Google Pixelbook Review - The Next-Level Chromebook

The premium Chromebook you’ve been waiting for.

It’s been four years since we’ve seen a premium Chromebook from Google, and much like its very own phone line, Google is using the Pixel moniker to separate this product as a premium one in every way. Packing great specs and a price that's not out of line with other premium notebooks on the market, this ChromeOS powered, metal-clad beauty is made to turn heads. It’s still hundreds of dollars more than every other Chromebook on the market though, and squarely in the price range of premium Windows 10 and MacOS laptops. Is Google shooting for the moon with its new design, or is it just drifting in space? Let’s take a look.

Video Review

Specs

As you would expect from any personal computing device, the Pixelbook comes in a number of different configurations with different price points. Starting at $999, the entry-level Pixelbook ships with a 7th Generation Intel Core i5-7Y57 processor, Intel HD graphics 615 (Kaby Lake), 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. $1199 doubles the storage capacity to a 256GB SSD, and $1649 upgrades everything here by dropping in a more powerful 7th Generation Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a faster 512GB NVMe SSD as well. Everything else here is the same across all three packages, including the 12.3-inch IPS LCD touchscreen display, which features a 2400 x 1600 3:2 aspect ratio (235 pixels per inch). The display sits on a fully foldable hinge, allowing it to fold completely back and morph into a tablet, or any shape in between.The Pixelbook measures 290.4mm by 220.mm, and is 10.3mm thin. It also weighs an unbelievably light 2.4lbs (1.1kg) while using an aluminum unibody design.

The soft touch keys of the keyboard are backlit, featuring a 19mm pitch and 0.8mm travel. The latest ChromeOS (build 9765.77.0 as of this review) is preloaded, with Android 7.1.1 compatibility built right inside the OS. A non-removable 41Whr battery is located under the hood, and a 45W USB Type-C charger and cable are located in the box alongside the Pixelbook. WiFi is of course built in, supporting dual-band 2.4Ghz and 5GHz frequencies, as well as speeds up to 802.11ac and 2x2 MIMO. Bluetooth 4.2 rounds out the wireless support, and Instant Tethering is enabled out of the box for use with supported Android phones (like the Google Pixel line). A 720p camera is located up front with 60FPS recording support, and a TPM chip is located inside the unit for enhanced device security. Dual speakers reside inside the hinges on the keyboard side of the Pixelbook, and 4 microphones are located around the unit for quality recording and noise cancellation during video calls.

Two USB Type-C ports are located on the Pixelbook, which can be used for charging, data transfer or video output up to 4K. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack for non-Bluetooth audio compatibility. Optional components include the Pixelbook Pen, a $99 stylus that interacts with the Wacom digitizer inside the Pixelbook, giving ultra low 10ms latency, 60 degrees of angular awareness and 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity. Google also offers a 2-year protection plan for $249 when you buy a Pixelbook from the Google Store. This plan extends the warranty by an extra year, for a total of two years of mechanical breakdown coverage, as well as providing up to 2 claims of accidental damage. 24/7 on-call support is available through this service, as well as unlimited expert sessions to help users learn how to best use their new Chromebook.

Hardware & Design

Google’s hardware design is simply gorgeous, packing excellent specs into a tiny, light package, all while remaining incredibly sturdy. Starting with the keyboard, you’ll find a familiar layout that looks visually identical to a Macbook in almost every way. Keys feature a 19mm pitch to them, and the 0.8mm travel feels excellent to type on. The keys are nice and clicky, feeling responsive but never squishy, although the space between the keys might be a tad smaller than some are used to. Personally I use the smaller wireless Mac keyboard for typing at my home desk, and the feeling of this keyboard was almost identical to that, save for the nicer key texture on the Pixelbook. Typing is nice and quiet, all while not feeling too dampened. Notable keys swapped out are the caps lock key, which is an App Drawer key (caps lock is toggled by holding alt and pressing this key). The Windows or Command key location is the Google Assistant key, and the top row of function keys only serve the function printed on the key.

These function keys cover a wide range of commonly accessed tasks including navigating back, refreshing, toggling fullscreen, toggling the multitasking window, brightness and sound adjust, a play/pause button and a quick settings button. The squashed up/down directional keys will definitely irritate some individuals, although these key shapes aren’t exclusive to the Pixelbook in any way. The glass trackpad, which is centered below the keyboard, features a smooth texture with just the right amount of friction, and up to 3-point multi-touch gestures. On either side of this trackpad you’ll find some seriously luxurious feeling rubber palm rest pads, which both act as a place to keep your palms from resting on cold metal or slipping, as well as a way to dampen the lid when closing. This rubber is also placed on the underside of the Pixelbook, with an equally sized pad toward the front, as well as two long feet at the front and back to keep the unit from slipping. All edges around the device are a solid, sharp metal, although that doesn’t mean it’ll cut you. The keyboard is inset into a sunken section of the unit, keeping the keys from touching the screen when the unit is closed like a clamshell.

A solid metal power button is located on the left side toward the front, with a dedicated volume rocker more situated toward the back on the left side. Also on the left side is a single USB Type-C port, 3.5mm audio jack and a microphone, while the second USB Type-C port and another microphone sit at the same place on the right side. There are no ports on the upper portion of the Pixelbook where the display sits, and this display is held in by extremely sturdy hinges that feature some excellent friction levels. These hinges are truly phenomenal, and are easily among the best hinges I’ve ever seen on any laptop. Unlike many laptops out there, the screen doesn’t wobble at all when typing or shifting the laptop, and it barely moves at all when using the touchscreen, making the touch component of interaction more pleasant. On top of this the display can be bent backward without the keyboard portion of the laptop lifting up, meaning you can truly one-hand open and close the Pixelbook without fear it’s going to fall backward.

The display features a wide bezel all around, which in this case is good, as it gives plenty of room to open and close the unit, as well as giving spots to hold it in tablet mode. The hinge can be folded all the way back to be completely flat, and in this orientation the keyboard becomes disabled so it can be used to rest on. Since the keyboard is in a recessed part of the base, it doesn’t come in contact with a flat surface the Pixelbook is placed on, keeping it from getting overly dirty when used in this mode. The biggest issue with tablet mode is that this is still a fairly heavy device for a tablet, which normally weigh about half as much. The sharper edges also make it slightly uncomfortable to hold in this mode when playing a game that requires tilt functionality, although using it for other tablet apps is plenty comfortable. Folding it into a tent shape is useful for watching movies or just using the keyboard base as a stand for tablet mode with the Pixelbook Pen (or just touch mode), although the speaker location isn’t the most ideal for this. Regardless of the speaker location though, the hinges are more than sturdy enough to be used in this mode without fear of the Pixelbook falling over.

Pixelbook Pen

One of the many things that makes the Pixelbook unique among Chromebooks is the Pixelbook Pen. Following the industry trend of providing an optional stylus that works with your shiny new computing device, Google has been working with Wacom to design a stylus that meets the needs of the folks who want such a tool. This pen is simply gorgeous, and feels excellent to use. The aluminum body is light yet sturdy, with a size that feels slightly thick while writing. It’s enough thickness to make it feel solid, but not enough to make it cumbersome. The front ¼ of the pen is made of a white soft-touch material, very similar to the keyboard keys themselves, and gives the pen a grip the way the rest of the cold, sandblasted aluminum body doesn’t. A small circular button sits just above the halfway mark of the soft touch section, and a rubber tip makes writing feel closer to a pen on paper than a stylus on glass. A single AAA battery powers the pen, and there’s no pairing to deal with whatsoever. So long as there’s a battery with power inside the pen, it’ll do the job without need for any kind of user input.

The biggest design flaw with the pen is the fact that there’s simply nowhere to place it at all on the Pixelbook. It’s not magnetic in the way that Microsoft’s Surface Pen is, so it won’t stick to the outside of the Pixelbook, and the Pixelbook doesn’t have a built in holster like Samsung’s Galaxy Note series (it’s far too thin to fit the pen inside). Instead you’ll have to rely on third party cases, or other ways of storing the pen, and this makes it far too easy to lose. Without a way to actually track the pen at all, and with no sound or vibration for the pen to emit, it feels like the pen is just asking to be lost. It’s also prone to rolling off just about any surface it’s placed onto since it’s a perfectly round object, and the ever-so-slightly raised button on the pen isn’t tall enough to slow it down once it gets going. It’s also weighted toward the button itself, so if you place it down button up, the pen will roll over by itself since the weight of the button pulls downward.

Functionally the Pixelbook Pen is a mixed bag. At $99 this isn’t a cheap accessory by any means, and while the complete lack of pairing is an amazing way to get users going without any hassle, the connection with the Pixelbook and the accuracy of the pen leave a lot to be desired. Google states that the non-final build of the OS we’re running features some performance bugs related to what we’re experiencing, but without a way to see this final build in action, we’ve got to report things as we see them. Often times the pen wouldn’t register clicks for a second or two, and then seemingly reconnect, although there’s no notification for when this happens, so it’s more of a guess at the cause of the behavior than anything. There were also plenty of times where the pen would connect the space between words when writing letters, making what appears to be one long cursive word, and in return messing up any handwriting recognition that the app in question was attempting to perform.

Google cites 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity, 60 degrees of angular awareness, and an incredibly low 10ms response time. This means less of a trailing effect than most other styluses out there have, but once again software bugs seem to have caused issue with these stats during the review period. The hardware seems to all be here; a Wacom digitizer like Samsung uses in its Galaxy Note series, and an active pen to help increase response time and accuracy, but the software that runs the show just isn’t great. Google has updated its popular Keep note-taking app for the Pixelbook, and allows quick notes from the lock screen with the pen without the need to unlock the device first. This isn’t as instant as Samsung’s implementation on the Galaxy Note 8, which doesn’t require any input other than the pen to write, rather you’ll need to click the Keep note icon in the top right to open notes. This is a nice way to jot down something fairly quickly without having to put in your password and open the Keep app first, and in general the handwriting tools and quality are good.

A number of apps with active stylus support are launching alongside the Pixelbook, and specifically have the Pixelbook Pen in mind. Some familiar apps are here like Sign Easy, Infinite Painter, Autodesk Sketchbook and Acrobat Reader, to name a few. One particularly excellent new app, launching with the Pixelbook, for ChromeOS and Android as well, is Nebo. Nebo is made by a company called MyScript, and works by converting your handwriting into editable text for later use. The layout of Nebo looks just like a piece of paper, and words are recognized after you write them in full, converted to text and later editable for corrections. The app works incredibly well when the Pixelbook Pen is behaving, and we can only hope for the promised bug fixes so that users can experience this app, and others, the way they were intended. All in all the Pixelbook Pen is a promising experience, but right now doesn’t deliver the way we expected.

Performance, Display & Sound

ChromeOS has long been one of the fastest, lightest operating systems on the market, especially when it comes to the laptop environment. As Google has added features, ChromeOS only seems to feel smoother and more consistent, rather than bloated and heavy as some other OS’s do. This keeps the computer working quickly without stuttering, lagging or pausing, and having a good processing base, plenty of RAM and solid state drives only helps keep things fast over time. While the Chrome web store doesn’t feature a ton of great 3D games, the Google Play Store does, and the Pixelbook was able to handle everything we threw at it without issue. This included even semi-intensive 3D games like Asphalt 8 and Titanfall Assault, which ran perfectly at native resolution with no noticeable stutters or performance issues of any kind. Android games are paused while running in the background, so you can navigate away from any game without fear of losing progress or having something happen. Other productivity applications like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom CC and AutoCAD DWG run beautifully, although most of these types of apps are nowhere near as full featured as versions running on MacOS or Windows.

Google is using a top-notch IPS LCD panel on the Pixelbook, with excellent marks in most categories. Viewing angles are excellent, with only slight dimming at extreme angles, but no color shift of any kind. White balance is truly fantastic, and is essentially perfect white, while black levels remain good for an LCD display. There’s no black level drop when tilting the display from the side, and no obvious light bleed or other inconsistencies with the display either. The biggest hurdles here are contrast, where some icons (like the Play Store) look overbright with muted colors, and motion resolution of the panel. This motion resolution drop is most apparent in games, where the usual sharp edges become fuzzy and unclear as objects in the game world move around the screen. Google cites a 72% NTSC color scale for this display, which is pretty average for a laptop display, and 400 nits of brightness, which makes outdoor visibility pretty good.. Automatic brightness seems to be a bit buggy here, as I would find the monitor constantly shifting between bright and dim in certain lighting conditions, which was distracting to say the least.

Resolution choices are aplenty, to say the least, and while the Pixelbook defaults to 1280 x 800 resolution for general readability, the panel itself is a native 2400 x 1600. I personally preferred 1500 x 1000, as it provided a happy medium between text/UI size and readability, as well as still providing a sharp image on the 12-inch screen. Folks that want a bigger monitor will be happy to find excellent video out support via the USB Type-C ports, and a Choetech USB Type-C to HDMI cable that I use worked perfectly on my 4K monitor, displaying 4K resolution at 30 frames per second. It’s this lower FPS that might be a bit jarring to some folks when running at 4K though, as it’s half the normal refresh rate of most TVs and monitors and feels sluggish in many tasks. Dropping the resolution to 1080p brings the refresh rate back to a more “natural” feeling 60FPS.

Google has outfitted two stereo speakers on the Pixelbook, and you’d never know where they were located just by examining the laptop itself. Placed in the hinges themselves, the speakers on the Pixelbook are pretty good, and exhibit a decent range of sound. There’s not much bass to be heard here, but the volume is at least loud enough to fit most needs. This speaker location is best when the Pixelbook is used like a laptop, as the sound travels up and toward the user’s face. When in tent or tablet mode, however, the speakers are located on the back of the device, and serve as a less than ideal location, especially since these modes are more suited to entertainment and would likely rely on the speakers more often than when using it in laptop mode. The 3.5mm audio jack works great for headphone usage, and Bluetooth 4.2 supports all Bluetooth speakers and headsets out there.

Software & UI

ChromeOS has received some visual changes lately, and starting with this latest build, you’ll find an app drawer button that looks just like the home button on Google’s Pixel phones (and some other select Android devices). The app drawer now behaves more like the Pixel Launcher’s app drawer on Android, and features a vertically scrolling grid of app icons. Pressing the app button on the keyboard, or the virtual app button will bring up the last 5 used/installed apps, and also functions as a quick way to perform a Google search. This Google bar will search the web, as well as all apps installed on your device, and all files that reside on it as well. It’s an incredibly handy way to find stuff and launch apps that aren’t already pinned on the dedicated tray at the bottom of the screen. Notifications are exactly what you would expect from the bottom right notification tray, and the new sign-in screen has been revamped to function in a more modern way, as Google puts it.

Multi-touch gestures are all in as expected too, but may behave slightly differently than you expect if coming from a non-ChromeOS machine. Two-finger swipe navigation follows the swipe up to scroll up, swipe down to scroll down logic instead of the upside down scrolling many trackpads on the market use. Three finger swiping down brings up the multitasking window, while swiping three fingers left or right in this window moves between windows, and swiping back up moves into said window. This three finger swipe takes a bit of getting used to, and I think I’d prefer to be able to swap between windows without having to enter the multitasking window first, as it creates some extra steps that feel unnecessary.

Android app support within ChromeOS was announced way back at Google I/O 2016, but is now finally making its way into more Chromebooks. Google is using the Pixelbook as a way to showcase this functionality, debuting not only Android Apps for the first time on a production Chromebook by the company, but also shipping the Pixelbook with Google Assistant built in. Google Assistant can be called up with the dedicated key on the keyboard, or by using the “Hey Google” or “OK Google” hotwords, to your preference. Right now these can only be used when the Pixelbook is unlocked, but Google is working on a way to have the Pixelbook always on, always listening like most Android phones are. Calling up Assistant is designed very well too; pressing the button on the keyboard will launch Assistant with the ability to type and receive immediate answers. On the other hand saying “OK Google” will bring up Assistant, ready to hear your request instead of asking you to type it.

The problem with Google Assistant integration is that it’s completely separate from the app drawer and its subsequent Google search, and Assistant doesn’t seem to work with all installed apps either. Asking it to “open Google Keep,” for instance, brings up the Google Keep app installed on the Chromebook, but asking it to “open Titanfall” won’t open the Titanfall Assault Android app installed on the Pixelbook. This isn’t a restriction on installed Android apps; Adobe Lightroom launches just fine by saying “open Lightroom,” for example. Rather it seems that Google just hasn’t placed all the hooks into the OS to do everything and anything, although most system functions like toggling Bluetooth or WiFi work just fine. The separation between app drawer and Assistant is a bit irritating, and I’d like to see these merged in the future to help alleviate confusion.

Android Apps as a whole work marvelously though, and behave exactly as you would expect a native ChromeOS app to behave. Apps can be toggled to be fullscreen, either by the dedicated keyboard button or the navigation bar on top of each window. They can also be windowed and resized at your pleasure as you would expect a desktop app to work. Performance is exactly what is expected too, with no perceivable performance difference between native ChromeOS apps and Android apps. The only oddities are in the fact that some Android apps don’t support keyboard input, which namely affects games that you might prefer to use arrow keys or other physical keys in, and the fact that apps will refer to your Pixelbook as an Android powered device sometimes. Outside of this there wasn’t a single app we ran across that ran poorly or behaved unexpectedly on the Pixelbook, although apps without proper tablet support will show a warning on the Play Store that the app in question hasn’t been optimized for this type of device.

Google is also expanding its reach into schools and businesses with full Microsoft Active Directory support, as well as other enterprise-grade features in ChromeOS for Enterprise. We’ll be reviewing this implementation separately from the Pixelbook, since it’s not exclusive to the Pixelbook in any way. The launch of ChromeOS for Enterprise goes hand in hand with the timing of the Pixelbook though, and surely isn’t a coincidence as Google expands its reach to cover more markets.

Battery Life & Connectivity

Chromebooks are known for their fantastic battery life in general, and the Pixelbook doesn’t disappoint in any way. USB Type-C ports are now used on the Pixelbook, which perform multiple functions in addition to charging the machine. Having two USB Type-C ports means you can easily charge the laptop and output video to an external source, and of course the second port can also be used to transfer data with a USB Type-C to USB Type-A cable. Battery life easily lasted a full day without needing to top up at all, and charging using the included 45W brick is super fast. The battery charges from empty to full in about 2 hours, and Google states that a 15 minute charge can deliver up to 2 hours of usage, and a 1 hour charge can deliver up to 7.5 hours of usage. A full battery is rated at 10 hours of usage, and I’d say I got at least that during the review period. I’d easily use the Pixelbook for the entire day and still have plenty of battery left at the end, and part of this efficient battery life is made possible by how well the Pixelbook goes into standby mode.

Closing the lid drops it into standby mode instantly, and opening it up only takes a second or two before it’s awake. This is far more efficient standby than your average Windows laptop without a doubt. Charging was easy, and for me it helped having a USB Type-C cable as the charger since I’ve already got a ton of those lying around. Google outfits the Pixelbook with dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds with 2x2 MIMO antennas, and Bluetooth 4.2 is supported for all your wireless audio needs. Instant tethering means you can get a WiFi signal from your Pixel phone without any configuration at all. All that's needed is to accept the tethering configuration from a handy notification that will automatically pop up when the Pixelbook detects that it doesn’t have WiFi connectivity, instead relying on your supported Android-based phone's data connection. This effectively gives Google the ability to keep a cell modem out of the Pixelbook while still offering cell data tethering to your phone, but ultimately is restricted because of the small number of phones that support instant tethering.

Wrap Up

ChromeOS is taking a big leap forward with the Google Pixelbook, the first truly premium Chromebook in years from the company and its many hardware partners. Chromebooks aren’t often thought of as premium computing devices, and Google is working toward changing that paradigm with devices like this. Every metric of a quality laptop is met here, and while it’s got a few design issues, particularly the optional Pixelbook Pen, the experience is mostly excellent. A premium build meets an OS that’s incredibly smart and does so many things right, but the lack of full-fledged productivity apps and significant gaming support over mobile titles means that this is still going to be more restrictive than outright buying a Windows or MacOS-based laptop would be. It’s certainly never been a better time to try ChromeOS though, and if you’re in the market for a high quality laptop that’s got tons of awesome features and just feels great to use, this is certainly a top option this Holiday season.

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