The Google Pixelbook is one of the nicest pieces of hardware I’ve had in my hands all year – but there’s no good reason to buy it.
The Pixelbook is Google’s third stab at a gloriously high-end Chromebook, but the concept is something of anathema in itself. Google’s determined to make the Chromebook an object of desire, while it seems the buying public has decided that the Chromebook’s rightful place is at the plasticky, budget end of the market. People are prepared to pay £300 for a family laptop with limited capabilities. A grand? Not so much.
Google Pixelbook: hardware
Let’s deal with the physical build of the Pixelbook first, because it’s nothing short of magnificent.
The Pixelbook is one of the very few laptops on the market that clings to a 3:2 screen aspect ratio. While the web remains longer than it is broader, that makes perfect sense to me, and makes a pleasant change from the endless scrolling you have to endure on today’s widescreen laptops.
The display itself is smashing. The 2,400 x 1,600 resolution is just right for the 12.3in display; colours pop off the screen without tipping over into gaudiness; and the auto-adapting brightness is spot on, coping fine in dark bedrooms or sunlit train windows.
Typing on the Pixelbook is equally pleasurable. The keyboard has that rare quality of feeling immediately at home under your fingers. The keys are big and padded – some might even find them a little too cushioned – but for people like me who type like they’re drumming their fingers on a dashboard, it’s the perfect weighting. You’ll want to immediately dive into the settings and reverse Google’s brain-dead decision to swap CAPS LOCK for a search button, though, lest you enjoy finding yourself opening random apps every time you type a sub-heading.
The trackpad is roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool, and responds perfectly to prods and swiping gestures. But as this is a touchscreen device, you also have the option of gliding your finger down the screen to scroll down a web page or donk an icon in an app. That Apple still thinks touchscreens are pointless on laptops in 2017 shows you how detached the company has become from the real world in that massive Cupertino doughnut it’s holed up in.
The screen does full the 360 swivel, letting you turn the device into an awkwardly sized tablet – more of which later. There’s also an optional stylus, which delivers the best screen writing experience I’ve ever witnessed. And so it should for the outrageous £100 Google is charging for it. Lose that down the back of the sofa – which is entirely plausible without anywhere to dock the chunky stylus in the Pixelbook itself – and you’ll need therapy.
Google Pixelbook: Android apps
The Pixelbook’s tablet format makes more sense when you consider one of it star features: the ability to install Android apps.
The riches of the Google Play Store are far greater than the web apps that Chromebooks were previously confined to, particularly when it comes to using the device offline. The Outlook app gives you offline access to all of your inboxes, not only the Gmail ones; the Netflix app lets you take advantage of the Pixelbook’s 128GB of storage to download Narcos for the plane; photographers can take advantage of that lovely screen to fiddle with their photos in Lightroom.
And let’s not forget the games: there’s nothing in the Google Play Store that the Pixelbook’s Core i5-7Y57 processor is going to choke on, although playing some of those mobile-oriented games on a stretched 12in display is challenging, bordering on weird.
But don’t be lulled in: Android apps aren’t a patch on full-blown Windows/Mac apps when it comes to knuckling down for serious, above-receptionist-pay-scale work. You’ll find major features stripped from the Office apps. Pivot tables and conditional formatting in Excel, video in PowerPoint, even a word count in Word (why do you think this review is rambling on?).
And things are just that bit more awkward without easy access to a file system. Even basic things like highlighting passages in a PDF and emailing them back to a colleague seem to take two or three more awkward steps than would be necessary on a proper laptop. Chrome OS still needs to grow up.
Google Pixelbook: what’s its purpose in life?
Which brings me to the pertinent question: what is the point of the Pixelbook? It’s nowhere near as easy to work on as a similarly priced laptop. Everything is that little bit more awkward, more restrictive, more ‘just let me send the sodding photo, will you?’. It’s fine for the 90% of jobs you can do in a web browser, but it’s that 10% of everyone’s jobs that requires a bespoke app or high-end piece of software where the Chromebook concept comes crashing down – even with the valuable addition of the Android apps.
Neither does it nudge aside the iPad when it comes to tablet duties. Android still has a paucity of tablet-oriented apps compared to iOS, and the Pixelbook form factor is just too cumbersome for sofa surfing. It gets warm too, heat radiating out of the keyboard and onto your lap, because the Pixelbook is too heavy to hold for any great length of time. Battery life of around six hours can’t hold a candle to my iPad Air, either.
And that’s why, for the fortnight that it’s been here, the Pixelbook has spent most of its time on my office shelf. It’s not powerful enough for a day-to-day work laptop, nor convenient enough to shrug my ageing iPad off the sofa or out of my travel bag.
It’s a fine piece of hardware that serves no purpose.