Google Pixelbook review

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The Google Pixelbook is the first Chromebook worthy of consideration alongside the most high-end Windows and Mac devices. From its stunning design to its stupendous software enhancements, this is the best Chromebook to date, bar none.

Sublime design
Full Android app support
Awesome keyboard
Excellent stylus support

Pen sold separately
Poor audio performance
No biometric login

Thanks to its horsepower and versatility, the Google Pixelbook overshadows other competitors in its class like the Chromebook Pixel. There’s no Chromebook quite like it, and it’s one of the best Chromebooks available as well as among the best 2-in-1 laptops you can get in 2020.

There’s a lot of style packed into this Google Chromebook, a design philosophy it shares with Google’s Pixel Slate. It’s not just a gorgeous gadget though. With the inclusion of Android, without losing any of Chrome OS’s features, Google Pixelbook has actually helped raise the profile of premium Chromebooks and what they’re capable of. You just don’t get that with Windows 10.

It’s also fitted with a stunning 2,400 x 1,600 display, 7th-generation Intel Kaby Lake processors and plenty of versatility, in part thanks to the Pixelbook Pen, which unfortunately doesn’t come included in the box. With specs similar to Apple’s offerings, the relatively affordable Pixelbook is a premium experience that easily rivals any of its competitors. And, while Google Pixelbook Go is a cheaper option for budget-minded shoppers, the Google Pixelbook is still more enticing for those wanting a premium experience.

Price and availability
There’s no denying it – the Google Pixelbook is an expensive Chromebook. Starting at $999 or £999 and capping out at $1,649 or £1,699 – even without including the $99 (£99, about AU$130) Pixelbook Pen, though Google is generously throwing in a pen loop for those in need of a place to secure the pen.

For that premium price, however, you’re also getting 7th generation Kaby Lake Intel Core i5 processors on both the entry-level 128GB configuration and $1,199 (£1,199, about AU$1,555) mid-range 256GB configuration, each paired with 8GB of memory. On the other hand, the top-end 512GB option comes packing a Core i7 processor with 16GB of memory. All of these processor options are Intel’s low-power, low-heat Y series chips, which means all of the Pixelbook models are fanless.

Unfortunately, for our friends Down Under, this beauty hasn’t made in Australia. That means they’ll either have to settle for the competition or import it from the US, in which case they might have to shell out more for shipping.

Now, let’s talk about how this holds up against 2017’s Samsung Chromebook Pro and the Asus Chromebook Flip, both of which were designed in close conjunction with Google to jumpstart the company’s Android app push on Chrome OS. Both of these 2-in-1s are considerably more affordable, with Samsung and Asus currently selling for $599 (about £468, AU$869) and $469 (£366, about AU$680), respectively.

However, they’re both noticeably less powerful as well, only fitted with the same 6th-generation Intel Core m3 processor. On the upside, this processor produces low heat, which lets it take advantage of fanless chassis designs. That said, they’re both beautiful Chromebooks in their own right, even if they offer significantly less memory and local storage.

At the end of the day, these two Chromebooks are a better bargain for what the Chrome OS platform currently offers. However, the Google Pixelbook is a future-facing device. The Pixelbook is to the Chromebook what Microsoft’s Surface was to the Windows 10 2-in-1 laptops that succeeded.

The Google Pixelbook is the result of years of incredible work on Google’s part in refining a unified design across its hardware offerings. But, the Pixelbook could also be seen as a sort of coming of age for Google’s design philosophy.

It’s easy to say that this is the most stunning and remarkably designed computing device from Google yet. From the brushed aluminum frame with flush edges to the rubberized palm rest and underside, every design element has achieved style and substance in equal measure.

However, if you haven’t purchased a laptop in the last few years, you might have a hard time accepting the lack of ports. Still, the Google Pixelbook is at least future proof. Which reminds us – the webcam is just as suitable for an increasingly video-centric future with a 720p resolution and 60 frames per second capture rate.

The same can’t be said of the audio, however. This has become normal in thin and light notebooks: Google has crammed the speakers beneath the keyboard, and the result is tinny sound. Fortunately, a 3.5mm audio jack is there to let you use the best headphones with the Pixelbook.

On the upside, the glass trackpad is a pleasure to use as it tracks smoothly and precisely, both in single- and-multi-touch gestures. However, we found that the trackpad doesn’t like us resting our thumb on it to click while tracking with our index finger – a common use case, but not this editor’s personal preference.

Likewise, the Pixelbook keyboard is among the best we’ve ever used. The backlit keyboard’s keys are well-spaced, and its 0.8mm travel is a delight with forceful feedback. We also love the subtle, deeply satisfying clicking sound the keys make – it’s different from every laptop keyboard we’ve tested, and now we’re going to expect it everywhere.

The Pixelbook earns the ‘pixel’ when it comes to the 3:2 display. At 235 ppi with accurate color reproduction, the Pixelbook display rivals some of the best around, Chromebook or otherwise. It’s in the same class as the 227 ppi 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 267 ppi Surface Pro 6.

The panel works stunningly for movies and photos, as well as photo editing. The 400 nits of brightness help hugely with this. It is still a glossy screen however, and as such doesn’t stand up to direct sunlight all that well. At any rate, the display is also extremely accurate to the touch, especially when underneath the Pixelbook Pen.

Pixelbook Pen and Google Assistant
First off, we’ll just say that it’s a damn shame that the Pixelbook Pen is excluded in the price of the Pixelbook, as it’s arguably crucial to the experience. However, we’re not about the say that the stylus isn’t worth the price of admission, because it 100% is worth it – if you can spare it.

The Pixelbook Pen works beautifully as a stylus, offering plenty of pressure response as well as tilt support, which makes drawing on the display a pleasure. The display’s snappy response helps the digital ink follow close enough behind the pen that any delay is indiscernible.

On the Pixelbook Pen sits a single button, which is essentially a Google Assistant button, but also seems to incorporate some of the new Google Lens technology found in smartphones, like the Google Pixel 2. Pressing the button while inking turns that ink into a thick blue, but doesn’t actually draw anything.

Instead, anything captured inside this blue ink is sent to Google Assistant for analysis, which in turn presents anything and everything Google’s servers can gather about whatever you encircled. Circle a picture of a hippopotamus, and Google Assistant will hit you with a Wikipedia page on the animal. In fact, Google’s knowledge graph runs so deep that we circled a picture of Office Space’s Ron Livingston, and Google Assistant spat back his character’s name – Peter Gibbons – before telling us more about the actor.

This will be an incredibly useful tool for students, particularly, but users in general will benefit.

Another advantage regarding the Pixelbook Pen is that it’s opened up Google Keep to support pen input, even from the lock screen, making note-taking that much easier. There are even apps that can convert the Pixelbook Pen’s scrawlings into traditional text.

However, one huge flaw in the Pixelbook Pen is that it doesn’t attach to the laptop in any way, not even via magnets, like the Surface Pro. This oversight makes it that much easier to lose this stylus that cost you so much money. Plus, it runs on AAAA batteries, whereas a rechargeable solution would’ve been much more worthy of the price tag.

As for Google Assistant, the service can be activated either using a dedicated keyboard button or via your voice, if you don’t invest in the Pixelbook Pen. However, the latter only works when the laptop is logged into – waking the Pixelbook with a ‘Hey, Google’ voice command is in the works, we’re told.

In general, Google Assistant is just as helpful as it is on smartphones and executes in the exact same way, with an OS-level chat record as well as a voice response.

To say that the Google Pixelbook is a strong Chromebook contender isn’t going to surprise anyone, but that is exactly the case. Honestly, we wouldn’t accept anything less from such a pricey Chromebook, especially considering how lightweight of an operating system Chrome is.

To be fair, the Google Pixelbook does handle our entire workload through the Chrome browser – from Google documents and spreadsheets to Slack chat and even Lightroom photo editing – without a hitch. It’s impressive given how traditionally RAM-hungry the browser is, but in Chrome OS there seems to be way more headroom in that regard than with, say, Windows 10 or macOS.

Naturally, the Pixelbook is going to outmatch Samsung and Asus’s latest premium Chromebooks in performance on browser benchmarks, but that’s neither here nor there. Frankly, you’re not going to see much of a performance difference between the three in real-world use – that's a testament to just how well Chrome OS works with low-power hardware.

Battery life
As for how long the Pixelbook lasts, expect shorter longevity numbers than you’re used to having on lower-power Chromebooks. Google promises the Pixelbook to last 10 hours on a full charge, a number that was reached based on ‘a mix of standby, web browsing and other use,’ according to its product page.

However, in our TechRadar battery test – where we loop a locally stored 1080p movie at 50% brightness at 50% brightness and volume with the keyboard backlight and Bluetooth disabled – the Pixelbook only lasts 7 hours and 40 minutes. That’s impressive in and of itself, but definitely a couple of hours short of Google’s promise. And, that’s without mentioning the fact that the Samsung Chromebook Pro lasted 8 hours and 43 minutes on the same test while the Asus Chromebook Flip lasted a whopping 10 hours and 46 minutes.

We’d say the difference in battery life between the two devices lies in them both running low-power Intel Core m3 chips that consume battery life slower, as well as the Chromebook Flip’s lower-resolution panel. Regardless, we still expect the Pixelbook to last longer during real-world use – additionally, it outlasted the Surface Pro and 13-inch MacBook Pro by 50 minutes and over an hour, respectively. Not to mention that just 15 minutes hooked up to an outlet gives you up to 2 hours of use, thanks to USB-C fast charging.

Full-blown Android on a Chromebook
Perhaps the headlining feature of the Pixelbook is its wholecloth support of Android apps and the Google Play store. Alongside that is the brand new launcher interface to access these apps. That’s right, after several public attempts through none other than Samsung and Asus, we finally have the promised Chromebook that can run Android apps.

The result is, frankly, fantastic, and a testament to Android’s vast versatility. Regardless of which Android apps we installed – whether it was Sonic the Hedgehog or the VLC video player – they worked perfectly and looked beautiful beneath the pixel dense display. Sure, there are some compatibility issues in that some configuration windows appear as if they were on a smartphone. However, that’s more on the app developers than on the Pixelbook itself.

This is where the masses of local storage start to make much more sense than they ever did on previous Chromebook Pixel models: you’re going to need a place to store all of these apps and the files they’ll interact with.

Naturally, Google also needed a new interface through which to access all of these apps, and that’s where the new Chrome launcher comes in. Accessible through a key that has replaced what would otherwise be ‘Caps Lock’ as well as a circular button on the taskbar-like ‘shelf’, this tool lets you search through all installed apps as well as open apps with a screen tap.

(Don’t worry, the ‘Caps Lock’ function may still be accessed by holding the ‘Alt’ key and pressing the launcher button.)

Ultimately, this level of Android app support stands to blow Chrome OS wide open, effectively eliminating its dependence on the Chrome web store for app-like experiences. It brings the operating system far closer in capability and versatility to that of Windows 10 and macOS, basically making what was a thick line between much, much thinner.

What’s more important, however, is that we’re finally at a point where there are little to no compromises for almost anyone to switch from a Windows or Mac machine to a Chromebook, thanks to Android. It’s all thanks to the Pixelbook.

Final verdict
We’ve compared the Google Pixelbook to rivaling premium Chromebooks, for what should be obvious reasons. However, the fact is we could have easily put it up against the Surface Pro or even the MacBook Pro for its design. That speaks volumes as to how blown-away we are by the Pixelbook, and how far Google has taken the Chromebook platform since its genesis.

The Google Pixelbook is the first Chromebook worthy of consideration, alongside the most high-end Windows and Mac laptops and 2-in-1 devices. That alone should tell you everything you need to know about the Pixelbook: this is the best Chromebook to date, bar none.

That said, this is definitely not the Chromebook you’re probably used to. If you were expecting an affordable laptop that the Chromebook name has become synonymous with, look elsewhere. If you want to get in on the ground level of what very well may be the future of Chromebooks in the premium space, look no further. You won’t be disappointed.