The Chromebook family of laptops is known for two things. Firstly, they’re cheap. The devices are essentially Google’s suite of cloud software granted a physical form, a Chrome web browser inside a hard laptop shell that, in some cases, can also run Android apps.
This leads into the second thing Chromebooks are known for: what you use them for is pretty much limited to what you can do inside a browser window. You don’t get the full functionality of a Windows laptop, but because a Chromebook typically doesn’t require much in the way of hard drive space and processing power, you also don’t get the accompanying price tag.
The cheapest Chromebooks cost less than £200, and are made by a gaggle of third-party manufacturers, most notably Samsung, HP and Acer. Schools continue to be one of the biggest markets for the devices, where teachers dish them out to students like laptop confetti (although not in any of the schools I’ve ever been to).
Much like how Nexus phones were the result of Google stepping in to make its own Android handset, the Pixelbook is Google’s latest attempt at making its own Chromebook from scratch. To say they’ve gone for it would be an understatement – the Pixebook is a beautiful piece of technology.
The Pixelbook feels like an assertion that Chromebooks can be powerful as well as fast, simple and cheap
It’s slim and ultra-lightweight, with an aluminium body and a neat (and wi-fi enhancing) glass panel spanning the upper portion of the lid, similar to that of the Pixel phones. At 10.3mm when shut, and weighing less than a kilo, it’s one of the few 2-in-1 laptops that also functions comfortably as a tablet, with the 360-degree hinges allowing you to fold the touchscreen back on itself and start a-pokin’ with the ol’ fingers. The spot on either side of the trackpad where you rest your wrists is coated in an expensive, grippy material that feels comfortable and futuristic, though I worry might be prone to staining in the long-term – I haven’t produced enough wrist-sweat yet to know for sure.
In either case, if an alien landed in your garden and asked to see how nice our laptops look, you honestly wouldn’t be afraid to show him the Pixelbook. My only criticism is the chunky black bezel surrounding the screen, a necessity for the Pixelbook to function as a tablet without your hands getting in the way, but one that looks dated when in conventional laptop mode.
What sets this apart from other Chromebooks is just how much performance Google’s crammed into the box, and consequently how much it costs. Starting at £999, the Pixelbook is far from the most affordable option in a laptop category of Google’s own creation, but it’s beefed up with enough capacity to go wild with Android apps and downloaded video, and enough RAM and processing power to run anything you could possibly throw its way.
It has Google Assistant built in, a first for any laptop. She even gets her own special key (where the maligned Windows key would usually sit) that summons her from her virtual chambers to help with any requests you might have. Her new trick is instantly scanning whatever’s on your screen and reeling off some helpful information. Call on her when looking at an emailed dinner invitation and she’ll offer to pop it in your calendar and give you directions to the restaurant. She performs all her usual assistant duties too, controlling your home’s lights, keeping your schedule, reading the news and answering questions.
The optional stylus (£99) can be used to trace a circle around anything you’d like Google to identify too, so doodle on Cher’s face and you’ll get a link to her Twitter page, or draw around the Sagrada Famila to start researching Gaudi. It’s very impressive, but I can’t tell when I’d use the feature other than to show off. The pen is eminently loseable too, with nowhere about the device to store it. And with most Android apps built around a touch-based user interface, rather than the keyboard and mouse, it's a small wonder why Google doesn't include the pen as standard.
Having this much power under the hood of a Chrome OS device feels like misdirected energy, and for most users the Pixelbook will be spinning its wheels. Your mileage will vary, but what I need from a portable computer is software. Specifically, I need Adobe Creative Suite, full-featured video and audio editing software that this laptop could easily handle, but that simply doesn’t yet exist on the Play Store.
Using a Pixelbook to watch YouTube videos and bash out some words in Google Docs feels like using a very pretty and expensive sledgehammer to crack a nut. The value proposition of cheap Chromebooks has always been clear, but there simply aren’t the right kinds of apps available that I could call the Pixelbook genuinely useful for work, not when compared to a similarly priced Windows 10 laptop, or even a low-end Macbook. The Pixelbook feels like a proof-of-concept, an assertion that Chromebooks can be powerful as well as fast, simple and cheap, and one that might eventually lure more serious, desktop-grade creative software into the Google Play Store.
Early Android phones, which for a long time lacked the volume of apps that iOS users freely enjoyed, faced much the same criticism. But to review the Pixelbook based on what it’s not is missing the point. If the limited focus of the Chrome OS and Android framework is adequate for the kind of things you need to be able to do while on the move, then this is the best and most beautiful incarnation of a Chromebook you’ll find.
For the rest of us, and for the moment, there are more practical alternatives at this price.