Google Pixelbook review: Who’s the most glamorous Chromebook of them all?
A thousand pounds is a lot to pay for a laptop – especially if it’s a Chromebook. Google’s lightweight OS may be slick and secure, but it doesn’t run heavyweight applications like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. Yet the new Pixelbook is much more flexible than previous Chromebooks, to the point that – even despite the stiff price tag – you might find yourself tempted to take the plunge.
Google Pixelbook review: Meet the Pixelbook
The Pixelbook is Google’s third own-brand Chromebook and, like its predecessors, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s just over 1cm thick, with an aluminium and white chassis that complements the design of the latest Pixel smartphones.
Inside, there’s an ultra-sharp 12in touchscreen with a native resolution of 2,400 x 1,600 pixels. That translates to a 3:2 aspect ratio, like Microsoft’s Surface laptops, and personally I’m a big fan of the shape. I’ve always found widescreen laptops involve too much scrolling up and down.
What’s most significant about the Pixelbook isn’t its form, however, but what it can do. It’s the first Chromebook to come with full access to the Google Play Store, which means you’re no longer limited to web-based apps; you can also download and run programs originally designed for Android.[gallery:3]
This is a revolutionary change. You can now get real work done in the mobile edition of Microsoft Office 365, and edit pictures in Adobe Lightroom CC. Both programs work perfectly well with a keyboard and mouse or you can optionally pay £99 for the Pixelbook Pen, a highly responsive stylus that makes it easy to scribble notes or screengrab areas of the display. If you prefer to use a finger, the screen is fully multi-touch capable, so you can comfortably play games that were designed for smartphones or tablets.
And that brings us to the Pixelbook’s last big trick: the screen flips all the way round, to turn it into an oversized Android tablet. Told you it was flexible.
Google Pixelbook review: What’s inside?
Google advertises that the Pixelbook comes with a seventh-generation Core i5 processor. That’s a bit of a cheat, as it’s an ultra-low-power model that would have been called a Core m5 in previous generations. Even so, it’s enough to make the Pixelbook the most powerful Chromebook we’ve ever tested, stealing the crown from the HP Chromebook 13 with a JetStream benchmark score of 140.
The basic £999 model also comes with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of fast solid-state storage; for £1,199 you can double the size of the SSD and, next month, there’s a high-end 512GB model coming with a Core i7 CPU, although at £1,699 I doubt it’ll find many takers.
As for connectivity, there’s one USB Type-C port on either side of the chassis so you can charge the battery and connect an external hard drive or display at the same time. 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 let you connect wirelessly to networks and other devices, and there’s a 3.5mm headphone socket, too.[gallery:0]
Google Pixelbook review: Is it worth the money?
The idea of paying this much for a Chromebook might sound absurd, but once you sit down and start working with the Pixelbook it’s a lot easier to understand. It feels fantastic: the build quality is as solid as you could ask for, and the keyboard and trackpad are superbly responsive. The screen is a joy, too: it’s gorgeously bright at 462cd/m2, with an excellent contrast ratio of 1,725:1 ensuring black is impeccably solid and colours seem to pop right off the screen.
It must be admitted that battery life isn’t quite best-in-class: we got 8hrs 25mins of video playback on a single charge, while the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 managed a stonking 11hrs 33mins. Still, it’s enough to get you through the day. Plus, remarkably, once the battery dies it takes barely more than an hour to completely recharge.
Google Pixelbook review: New features
Aside from the Play Store, the Pixelbook also has a new app Launcher, although this isn’t exclusive to the Pixelbook; it’s a standard update for all Chromebooks. When you click the Launcher icon in the bottom corner of the screen (or press the Pixelbook’s dedicated Launcher key on the left-hand side of the keyboard) you’ll get a short list of recently-used apps, along with a search field so you can find other apps by name. Another click expands the Launcher into a full-screen, Android-type view showing all installed apps. It’s not a huge change from what went before, but it’s neater.
Chrome OS also now comes with the Google Assistant built in. You can, again, open this by tapping a special key at the bottom of the keyboard – or you can simply declare “OK, Google” out loud and talk to it directly. I found the Assistant’s voice recognition capabilities extremely impressive, and it’s an easy way to quickly carry out a web search or play music. Whether it’ll be useful on a day-to-day basis I’m not so sure, but it does no harm.[gallery:8]
One final neat feature that is exclusive to the Pixelbook is automatic tethering to Pixel smartphones. If you’re in an area with no Wi-Fi, you can place your Google phone on the desk next to the Pixelbook and it’ll automatically detect it and let you share its internet connection. It’s not a huge game-changer – you can tether any phone with a few taps – but it makes the whole thing feel a bit slicker.
Google Pixelbook review: The downsides
There are just a few areas where the Pixelbook doesn’t quite hit the mark. I’ve never been convinced by fold-around convertible designs, and the Pixelbook illustrates why: it’s a good size and weight for a laptop but uncomfortably big and heavy for a tablet, measuring 36cm across the diagonal (including the bezels) and tipping the scales at a touch over a kilogram. It also feels weird to have the keyboard sticking out the back, resting on your arm. It’s disabled in tablet mode, so you won’t be sending out gibberish emails by mistake but it’s still inelegant.[gallery:4]
The 360-degree hinge also gives you the option of propping up the Pixelbook in “tent mode”, which could be handy for watching videos and the like. Unfortunately, this isn’t a pleasant experience because, bafflingly, Google seems to have cheaped out on the speakers. They’re not short on volume, but the low-end is completely absent, which means movies sound nasty and music is almost impossible to enjoy. It’s a good job that Google hasn’t ditched the 3.5in jack socket, so you can at least listen on headphones.
Google Pixelbook review: The verdict
The Pixelbook is certainly expensive but not unreasonably so when you look at what you get. Yes, you could buy an Acer Chromebook R11 (to pick an arbitrary example) for a quarter of the price – but, as with most cheap Chromebooks, you’d end up with a mediocre screen, a Celeron processor and a measly 32GB of onboard storage.
The Pixelbook is in a different league entirely: it’s every bit as gorgeous and user-friendly as the best Windows or macOS laptops. I can see myself being happy to work on it all day every day, and even proud to show off in my local coffee shop.
What’s more, with the Play Store opening up the platform to millions of ready-made Android apps, I’m finding it increasingly hard to think of reasons not to. Yes, if you need to run specialist software then you’ll have to give the Pixelbook a miss. But for a great many people, Chrome OS is now flexible enough to be your number-one, day-to-day OS – and the Pixelbook is a fantastic Chromebook that ensures you won’t regret making the switch.