Google Pixelbook full review
What is the Pixelbook? In short, it’s Google’s idea of what a laptop should be in 2017. It follows the Chromebook Pixel both in its stunning design and eye-watering price.
But this time it’s a heck of a lot more versatile. It's designed much like Lenovo's Yoga Book, so you can use it like a normal laptop or fold the screen right back and use it like a tablet. Or you can prop it up in 'tent' mode when you want to watch a film.
It runs Chrome OS, but it isn’t just a fancy, overpriced Chromebook. At least that’s what Google wants you to think. The company says that what people want is a device that’s the best of a laptop, tablet and phone and that the Pixelbook is the answer.
But is anyone asking that particular question? And is anyone willing to part with as much cash as Google wants for even the entry-level Pixelbook?
We suspect the answer is probably no, but it may well appeal to the odd enthusiast who – for some reason – doesn’t want Windows 10 or macOS on their laptop.
Separately, we've compared the Pixelbook and Microsoft Surface.
Google Pixelbook: Price
There are three models, with the Core i5 / 8GB / 128GB version costing £999 in the UK. If that’s not enough for you, you can spend £200 to double the storage, or an extra £700 for an i7 processor (a Y-series) 16GB of RAM and a 512GB NVMe SSD.
You can read more about the Pixelbook’s release date and where to buy it.
Those prices put it in competition with a lot of very, very good laptops including the Surface Laptop, the MacBook and HP's Spectre 13.
And for the same - or less - money you can also buy an iPad Pro or Microsoft Surface Pro. Both are tablets first but have optional keyboards if you want to get some real work done. And with the Surface Pro, of course, you can run any Windows apps you need.
Google Pixelbook: Features & Design
The Pixelbook is crazy thin at just over 10mm and it weighs a fraction over 1kg. The Yoga Book beats both figures, but the Pixelbook has a 12.3in screen rather than 10.1in.
It’s a great screen, too, with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a 2400x1600 resolution. The IPS tech means viewing angles are superb and it’s also very bright, although very reflective too.
What’s not so good are the fat bezels. Google says they’re there to allow the Pixelbook to be as thin as it is. But aesthetically it doesn’t look as good as modern laptops and tablets with thinner bezels. And every time you open the Pixelbook you wish the display reached right to the edges..
The whole chassis is made from aluminium aside from strip of Gorilla glass on the back which allows the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antenna to do their thing.
Despite this, it’s clear that everything from the biggest to the tiniest of details have been considered. For example, when you fold back the screen under the keyboard, the signal from the antennae can still pass through thanks to the silicone 'window' that's on the palm rest and underneath the keyboard. The touchpad, pleasingly, is also made from Gorilla glass.
Those silicone pads are nicer than cold aluminium and they also prevent the screen from touching the keys when closed. Google said it stuck the pads to laptops a year ago for long-term testing and claims the silicone won’t yellow nor get so grubby that it can’t be cleaned.
If we’re being picky, the screen does wobble when you tap it in laptop mode: it lacks the stability you get from the kickstand on a Surface Pro.
You’ll find a USB-C port on either side so you can charge from whichever side is most convenient. And there's a little hole by each port which is for both a microphone and status LED. The latter is recessed so it doesn't light up the room when you're charging at night.
The speakers are cleverly hidden behind the screen hinge so that you can hear audio whether you're in laptop or tablet mode. The only blemishes in the smoothness of the design are the two screws in the rear panel, but otherwise there are no fixings on show.
There’s a decent sized keyboard and although the keys have less than 1mm of travel they’re surprisingly comfortable to type on, and the backlight automatically turns on when it gets dark.
If there's a niggle, it's the thin Enter key on the UK model which is a little too easy to miss when touch-typing. But at least it's available with a UK layout - take note Apple.
And if there's no Wi-Fi available, the Pixelbook will automatically tether to your Pixel phone with no setup. Currently there's no model with built-in 4G, unlike the iPad Pro.
Also, we take issue with the absence of an SD card reader. Plus, since there's no standard USB ports for connecting a mouse or traditional USB thumb drive, it means you'll need to buy USB-C versions or several adapters.
At this price, it's also frustrating that there's no biometric login options: you have to type your password or enter a PIN. There's a Smart Lock feature (in beta) that lets you unlock the Pixelbook with an Android phone, but that's still not as convenient as a built-in fingerprint scanner.
Optionally, you can buy the Pixelbook Pen, an active stylus that was developed with Wacom. It has a 10ms latency, 60 degrees of angular awareness and 2000 levels of pressure sensitivity. And you’d expect all that for £99.
The Pen is powered by an AAAA battery and can be used for writing notes, sketching or even to quickly select an area on the screen to capture as a screen shot. If you’re presenting, you can switch it into laser pointer mode – it doesn’t actually have a laser - so your audience can see on the big screen which area you’re drawing attention to.
The barrel is made from aluminium and there’s a button which you can press before circling something on screen.
The Google Assistant (which is now part of Chrome OS) will then give you information on whatever you've highlighted. When studying, say, you can circle a word and get a definition.
It’s fun, but it’s not a good enough reason in itself to warrant spending the extra.
Software & performance
Thanks to the fact that Android apps now run on Chrome OS, the Pixelbook makes a lot more sense than it would have done.
Some big-name apps have been optimised for the big screen, so you can install Netflix and download episodes to watch on your travels. Others include Adobe Lightroom, Evernote, AutoCAD and Snapchat.
However, there are still a shed-load of apps which will display as they would on a phone screen or zoomed to fill the screen. This lack of tablet-specific apps is still an issue for Android tablets too, and it’s a problem that Google has struggled with for years.
And when you really start using those big-name apps you’ll find they don’t have the full feature set of their ‘real’ desktop versions.
They do run well on the Pixelbook thanks to the powerful hardware but the fact we’re even mentioning this isn’t good: Android apps on Chrome OS have been in Beta for ages. Meanwhile, over on the iPad Pro, virtually all apps are tailored for the big screen and a lot can be used in split-screen mode.
There’s isn’t an equivalent on the Pixelbook: you can run apps in Windows on the desktop (handy for some Android apps which don’t make sense in full-screen mode) but you can’t snap them to half of the screen. Google says it’s still working on this.
If you fold back the screen and go into tablet mode all apps switch to full-screen mode. Annoyingly, when you go back to laptop mode apps don’t return to the windows in the positions you set, and there’s no support for virtual desktops or picture-in-picture.
Another conundrum you’ll face when using the Pixelbook is deciding whether to use the Android or web version of an app. It may be that you’ll use the web version in laptop mode and the Android version in tablet mode. But this isn’t hugely convenient and you also have to choose which version to get notifications from.
It still feels like a segregated system. Not that Android apps are like second-class citizens but that they’re not yet fully integrated.
Plus, if you’re thinking of replacing an existing Windows PC or laptop, you won’t necessarily find all the software you need in the app store so check this first before you buy and make sure your printer is compatible with Chrome OS if you need to print stuff.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that not all apps which work with the stylus support Google’s Fask Ink feature which reduces latency. There’s a noticeable difference when taking notes in Squid (which does support it) to a sketching app which doesn’t.
As we’ve said, the Google Assistant is built in, and it's easy to interact with it on the Pixelbook. When the keyboard is folded away, you can say "OK Google" and ask it whatever you like.
But there's also a Google Assistant key on the keyboard - between ctrl and alt - so just like with Microsoft Cortana you can type your request when using the Pixelbook as a laptop – or when it’s not appropriate to speak.
Performance is excellent. Unlike cheap Chromebooks, you can open as many browser tabs as you like without things slowing to a crawl. Games run smoothly with no stuttering and even under load the Pixelbook remains silent because there are no fans. It becomes warm, but not hot to the touch.
Chrome OS is updated roughly every six weeks, too, so you’ll get new features and security patches regularly without having to do anything except wait a few minutes for updates to download and install.
The bad news is that battery life isn’t fantastic. Google claims 10 hours of mixed use, but you’ll be lucky to make it that long between charges. Expect between eight and nine hours, if our experience is anything to go by.
The longest-lasting Windows and macOS laptops go for considerably longer and that includes the latest Surface Pro. An iPad Pro lasts almost exactly the 10 hours Apple claims, too.
At least the Pixelbook charges quickly, so you’ll be back up and running in an hour or so with the bundled fast charger. And you can use a phone charger at a pinch.
Can the Pixelbook replace my laptop?
This will be the critical question for many prospective buyers. And the answer for most people is going to be no.
The hardware is mostly great, but the lack of ports is frustrating. No-one wants to carry around and keep track of USB-C dongles and the absence of any kind of card reader is seriously disappointing if this is meant to be the ‘best of a laptop’.
Battery life isn’t exceptional (though it’s respectable considering the Pixelbook’s size and weight) but the simple fact is that you can buy a very nice laptop from Apple, HP, Asus and others for similar money.
Software, ultimately, is what it comes down to. If you need to run the full version of Photoshop, Lightroom or some other professional software, you can’t do it on the Pixelbook.
Google is essentially pitching the Pixelbook at professionals as an alternative to the MacBook or Surface Pro, but both of those are more capable machines which do it all.
The Pixelbook doesn’t. At the moment, at least. Updates are promised but as it stands, only those who are absolutely sure Chrome OS + Android will do everything they need should consider a Pixelbook.
Even then, before splashing out on a Pixelbook, just remember that there are alternatives. Check out Lenovo’s Yoga Book, for example. It might be smaller, but it comes in Windows and Android versions and costs half as much.
Google Pixelbook: Specs
- 12.3in, 1920x1080 display
- Intel Core i5 processor
- 4GB RAM
- 128/256/512GB storage