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October 11, 2017

A tale of two hero devices: Google Pixelbook versus Microsoft Surface Pro

by John_A

Windows 10 and Chrome OS are duking it out in the classroom and in the corporation, with low cost and ease of administration being Google’s trump cards and Microsoft relying on the popularity and sheer inertia of Windows to maintain its lead. But neither company is leaving anything to chance, with both pushing hero devices to show just what their platforms can do. We take a look at the Google Pixelbook versus the latest Microsoft Surface Pro to see which does the best job of showing off.

The Surface Pro is a detachable keyboard tablet 2-in-1 machine, while the Pixelbook takes the convertible route to transforming from a clamshell notebook to a tablet. Read on to see which formula better represents each company’s most important PC initiative.

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)

Google Pixelbook

Dimensions
11.50 x 7.93 x 0.33 (in) tablet only
11.60 x 8.54 x 0.53 (in) with keyboard
11.4 x 8.7 x 0.40 (in)
Weight
1.69 to 1.73 pounds depending on processor, tablet-only
2.32 to 2.41 pounds with keyboard
2.4 pounds
Keyboard
Full size detachable Type Cover keyboard
Full size backlit keyboard
Processor
Up to seventh-generation Intel Core i7
Up to seventh-generation Intel Core i7
RAM
4GB, 8GB, or 16GB
8GB or 16GB
Graphics
Intel HD Graphics 615
Intel HD Graphics 620
Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640
Intel HD Graphics 620
Display
12.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology
12.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology
Resolution
2,736 x 1,824 (267 PPI)
2,400 x 1,600 (235 ppi)
Storage
Up to 1TB PCIe SSD
Up to 512GB NVMe SSD
Networking
802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1
802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Ports
USB 3.0 Type-A, mini-SD card reader, Surface Connect, Type Cover port, headset jack
USB-C 3.1 (2), headphone jack
Webcam
1080p webcam
720p webcam
Operating System
Windows 10
Chrome OS
Battery
45 watt-hour
41 watt-hour
Price
$800+
$1,000+
Availability
Now (Microsoft Store)
Base model now (Google Play Store)
Review
4.5 out of 5 stars
Hands-on

Design

Microsoft’s Surface line has a well-deserved reputation for combining a futuristic, elegant, and recognizable design with outstanding build quality. The highly refined 2017 version of the Surface Pro is perhaps the company’s best example yet of how that combination can result in a machine that simply exudes quality. In our review, we found the Surface Pro to be a near-perfect rendition of the detachable keyboard tablet — it’s thin, light, and powerful and feels like a solid chunk of fused metal and glass. It also looks great, with its magnesium alloy chassis lending both a subdued but attractive silver color throughout. The hinge is smooth and securely holds maintains a user-customizable angle and the keyboard connects to the tablet with a satisfying snap.

The Google Pixelbook is an equally attractive machine, and it too uses subtle design cues, such as the glass cutout on the back of the chassis, to position it alongside the Pixel smartphones as a member of Google’s hardware family. It’s also thin and light, roughly the same as the Surface Pro when that machines detachable Type Cover is included, and the Pixelbook’s aluminum chassis is solidly built and also exudes a sort of futuristic elegance. As a 360-degree convertible, the Pixelbook offers the same ability to morph from a notebook into a tablet and it’s thin enough to be useful with a pen.

It’s difficult to choose between these two machines in terms of design and build quality. They’re both great looking and well-built examples of the best hardware available on their respective platforms. Indeed, the one knock that we had against the Pixelbook — overly large bezels — also applies to the Surface Pro.

Winner: Tie

Performance

The Surface Pro packs a lot of power into its very thin chassis, with the top-end seventh generation Intel Core i7-7660U as the highest end option. In our testing, the Surface Pro was competitive with much larger traditional notebooks, and indeed landed some of the highest dual-core scores ever in our processor benchmarks. Even the integrated graphics are beefed up, with Intel Iris Pro Graphics 640 adding a little extra oomph. The addition of up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB PCIe solid-state disk (SSD) options combine to make the Surface Pro a no-compromise performance machine in spite of its svelte frame.

The PixelBook is also powerfully equipped, with up to seventh-generation Intel Core i7 CPU (although not the high-end Core i7-7660U as in the Surface Pro), up to 16GB of RAM, and up to 512GB of NVMe SSD. That’s plenty of power for the relatively lightweight Chrome OS, and indeed sets the Pixelbook up well to provide good performance when running Android apps.

It’s difficult to directly compare performance between Windows 10 and Chrome OS machines. The latter is simply more lightweight and doesn’t always put the same demands on the processor, RAM, and storage as does Windows 10. However, all of the Pixelbook’s power will likely be wasted on Chrome OS whereas the Surface Pro’s components will be more fully utilized when running the demanding universe of Windows desktop applications.

For that reason, we the Surface Pro the win, while noting that the Pixelbook nevertheless represents the pinnacle of Chromebook computing power.

Winner: Surface Pro

Keyboard, Mouse, and Pen

Microsoft has provided two excellent accessories that complement the Surface Pro and allow it to transform from a touchscreen tablet to a productivity notebook and drawing easel. The Premium Type Cover not only adds a splash of comfortable color to the Surface Pro thanks to its Alcantara fabric, but it also provides for an excellent typing and mousing experience with deep key travel, a precise response, and a relatively large and responsive touchpad.

The newest Surface Pen is the most precise yet at 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, it offers tilt support for enhanced drawing and handwriting along with the best button support, and it enjoys low latency and therefore fast response at 21ms.

The Google Pixelbook is also well equipped for input. The full-size keyboard seems to have a solid action and the touchpad appears to be responsive. We haven’t had a chance to fully test either, however. The Pixelbook’s pen is also precise at more than 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity and it offers the same kind of tilt support as the Surface Pen. Google says it’s more than twice as responsive, with only 10ms latency.

In short, this is another area where the Pixelbook and Surface Pro appear to be evenly matched. It’s important to note, though, that the Surface Pen will get more meaningful use given the extensive ink support baked into Windows 10 and a variety of important applications. The Surface Pen also has additional buttons, and thus added functions, that the Pixelbook stylus lacks.

Winner: Surface Pro

Connectivity

One area of weakness across the entire Surface mobile line is connectivity, where Microsoft maintains its antagonistic attitude toward the newest USB-C connectivity standard. The Surface Pro is no different, and it’s relatively poorly equipped in terms of connectivity. There’s a single USB-A 3.0 port, a micro-SD card reader, a Surface Connect port that fits Microsoft’s proprietary accessories, the Type Cover port, and a 3.5mm headset jack. That’s it.

The Google Pixelbook, on the other hand, fully embraces the new port standard, but it’s otherwise also relatively poorly connected. There are two USB-C 3.1 ports (no Thunderbolt 3 support) and a headphone jack. Google didn’t even see fit to include an SD card reader to make it easy to transfer images and video from a camera.

With either machine, you’ll need to attach a dongle to perform certain tasks. With the Surface Pro, you’ll need a dongle for newer USB-C peripherals or a hub to attach more than one thing at a time, and with the Pixelbook you’ll need a dongle for legacy devices or to attach a simple SD card reader. Both devices are limited in terms of connectivity, but the Pixelbook scores some points for having two of the newest ports where the Surface Pro has none.

Winner: Google Pixelbook

Display

Display quality has long been a strength of the Surface line of machines, and the Surface Pro is no different. Microsoft championed the 3:2 aspect ratio that’s a bit taller and so great for productivity (with some video letterboxing), and the Surface Pro makes great use of it with its 12.3-inch PixelSense display that’s incredibly sharp at 2,736 x 1,824 (267 PPI). Color support is very good, while contrast and brightness are excellent, meaning the just about everything you might use a tablet for is going to look great on the Surface Pro’s display.

The Pixelbook also utilizes the 3:2 aspect ratio, with a 12.3-inch 2,400 x 1,600 (235 PPI) display that’s not quite as sharp as the Surface Pro but still more than sufficient to make text and images look great. We haven’t subjected the Pixelbook’s panel to our colorimeter and so we can’t testify to its objective qualities, but it looked plenty bright and colorful during our hands-on review.

Both machines have nice displays, but the Surface Pro is simply sharper than the Pixelbook and that deserves some weight for machines that you’re likely to hold relatively close to your face in tablet mode.

Winner: Surface Pro

Portability and Battery Life

When you include the Type Cover in the Surface Pro’s overall dimensions — which is only fair given that the keyboard is attached on the Pixelbook — the two machines are very similar in weight, thickness, and overall dimensions. The Surface Pro is a bit thicker than the Pixelbook, but that’s really a wash when you consider that you can detach the keyboard and make the Surface Pro even thinner in tablet mode. In short, both machines are thin and light enough that you can toss them into a backpack and pretty much forget that you’re carrying them around.

In terms of battery life, we’ve already established that the Surface Pro is the first Microsoft detachable tablet that might provide for a full working day of battery life depending on the workload. Its battery is about 10 percent larger than the Pixelbook’s while both machines are similarly equipped. On the other hand, Chrome OS is arguably a less demanding OS than Windows 10 and so that might offset the difference in battery size.

Once again, it’s hard to pick a winner.

Winner: Tie

Availability and Price

The Surface Pro starts out at $800 when configured with an Intel Core m3, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. That doesn’t include the $160 Signature Type Cover, however, making an apples to apples comparison price $960. The Surface Pen is also optional and run $100. At the high end, the Surface Pro runs $2,700 for an Intel Core i7-7660U, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD, and thus $2,860 with the Type Cover. That makes for a very expensive Windows 10 2-in-1.

The Pixelbook is also pricey, starting out at $1,000 for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD and running all the way up to $1,650 for a configuration with Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and 512GB SSD. The Pixelbook pen isn’t included either and also runs $100.

While in absolute terms the Pixelbook is less expensive at the high end than the Surface Pro, it’s just as relatively more expensive than its Chrome OS peers where the next most expensive option, the Samsung Chromebook Pro, runs $550. Both are the most expensive 2-in-1s you can buy on their respective platforms, but we can’t overlook the fact that in absolute terms, at least, the Pixelbook is the less expensive machine.

Winner: Google Pixelbook

Surface Pro Takes the Win

More than usual, a user’s choice of platform has an inordinate impact on which of our comparison machines, the Microsoft Surface Pro or the Google Pixelbook, is the better machine. Some people need all of the power and desktop application support that Windows 10 affords, while others are just fine with the more lightweight and internet-reliant Chrome OS.

We’re going to award the Surface Pro the win, however, because at this point Windows 10 provides a better inking experience that’s more integrated into the platform, and really takes advantage of the Surface Pro’s excellent pen support. In addition, the Surface Pro is slightly more powerful than the Pixelbook, and that power brings a more complete computing experience to its users.

While both machines play are hero devices for their operating system, we think that the Surface Pro has more room to leverage the hardware thanks to Windows 10 offering so much extra value compared to the efficient, but feature-limited, Chrome OS.




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