Laptops & PCs

Hands-on Preview: Google Pixelbook

Written by techgoth

Google’s going ultra-high-end for its ChromeOS convertible.

It’s a Chromebook. And it costs a grand – in US money. Are you still with us?

The Pixelbook is absolutely not for everyone. Google’s premium convertible might be the thinnest around, and might arrive packing extras like a digital stylus and the ability to run Android apps, but is that going to be enough for people to look past the limitations of ChromeOS?

Maybe not. But it would be a real shame to write it off completely – the hardware is truly excellent, and ChromeOS has come a long way from its tentative first steps in cheap, classroom-friendly laptops.

In fact, the Pixelbook might just be bit of kit to change people’s minds on Google’s once-limited operating system.

DESIGN & BUILD

Wow. The Pixelbook really does look something special – like Google has taken the Pixel smartphone, stretched it out to 12 inches, and then flattened it with a steamroller. 

It’s only 10mm thick, and weighs a scant 1kg, so you’ll barely notice you’ve got one sat in a backpack. The whole thing is made from aluminium, with a strip of white silicone across the top third of the lid to really make it stand out from the crowd of existing Chromebooks. 

There’s a 360-degree hinge at the back, which lets you unfold the screen into a stand or tent mode, or lie it flat and use it as a tablet. It sits completely flush to a desk in this mode, so there’s more chance it’ll get some actual use – a lot of the hybrids out there right now spend most of their lives as laptops.

A USB-C port on either side is a nice touch, too – one just isn’t enough for getting serious work done, and Google clearly hopes people will use the Pixelbook as their main system, so two feels about right. 

SCREEN & SOUND

There’s nothing to complain about here: the 12.3in display has a QHD resolution that absolutely packs in the pixels, making sure your photos show plenty of detail and doing justice to 1080p videos.

Well, ok, maybe there is something to complain about: those screen bezels. With Apple, Lenovo and Dell getting progressively closer to the edge of the display, the chunky black borders around the Pixelbook’s screen feel decidedly old-hat. At least the whole thing is edge-to-edge glass, which hammers home the premium feel of the whole device.

Colours looked great, viewing angles were top-notch, and it seemed plenty bright enough too, but how it compares to its main rivals will have to wait until a full review.

It’s a similar story with audio – Google’s crowded launch event just wasn’t the place to test out the laptop’s speakers.

USABILITY & KEYBOARD

As with any Chromebook, the Pixelbook takes the familiar keyboard layout and tweaks it slightly, swapping the function keys for dedicated shortcuts and ditching the familiar Windows key. In its place is an Assistant key which, as you’d expect, wakes Google Assistant instead. Extra buttons take screenshots and open contextual menus, but they don’t get in the way of the typing experience – which is excellent.

OK, not everyone will be a fan of the shallow keys, which don’t have much travel at all, but each one felt firm and were plenty large enough for me to type at speed right away, without any typos creeping in. The keys don’t stick out beyond the frame of the machine, so they don’t feel weird when you’re in tablet mode. The whole thing is backlit, too.

The spacious, glass-topped touchpad underneath is great, too, working as you’d expect – although of course you’ve got a massive touchscreen right in front of you as well.

Finally, the optional Pixelbook Pen stylus has the thousands of pressure levels you’d expect from something developed in partnership with Wacom, which should make it pretty handy for sketches and drawings. Google was hyping up the ultra-low latencies, and while it felt great to use, I’ll need to do a side-by-side with the iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface to see how it stacks up.

PERFORMANCE & SOFTWARE

Google has never been shy about packing its home-grown ChromeOS machines with killer hardware, when the rest of the world is content with more entry-level kit, and that hasn’t changed here. The Pixelbook will launch with an Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of speedy flash storage – and that’s just the ‘basic’ $US999 model. 

If you really, really wanted to, you could pick one up with a Core i7 chip, 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage. Honestly though, that seems like total overkill – even with ChromeOS’s newfound ability to run Android apps from the Google Play store.

Everything runs perfectly well on the i5 model, with windows opening quickly, multiple brower tabs not slowing the system down at all, and downloaded apps running without any stutter or slowdown. Quite why you’d need more power than that, apart from bragging rights, is a bit of a mystery right now.

ChromeOS itself has been tweaked slightly, with a new assistant button in the bottom left corner for activating Google Assistant with your mouse cursor. There’s a menu dedicated to the Pixelbook Pen, too, letting you draw circles around movie posters to pull up a plot synopsis or details on the actors involved. It’s all pretty neat, but only time will tell if Assistant is smart enough now to deserve pride of place on the desktop.

There’s a hidden feature for Pixel phone owners, too. When you’re away from Wi-Fi, the Pixelbook can automatically borrow your phone’s mobile data connection, no setup required. It’s very similar to Apple’s iOS and macOS connection sharing, and should be much more convenient than the current manual method.

INITIAL VERDICT

Looking purely at the hardware, the Pixelbook is a fantastic hybrid laptop. It’s thin and light, yet plenty powerful and with a fantastic keyboard. The screen is gorgeous, too. If it was running Windows, it would easily trade blows with the Lenovo Yogas and Dell XPS 13s of the world.

But it’s not – it’s running ChromeOS. And most people are going to need a damn good reason to part ways with $1000 (or more!) just to own one. 

Admittedly, this latest iteration is much slicker, with Google Assistant doing clever things with your voice and the Pixelbook Pen as well as your keyboard, and the ability to run Android apps is sure to keep a lot of people happy.

Having only spent a few brief minutes using it, though, I’m not convinced just yet. Hopefully that will change once I’ve had the chance to test it properly with a full review, a little closer to launch.


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