Chromebooks may be most popular in the classroom, but Google wants to ride that train out of schools and into the next phase of students’ lives. The Pixelbook is the manifestation of that idea, the piece of hardware that combines Google’s revamped design aesthetic and Internet-based software with the needs and wants of a younger generation.
Google stopped selling the original Chromebook Pixel, but seemingly only because the company wants to shine the spotlight on its new Chrome OS laptop. No distractions, no other (potentially) cheaper options: if you’re someone who grew up using Chrome OS in school, this $999 convertible is the one you should get if you want to continue using Chrome OS later in life.
In 2012, Chromebooks accounted for less than one percent of laptops shipped to schools around the country. In 2017, Chromebooks make up more than half of the mobile devices shipped to schools. Five years isn’t a long time to make such strides—and that may end up being good for Google in the long run but bad for Pixelbook right now. Is the Pixelbook ahead of its time? Most signs point to yes.
Look and feel
There’s nothing generic about the Pixelbook’s design, and it’s certainly cut from the same cloth as the Pixel 2 smartphone. The Pixelbook has a sturdy aluminum chassis with a satin finish and one large, white glass panel on the lid. This is where the wireless signals come in and out, and it’s mirrored by a white, rubbery strip that wraps around the chassis, just below the keyboard and on either side of the trackpad. This rubber material not only gives the Pixelbook some grip when placed on a slippery surface, it makes the palm rests more comfortable spaces on which to rest your hands while typing.
|Specs at a glance: Google Pixelbook (as reviewed)|
|Screen||12.3″ 2400×1600 (235 ppi) QHD LCD touchscreen|
|CPU||Intel Core i5-7Y57|
|GPU||Intel HD Graphics 615|
|Networking||802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2×2 (MIMO), dual-band (2.4 GHz, 5.0 GHz), Bluetooth 4.2|
|Ports||two USB Type C ports (charging 4K display out, data transfer), headphone jack|
|Size||11.4 in x 8.7 in x 0.4 in|
|Price as reviewed||$1,199|
|Other perks||720p webcam, Pixelbook Pen (not included, extra $99)|
The 12.3-inch 2400×1600 LCD touch display has wider bezels around it than I’m used to seeing on high-end convertibles, but that does help you grip the device when in tablet mode. The Pixelbook can convert into the typical two-in-one modes, including laptop, tent, tablet, and “entertainment” mode with the keyboard flipped underneath the device. Those rubbery palm rests come in handy in that mode, stabilizing the device so that it doesn’t move as easily.
The edges of the Pixelbook’s chassis have a scant few ports: one USB Type C port on either side (that both support charging), and the left side has a headphone jack, volume rocker, and power button. Inside the Pixelbook are four far-field mics that listen to your questions and commands directed to the Google Assistant. With that many internal mics, you should be able to speak to the Google Assistant from across the room.
Noticeably missing from the internals are fans: the Pixelbook is a fanless convertible, no matter which configuration you get. Our model is the mid-tier configuration, with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. Even the higher-tier, Core i7 model doesn’t need fans to run, making the Pixelbook super quiet even during our most rigorous benchmark tests.
The Pixelbook configurations start with 128GB of storage, which is much more than most Chromebooks have. As someone who has used Chromebooks in the past, I immediately saw this as overkill. But Google thinks a lot of storage is necessary even for an Internet-dependent device like the Pixelbook. In our testing, not only does a large amount of onboard storage improve overall performance, but it also allows users to download larger files and programs like movies from Netflix or games from the Google Play Store.
The premise makes sense if you compare it to buying a tablet. Unless you plan on only using the slab while connected to the Internet, streaming anything and everything, you’ll need a decent amount of storage to support the tablet’s OS, all your necessary apps, any photos you take, and any temporary files downloaded over Wi-Fi. The Pixelbook also aims to compete with “regular” ultrabooks in the $999-and-above price range, so it would be remiss of Google to not include high storage capacity options.
With its metallic-and-white aesthetic and its 10mm thickness, the Pixelbook looks more like decor for an ultra-minimalist. It nods to the clean, mostly white, picture-perfect desk setups found in YouTube “office tour” videos, and Google isn’t shy about the fact that those who watch office tours are the ones who want to buy the Pixelbook. An entire generation of youth grew up (and continues to grow) using Chromebooks as educational tools in their schools. Google sees the Pixelbook as the grown-up (or maybe glow-up) version of those devices—a high-end, beautiful laptop that Chrome OS kids will want when it comes time for them to buy their own laptops.
But even if Google got the aesthetic part right, there are still a number of things this $999 two-in-one doesn’t have that the other, similarly priced devices do. The Pixelbook doesn’t have a fingerprint reader, and while it does have a webcam, it doesn’t have an IR camera for facial recognition. Recent MacBook Pro models have fingerprint readers, and Windows devices have both of these hardware solutions that make login more secure and convenient. I would have settled for a fingerprint reader at the very least because a $999 device seems out of place without one. The Pixelbook doesn’t have a true desktop interface and can’t run regular programs, either—both fundamental conditions of Chrome OS that are considered flaws or freedoms, depending on who you talk to.
The Pixelbook Pen, the convertible’s main accessory, also costs $99 in addition to the price of the notebook itself. This makes it much like the $99 Apple Pencil, and it’s a bummer that you have to pay extra for what is essentially a Wacom-esque stylus.
Keyboard, trackpad, and Pixelbook Pen
The Pixelbook’s keyboard is one of the best I’ve used in a while. The key travel is quite shallow at .8mm, but the layout doesn’t feel cramped, and I rarely hit a wrong key at my regular typing pace. I love the slight texture of the keys—they’re coated in a matte finish, giving them a slightly smoother feel than the rubbery palm rests. Typing is clicky and satisfying, and as a lover of every shade of gray, I like the look of stone gray keys atop the Pixelbook’s shinier, silver chassis.
The keyboard is also back-lit, automatically glowing when the device senses a low-light environment. This is a good addition on Google’s part because so few Chromebooks have back-lit keyboards, and we’d expect one on such a high-end device.
Being a Google-made Chromebook, the Pixelbook’s keyboard has a few unique keys: the Caps Lock key has been replaced by the launch key with a circular icon on it, which brings up the new app dock where you can open recently closed apps and quickly search through your device, apps, and the Web. In between the Control and Alt keys is the Google Assistant key that brings up a window with similar dimensions to a smartphone’s screen, and this pop-up holds the Google Assistant. With that window open, you can type or say a question or command for the Assistant to answer (more on the pros and cons of the Google Assistant on the Pixelbook in a bit).
At the top-right corner is a hamburger-esque key that opens up the settings window at the bottom-right corner of the display. Here you can quickly access your Google account, turn on or off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth controls, and access advanced settings.
I don’t miss the Caps Lock key at all, as I’ve never been the type of person to emphasize my emotions in text or Slack messages using all caps (I prefer gifs). The launch key came in handy frequently when I needed to open a new program or access an app I closed by accident. I didn’t use the Google Assistant button that often, but that’s because I could say “OK Google” while using the Pixelbook to open the same window. I’d likely use the button more when I’m working in a coffee shop or other public space in which it might be frowned upon to bark orders at a laptop screen.
Let’s talk about the Pixelbook Pen: the $99 accessory is fatter than regular pens or pencils and shares the same silver-and-white color scheme as the Pixelbook itself. According to Google, the Pen has just a 10ms lag, 60 degrees of angular measurement, and 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity. It doesn’t need to pair via Bluetooth with the Pixelbook to work, rather it works like a Wacom stylus and runs on a AAAA battery.
As a writing tool, the Pixelbook Pen is average. I’ve tested styluses with lower latency (the Apple Pencil falls into that category), so while Google’s is not the worst, it’s not the best either. The Pen’s API bypasses layers of Chrome OS, and Google claims this lets the Pen’s input show up directly on the screen without anything impeding it. However, I saw variations depending on the app I used: writing notes with the Pen in Google Keep is a quick, responsive experience with little to no latency. However, you feel each of those painful 10 milliseconds of lag time while sketching in Adobe Draw.
I also don’t appreciate that there’s no way to keep the Pen with the Pixelbook. The Pen isn’t magnetic, nor is there a sleeve on the Pixelbook to hold the Pen when you’re not using it. You’ll have to spend even more money on a sleeve or other case, like the Bellroy Pixelbook Sleeve, to get any kind of pen management. The Pen’s single side button isn’t even raised enough to stop it from rolling off a flat surface. I almost lost my Pen in the slim gap between my desk and the wall plenty of times.
A staple on the Pixelbook’s bottom menu bar is the Pen’s array of options. Capturing a portion of the screen or creating a note is as simple as tapping twice, and there are tools that turn the Pen’s tip into a laser pointer or magnifying glass. However, the most unique feature of the Pixelbook Pen is the Assistant power accessible via the side button. Pressing and holding the side button while drawing a shape around something on the Pixelbook’s display lets you use the Google Assistant to bring up more information about whatever you’ve selected. You can also draw a line through words (essentially highlighting them) to search for the definition, among other use cases.
Aside from being a pen-controlled dictionary, this Pen feature is particularly useful for image search. I scrolled through dozens of exotic travel photos on Pinterest and used the draw-search tool to ask Google Assistant to find out where each photo was taken. Recognizable monuments like the Eiffel Tower and places like Santorini, Greece were a breeze for the Assistant, and it even identified more obscure photos. I was fascinated by one image of a town street filled with colorful umbrellas seemingly floating in mid-air, and the Assistant quickly identified it as Portugal’s famous umbrella street.
Every once in a while the Assistant did trip up, and I received an “I can’t find anything on your screen I can help with” alert. Sometimes the Assistant just didn’t know anything about what I circled. It seemed to identify images that include a bit of text the best.
Listing image by Valentina Palladino