a Pixelbook with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.
For most users, the entry-level model should be more than sufficient. I never came close to filling up the SSD, and performance was outstanding. I typically run several Chrome windows with no less than a dozen tabs in each, along with web apps for Tweetdeck, Todoist, Google Play Music, Google Keep, Hangouts and Slack. I never ran into any slowdowns or stutters, and the extra horsepower kept Android apps working faster and smoother than I've seen on any Chromebook. I was even able to dive into fairly graphics-intense games like Asphalt 8 while keeping the rest of my windows and web apps running without performance taking a hit.
Unfortunately, that performance comes at the cost of battery life. Despite Google's claims that the Pixelbook lasts 10 hours between charges, we got just under eight hours in our standard battery test (looping a 1080p video with brightness set to 66 percent). Under my actual workday routine it fared even worse -- I typically needed the charger after about six hours. It's disappointing, but in line with what other Chromebooks with less powerful processors offer these days.
One bit of good news is that the Pixelbook charges very quickly with its included USB-C power adapter. Google says that plugging in for 15 minutes will get you through two hours of work, which was accurate in my tests. Powering back up to 95 percent took about an hour and change all told, which is pretty quick. I just wish that it didn't drain quite so fast -- and that Google provided better battery estimates so I didn't get my hopes up to begin with.
As usual, Google made a few tweaks to Chrome OS to go along with the new hardware. The biggest is easily the addition of the Google Assistant. Once you get the Pixelbook set up, say "OK, Google", and it'll respond just like an Android phone or Google Home. The Assistant lives in a little window that pops up in the lower left hand side of the screen; it reminds me a bit of the Siri window that slides in on a Mac or Google's Allo chat app.
There are multiple ways to access the Google Assistant -- you can say "OK, Google," or hit a dedicated key (it's basically the Chromebook equivalent of the Windows key). The Assistant is smart enough to open the various apps on your Pixelbook needed to answer your queries. When I told it to play Stranger Things on Netflix, the Android app opened up right to the show's episode list. If you ask for a movie, playback will start right away. The same goes for music; ask for tunes and the Assistant will open up your music app of choice and start playing.
Other than the Assistant, you won't notice many changes to Chrome OS. Google redesigned the app launcher -- again -- to make it look like the Android app menu. There's a handful of recently launched apps at the top, followed by the full list of everything installed on your Pixelbook.
The Pixelbook features the Google Play Store, which is finally out of beta. The combo of the Google Assistant and improved Android apps makes the whole Chrome OS experience feel more complete. Even though I mostly used web apps on the Pixelbook, having the option to open up responsive versions of Lightroom or Microsoft Office was definitely helpful, even just the mobile versions.
Android tablets never took off because too few apps were designed for large screens, but on the Pixelbook, running some apps in "phone" mode can be useful. Having Facebook Messenger running on the side of my screen just makes sense, for example. I also liked having the Todoist app running in a little phone-sized window so I always had my current task list handy.
Even though I did almost everything on the Pixelbook over the last few weeks, I still needed my MacBook Air to get photos edited, resized and watermarked for this review. Basic photo clean up is possible with apps like Lightroom and Snapseed, but professionals will still feel hamstrung. And video editing is still basically impossible.
The last piece of the PIxelbook story is the Pixelbook Pen. It's a pressure- and tilt-enabled stylus that uses Wacom technology. Unfortunately it is not included with the Pixelbook. You'll have to shell out an extra $99 for it. The Pen's most unique feature is that it offers another way to interact with the Google Assistant. Pressing and holding a button the side of the Pen and then circling something on your screen will prompt the Assistant to search for information related to what you highlighted.
If you circle an album cover, for example, Assistant will bring up info on the artist along with links to find out tour dates and so on. Sadly, it's not hard to confuse the Assistant -- it had a hard time recognizing an image of Google's own Pixel 2. To be fair, the phone is just a black rectangle, but it shows how tricky image recognition can be.
Otherwise, you can do typical stylus things with the Pixelbook Pen, like taking notes and sketching. Google claims that the Pen's latency is only 10ms, but I found performance to be a disappointment. When taking notes in Google Keep, there was significant lag; writing on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil or on the Surface Pro with Microsoft's Surface Pen was definitely a better experience. Noticeable lag showed up when I tried making some crude drawings in various apps like Painter, ArtCanvas and ArtFlow. That said, it appears the Pixelbook Pen can achieve low-latency results if the app is properly tuned. I tried a beta version of the Squid note-taking app, and it was notably better than Keep.
For now, the Pixelbook Pen isn't a must-buy. I like using it to grab screenshots and mark them up, but I'm not much for using a stylus to take notes -- I'd rather just type them out, particularly when the input is laggy. The Google Assistant features are fun, but not essential. Think hard before shelling out money for it, chances are you'll get by just fine without it.
The Pixelbook doesn't have any real direct competition -- no one else is making Chromebooks quite like this. The best Chromebook on the market is probably the Asus Chromebook Flip C302, which costs less than half of what the Pixelbook will run you. But it doesn't have a stylus and its screen isn't nearly as good as the one on the Pixelbook. Its construction feels much less solid, but that's par for the course on a $479 computer. It's still an excellent machine for people who want to get the Chrome OS experience without breaking the bank. If you have to have stylus support, Samsung's Chromebook Pro and Chromebook Plus are worth taking a look at. The keyboard and battery life are let downs, but they're both still solid machines.
Outside the Chromebook space, Microsoft's new Surface Laptop is the same price as the Pixelbook. It's similarly well-designed and powerful and has battery life that is essentially unmatched. You get a lot of computer for your money and it also can run any software in the Windows Store. Shelling out a little cash to upgrade the limited Windows 10S to the full version of Windows 10 gives you access to all programs for the platform. It won't run Android apps, but that's not a concern when you have the breadth and depth of Windows available.
The question is the same one we asked of the Chromebook Pixel: Is it worth spending $1,000 on a laptop running Chrome OS? The answer this time is different: Yes... with a couple of caveats.
Photo and video editors as well as serious gamers will still need to look at more traditional options. But, anyone else looking for a high-quality laptop should give it real consideration. In the last two and a half years, Chromebooks have become more popular and many essential services work perfectly well in a browser. Plus, Android apps on Chrome are finally a real and useful thing
Look, computers with this level of design and specs don't come cheap. The Pixelbook is among the best laptops I've used in a long time. It's thin, light, fanless, powerful, comfortable to use and beautiful to look at. Unless you need a full-featured Mac or Windows PC, the Pixelbook is worth the price.
- This article originally appeared on Engadget.