Google Pixelbook review: is it worth $999 now?
Google’s previous Chromebook Pixels were pretty mixed bags. The original launched in 2013 for $1299 and its successor for $999. The hardware was definitely worth the cash, but the software wasn’t.
Chrome OS was a glorified browser, which made the laptop inconvenient (or nearly impossible) to use for those who required specialized software. But times have changed and so have Chromebooks. The newest model is piggybacking on Android’s ample app portfolio, making the software struggle much more bearable. On top of that the lineup has undergone a complete re-branding and redesign. Throw in a shiny stylus and you have a whole new concept to show Chrome OS fans.
Are these changes enough to validate spending $999 on the Google Pixelbook though? We’ve spent the last two weeks putting the new Chrome OS 2-in-1 through its paces, so let’s jump in.
It all starts with the display
Love at first sight exists — when it comes to fancy tech, at least. It’s why we can stand in store aisles for hours, staring at fancy 4K content that seems to look better than real life. Screen quality can make or break your experience. It’s what you look at the whole time you use your computer.
Google never skimps on its Chromebook displays, and the Pixelbook is no exception. It touts a 12.3-inch panel with a 2400 x 1600 resolution and 400 nits of brightness; bright enough to work comfortably in direct sunlight. The screen can create a lot of glare, though.
The screen got smaller, but so did the laptop. It’s now more portable. The PPI decreased too, from 239 to 235, but the difference is unnoticeable.
Display specs: the good, the bad, and the completely irrelevant
Let’s talk display specifications. I don’t mean which screen has the biggest brightness or contrast numbers, or which is the latest and greatest technology; I want to talk about the specifications themselves. Which ones are …
All in all, the screen is very good. It is bright and vibrant, and the colors aren’t over saturated. Text and images look crisp. The only real complaint with the screen is that it has very large bezels (more on that later).
Stunning build quality and a 2-in-1 design to fit every need
Chromebooks made by Google are known for their outstanding build quality. It’s part of why they’re so expensive. The search giant has done it again, delivering an amazingly-built laptop you won’t be ashamed to show off on your coffee shop adventures.
The Pixelbook has an aluminum body, with silicone padding surrounding a glass trackpad. On the lid behind the screen you can also find a Pixel-like glass element, which contrasts very nicely against the otherwise metallic surface. Overall it is a stunning device and nothing ever feels anything short of premium.
…nothing ever feels anything short of premium
At first I was a little hesitant about the silicone areas, but they’re actually more comfortable than cold metal, which can become warm and sweaty after typing. The only bad news is white silicone gets dirty and stains quickly. My unit already has red accents in the corners — from what, I will never know.
The bezels are pretty large compared to what we are used to seeing in other premium laptops, but they’re there for a reason.
Google claims the bezels are there for two reasons. Apparently they sacrificed the bezel-to-screen ratio to make the Pixelbook thinner and more comfortable to hold in tablet mode.
Google claims the big bezels are there for two reasons: for comfort and thinness
But let’s focus on that new and exciting 2-in-1 form factor. Much like the many other devices that have adopted flippy screens that fold all the way back, the Pixelbook can assume multiple forms. You can use it as a traditional laptop, prop it up as a tent, or fold it all the way back to imitate a tablet.
This is certainly convenient to use. You can easily prop it up to watch a movie or fold it into a more traditional angle to get working. The hinge mechanism is solid enough for confident handling. It doesn’t wiggle, move around or make any weird noises.
The Google Pixelbook is super slim, at only 0.4 inches thick. Weighing 2.4 pounds, it is as light as an 11-inch Macbook Air. It’s hard to make such a thin and light laptop feel sturdy, and Google’s done just that.
The 12.3-inch Google Pixelbook is super thin at just 0.4 inches thick and weighs as much as an 11-inch Macbook Air
One thing I did not like was the placement of the power and volume buttons. They are pushed off to the edge — rare in conventional laptops. This shows how much of a priority Google is giving the tablet mode. Those buttons are only intuitive to use when the computer is folded into a pad. It’s a bit weird for those of us who use the laptop mode more often.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard and trackpad are some of the most important factors when choosing a new laptop, as they’re the main forms of interaction with a computer. The Pixelbook doesn’t disappoint here either.
The keyboard buttons feature a soft, rubberized texture. There is a certain sense of security when typing on non-slippery keys, unlike with premium metal keys. They offer solid feedback and comfortable travel, much like previous generations of the Chromebook Pixel.
The trackpad is nice and responsive. It is made of glass, so there is very little friction. The working area is large enough to move the cursor around with confidence.
Performance and hardware
Google’s Chromebooks were historically a little over-powered. Chrome OS didn’t need much to operate efficiently, so the specs seemed wasted. Things have changed, though. Google has since introduced support for Android apps in Chrome OS, apps which require more kick, and make the higher-end specs seem more appropriate.
The base model Pixelbook comes with a 7th-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of internal storage. The processor can be switched for an i7, the RAM can be upgraded to 16 GB, and storage can be increased to either 256 GB or 512 GB.
The model we used had an i5 chipset, 256 GB of storage, and 8 GB of RAM, which still fared well against a decent workload. We experienced no hiccups and were only limited by internet speeds. Running Android apps was also smooth. The computer is still arguably over-powered, but at least now it can do much more than browse the internet.
The Pixelbook is still arguably over-powered, but now it can do much more than just browse the internet.
Google says the Pixelbook should run for about 10 hours of mixed usage. I average around 8 or 9 hours, which is still a good amount of time. Heavy users need not worry, as the Pixelbook charges pretty fast. Google claims you can use it for 2 hours after just 15 minutes of charging. It should be able to run for 7.5 hours after a 60-minute charge.
Software and Android apps
Chrome OS is pretty much the same as you’d expect. It’s a glorified browser with a desktop-like UI which makes the workflow smooth and easy. The operating system is so light it boots up in about 5 seconds.
It’s got the usual browser, shortcuts, and Chrome apps, which make for a great experience, but it now also supports Android apps. Most of these are designed to be used in mobile devices with a touchscreen, so the Pixelbook’s tablet emphasis makes sense.
Chrome OS is no longer held back by its lack of software support. Now it has a huge chunk of one of the largest app portfolios around at its disposal. Over a million Android apps from the Google Play Store can be installed in a Chromebook. It’s gone from an abysmal selection of apps to more than you could ever download; it’s a true Chromebook renaissance.
Casual users will find the wide selection of Android applications very helpful. You can get Microsoft’s Office suite, apps like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and countless other goodies. Some of these apps might not be good enough for professionals and more specialized users though.
Remember that Android apps are still mobile applications made to keep you productive on-the-go
Android apps are not made for heavy workloads and busy labor sessions — they are mobile applications made to keep you productive on-the-go. The Office apps are not as complete as the Windows and macOS versions. The same applies to Photoshop Lightroom, which doesn’t get close to the productivity of desktop versions. Some features might be missing, or harder to find.
Because this device essentially works as an oversized Android tablet, things can also look a little wonky. Chrome OS treats these non-optimized apps as windows, which appear floating around the desktop, but that is clearly not the most comfortable way to use an app on a tablet. You can decide to launch it in full screen, but that usually makes the UI look too weird.
As a phone-shaped window, Facebook looks tiny and is annoying to use. The app must then be restarted for switching to full-screen, and once it re-launches things get even weirder. Icons and fonts look too small, while images are huge. Not to mention a weird bug that makes videos play cropped, displaying only a zoomed in section of the clip.
We can no longer complain about a lack of apps — except when they don’t work properly
Things have gotten insanely better for Chrome OS, and the Pixelbook clearly displays its capabilities, but the experience is not as intuitive and smooth as it could be. We can no longer complain about a lack of apps — except when they don’t work properly.
This is also the first laptop to come with Google Assistant built in. You can simply say the now-iconic phrase “OK, Google” and the laptop will begin listening to your commands. You can also hit the dedicated Google Assistant shortcut button, between the Ctrl and Alt keys, or even use the Google Pixelbook Pen to circle content and get help from Google Assistant. Speaking of the pen, let’s get into that.
The almighty stylus!
The Google Pixelbook Pen is made in tune with the laptop. About 3/5 of its body is aluminum, with an end covered in silicone, much like the Pixelbook. The pen is made to work — and look — simple, featuring a single button for circling content you want Google Assistant to help you with.
The stylus is great, but its use is a little limited
The pen works well. It fits snug in the hand and has a light-yet-sturdy feel to it — for $99 extra, it had better. It offers pressure sensitivity and tilt support, making it a handy gadget for artists and creatives.
The pen is great, but its use is a little limited. There are plenty of drawing apps, but they all seem to have some kind of downside. Some are not optimized for a screen this size, others don’t offer the best stylus support. Even if you find the perfect application to use the pen with, they all seem to lag when it comes to stylus input. The only application in which I was able to draw with no issues was Squid.
Serious artists might see the Pixelbook Pen as pretty much a glorified pointer and Google Assistant tool, but the pen is still quite usable if you are not too picky. Making notes was simple (though laggy), and Squid is a pretty good app for drawing. Using a physical stylus for navigating can be very useful for certain apps though, especially for those of us who like editing photos or video.
So… is it worth the $999?
Chrome OS continues to be a fast, convenient, no-hassle operating system, but it is only as productive as Chrome and a selection of Android apps allow it to be. Very few have been modified to work well with a Chromebook. The “Apps for your Chromebooks” section in the Google Play Store only features 13 applications.
The Pixelbook is a great computer — at least until you start using it
The Pixelbook is certainly worth its price in terms of hardware. Its design is amazing. Its performance is on point. The battery life is great. The screen looks good. Overall, it’s a great computer — at least until you start using it. Chrome OS continues to limit the experience. It will be hard to get things done without some workarounds and hoop jumping. Android apps certainly help, but they are also wonky a lot of the time.
The way I see it, where we once were able to see the potential in Chrome OS, we can now feel it, but it’s just not quite there yet. Content needs to keep getting optimized, as the software evolves to better merge Chrome and Android. Until then, the Google Pixelbook will stay more of a novelty item, much like previous Chromebook Pixel models.
If you want a simple laptop mostly for browsing the internet and using some apps from time to time, this is a good option — albeit an expensive one. More demanding users will find this machine can get the job done, but computers with other operating systems at similar price points will get it done better and with less hassle.