(Pocket-lint) - Chromebooks have come a long way in the past seven years.
We remember when they began as clunky laptops, running a very early version of Chrome OS, which left users without basic apps to complete even everyday tasks, such as a Skype call. Despite decidedly-meh looks and specs, Chromebooks became hugely popular in the US among students and educators - even outselling the Mac in 2016.
Enter Google's new Pixelbook, which looks to step-up the way Chromebooks are seen. Starting at £999, it's an ultra-premium Chromebook. Sure, it has a MacBook-like price, but how does it compare in terms of design, power, and ability to - oh, we don't know - maybe do elementary things like resize an image?
Pixel design in laptop form
- 10.3mm thick; 1.1kg weight
- White silicon wrist rest; grey and white finish to match Pixel 2 phones
It's not the first time we've seen Google plump for the premium Chromebook space, with 2013's Chromebook Pixel being the company's first punt at ultra-premium. That was an ultimately failed venture, but the Pixelbook, as a kind of spiritual successor to that earlier attempt, fills in a lot of the gaps thanks to a far more functional operating system and better design.
Since the Chromebook Pixel launched, Google has been going heavy in the smartphone space, acquiring HTC, and pushing on its Pixel brand with a series of smartphones (now in its second-generation Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL).
The Pixelbook, with its Pixel-branded namesake, couldn't therefore just be a cheap, plastic machine for web browsing. You shouldn't look at Pixelbook and not be able to tell it apart from an Acer or Asus Chromebook. It's as though Google wants you look at the Pixelbook and think, simply, "Pixel".
As a result, the Chromebook looks just like Google's Pixel phones - but more the 2016 models, rather than this year's updates. It has a mostly silver metal body, but with a white glass back (made from Gorilla Glass), where the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas are housed.
While the body is shiny aluminium, the palm rest is a rubber silicon pad (that looks like it's been precision dunked in the stuff), surrounding the glass-topped trackpad, which clicks nicely and supports two and three-finger gestures. The keyboard above it is full-size, back-lit, and shallow with somewhat clacky keys. We quickly found our comfort zone when using it.
All-new keyboard keys
- Google Assistant button integrated on backlit keyboard
- Glass-topped trackpad surrounded by silicone rest
When we compared Pixelbook to our three-year-old Chromebook from HP, we noticed a few obvious differences. While HP replaced the Caps Lock button with a "search" key, Pixelbook has a key with small circle. Pressing it pulls up a panel from the bottom that you can conduct web searches from or use to find Android or Chrome web apps.
Also, in the top right, there's a a new settings button with three horizontal lines. Just tap it to bring up the Settings panel from the bottom right. But the biggest new feature is the Google Assistant key, which sits between Control and Alt. You can use it to bring up Google Assistant to make contextual searches and ask questions through speech or type, though we'll discuss this more later.
Not one, but two USB-C ports
- 2x USB-C (one doubles as charger), 1x 3.5mm headphones jack
Elsewhere, you'll find a power button/volume rocker on the left edge, alongside a USB-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the right side, there's another USB-C port. Both can be used for charging.
Small ports means a slender laptop, too. The Pixelbook is just 10.3mm thin. But that premium design means it weighs 1.1kgs, which isn't dramatically heavier than an Apple iPad Pro with keyboard attached.
What's the display like?
- 12.3-inch Quad HD (2560 x 1600) LCD touchscreen
- 360-degree hinge design for multi-position use
The Pixelbook's display is a high-resolution LCD touchscreen. Like the Microsoft Surface, it has a 3:2 aspect ratio to support a vertical work flow. The hinge folds, so you can move the screen all the way around to use Pixelbook as a regular laptop or as a tablet. You can also set it up in a tent shape for watching video.
Honestly, though, since this is a 12.3-inch device, we found it sort of awkward to use as a tablet. We were uncomfortable resting the exposed keyboard on a desk or in our hands. We kept thinking keys would pop off (despite sitting sunken into the design, so the key tops are flush with the body) or that the glass trackpad would crack. So, after just a few days, we found ourselves mostly using Pixelbook as a regular laptop.
We therefore can't say we ended up touching Pixelbook's screen too much. We also didn't like those black, beastly bezels around the display. It definitely reminded us that, despite the otherwise minimalist appearance, we were using a Chromebook rather than a gorgeous, nearly bezel-free laptop, such as the Dell XPS 13.
One last thing to note about the display: it has 400 nits brightness and covers 72 per cent of the NTSC colour gamut. What does that mean? Well, it looks very sharp and bright to us, especially when compared to other Chromebooks, which are typically known for their lower-resolution, dim displays. Pixelbook is in a vastly different class - as you would expect from a £999 laptop.
Optional new Pixel Pen stylus
- Pixelbook Pen stylus, sold separately (£99)
- 2,000 levels of pressure, tilt awareness
If you're like us and find yourself not really touching Pixelbook's display, maybe you'd get more use if you paired it with the Pixel Pen (sold separately for £99). It supports around 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity and has tilt awareness for true pen-like results. Mind you, Microsoft's Surface Pen has 4,096 levels, but we think Google's still writes fast and smooth.
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of apps optimised for Pixel Pen right now. Still, there's plenty of use cases, like drawing or taking notes in Google Keep, Evernote or Squid. There's even a Stylus tools panel you can access from the bottom toolbar of Pixelbook, so that you can do things like capture a screenshot on the fly.
The worst part about Pixel Pen is that it uses a AAAA battery, and there's no place to logically attach it to the laptop - a magnet would have been nice. So we don't yet know how long the Pen will last per charge - best get a spare battery in your drawer for when the inevitable happens.
ChromeOS now supports Android apps
- Google ChromeOS (functions online and offline)
- Access to Google Play Store for apps
- Google Assistant baked in
Pixelbook is the first laptop ever made with Google Assistant. Whether you activate Assistant from the keyboard key or Pixel Pen or "OK Google" wake word, the window for it will pop up in the lower left, sort of like Windows Start Menu.
You can ask questions with your voice or type into the window - or even drag in images using the Pen for contextual based search. Assistant will return your results and integrate with smart home devices, calendars, email, etc.
Using the Pixel Pen with Google Assistant is even more interesting. Press-and-hold the button on its side, then select a snippet from any app, which will simultaneously activate Google Assistant on Pixelbook so it can search or respond to whatever you've marked up. Circle a photo and Assistant will tell you where it was taken. Circle a celebrity's face on a news site and Assistant will tell you who they are.
Android and Chrome web apps
ChromeOS has come leaps and bounds since 2011. It has multitasking features and can run Android mobile apps in their own windows, including apps like Microsoft Office and Photoshop Express, effectively making Chromebooks hybrid Android tablets. Google even said it is working with Adobe to bring more apps to ChromeOS.
Native Android apps can run side-by-side with regular Chrome web apps. They can be dynamically resized like any regular window while in laptop mode, or used full-screen when using the Pixelbook as a tablet.
However, Android app support for Chromebooks is still meh.
For instance, we often need to resize and manipulate images, and we can't seem to find an equivalent to Photoshop for desktop in the Google Play Store or Chrome Web Store. Photoshop Express and the like just don't cut it.
Also, things can get convoluted. For instance, web apps can conflict with Android apps sometimes. Our Pixelbook had a Google Photos web app already installed - with the Photos icon sitting in our app drawer - but when we installed an image editor from Play Store, it prompted us to install the Google Photos Android app, which we did, resulting in two Photos icons sitting in our app drawer (one for the Android app, and one for the web version).
More storage and RAM than you'll probably need
- Intel Core i5 and i7 processor options
- Up to 16GB RAM available
- Up to 1TB storage
Let's take a look at what's under the hood. The £999 model comes with 128GB of storage, an Intel Core i5 Y-series processor (7th-gen Kaby Lake version), and 8GB RAM. For £200 more, you can get 256GB of storage; for £700 more, you can get a model with a Core i7 Y-series processor, 16GB of memory, and 512GB of NVMe storage.
Those Android mobile apps we talked about earlier are the main reason why Pixelbook has so much more storage and RAM than your older, standard Chromebook. Pixelbook supports them and even allows for offline downloads, including for Netflix shows - a feature previously limited to iOS, Android, and Windows 10 devices.
You can automatically offline-sync the last 500 uploads in Google Drive, too, as well as run popular apps like Instagram, which have no desktop counterpart. And, yes, you can make a phone call with Skype for Android.
10 hours on a single charge
Pixelbook had no problem running any of those apps... for hours at a time. We got a full 10 hours on a single charge using the Core i5 model for this review.
And this thing charged up quick when it did run out of juice. We plugged it in for 30 minutes and then were good to go for another full work day's worth of hours of web browsing, video watching, app downloading, and more.
Pixelbook is the most powerful Chromebook to date, there's no denying that. Whether you'll genuinely need all that power for an Android apps and ChromeOS setup is questionable, however - we struggle to see genuine use for the Core i7 version.
Four mics and instant tethering
Dual speakers, a 720p camera, and four far-field microphones (two more than even the Google Home) round out the specs on Pixelbook, which means it is adequate enough to be used as a basic entertainment device. Music streaming, webcam sessions, and the ability to activate Assistant are all very doable.
One other little bit we liked about Pixelbook is that, if it should ever lose Wi-Fi connectivity, it can automatically use your Pixel phone's connection via "instant tethering," a hotspot feature that is enabled by default. But, again, this isn't necessary if you take advantage of those Android apps and ChromeOS' offline capabilities.
Starting at £999, it's hard to recommend the Pixelbook.
There's no doubt that it's a visually stunning piece of hardware. But its software, while improved and now with Google Assistant baked in, is a confusing mix of Android apps and janky web apps. If you're a creative professional who needs full video and graphics-editing programs, you can't use Pixelbook. It's certainly powerful enough; the necessary apps just aren't there that really need to pull on all that power.
Students, who by-and-large only need to access the web, some mobile apps, email, Google Docs, and Netflix, could save a lot of money by going with a cheaper Chromebook. Sure, that'd mean a crappier display, no Pixel Pen or built-in Google Assistant, but they'd still be able to get done what they need to do.
Admittedly, we often find ourselves ditching our hefty MacBook Pro, which looks dated in comparison, in favour using the Pixelbook for casual browsing at night time or even for some light work, like typing up this very review. However, we have to switch back to the MacBook Pro soon, as photos for this very piece need to be edited.
Ultimately, Google made Pixelbook to flex its design and hardware muscle. And it's succeeded. But it hasn't succeeded in making a Chromebook that's truly worth a grand. Not yet, anyway.
Alternatives to consider
Microsoft Surface Laptop
As a similar priced, equally stylish and well-built laptop (albeit with no 360-degree hinge), we would lean towards the Surface Laptop over the Pixelbook. Rather than running Windows 10, however, the Surface Laptop runs Windows 10 S - meaning access to Windows Store only, thus creating a similar "issue" to that of the Pixelbook, in its restriction on app availability. Fortunately, however, the software can be updated to Windows 10 proper. And then you'll have a stunning and hugely capable product.
Read the full article: Microsoft Surface Laptop review
Microsoft Surface Pro
Potentially pricey, but the shining example of Windows-based 2-in-1 devices, the Surface Pro has fewer limitations than ChromeOS straight out the box. It can be used as tablet, taptop, or anything in-between, delivering oodles of power. Battery life isn't as good as the Pixelbook, however.
Read the full article: Microsoft Surface Pro 5 review
Apple iPad Pro 10.5
Ok, so probably our most out there alternative, as Apple's iOS-based tablet doesn't touch upon Android, ChromeOS or Windows apps to any degree. Within its contained ecosystem, however, is a very capable day-to-day laptop alternative, with optional Apple Pencil stylus, all wrapped into a package that's ultimately cheaper than the Pixelbook (well, just about).
Read the full article: Apple iPad Pro 10.5 review