Google Pixelbook Review: Less of a laptop and more of an iPad Pro competitor
posted Thursday, April 19, 2018 at 2:46 PM EDT
If you take a step back and really look at what Google has done with their laptops, it starts to seem bizarre when you really consider it: This is an entire computing experience powered by a browser. To think that Google has managed to build an entire ecosystem around this one piece of software by steadily shoring up their cloud offerings over the years is really something. I don’t think anyone considered the possibilities of what Google was building back when they debuted Google Docs in 2006, or even when they launched Chrome in 2008.
Google realized that for many if there was enough support for word processing and access to the internet, that’s all a computer really needed to do. The original Chromebooks did just that, and today with the Pixelbook (the high-performance Chromebook as Google calls it) it is capable of even more thanks to the integration with the Google Play store, and therefore Android applications.
On the inside, Google packed quite a bit into this slim machine so that it holds up to its claims of “never getting slower,” a complaint nearly everyone has with a traditional laptop over time.
The Pixelbook can be configured in one of three ways. The cheapest, which is $1000, gets you the Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. The next level adds $200 and upgrades the SSD to 256GB of storage. The last one adds $450 on top of that, and upgrades the processor to an Intel Core i7, bumps the RAM up to 16GB and increases the onboard storage to a 512GB NVMe SSD. You can also choose to grab the Pixelbook Pen for $100, but since one was not provided for this review, I can’t speak to the necessity of that purchase.
My review model was the middle version, and I honestly can’t think of why I would need to get the most powerful version. Since you’re not going to be running full desktop applications on this device, even the cheapest option is enough to run anything in Chrome and is a heck of a lot more powerful than any Android phone, so all apps I tested run quite smoothly. $1000 is a lot more enticing than $1750, too. At no point in my time with the Pixelbook did I think it needed more horses in its engine.
The Pixelbook’s 12.3 inch 2400x1600 (235 ppi) Quad HD LCD display is beautiful, sharp and bright. On the brightness note, it can pump out 400 nits, which is enough light to even be seen in normally overpowering, direct sunlight. Additionally, it is also a touch screen that supports the Google Pixelbook Pen (which was, as mentioned, not tested in this review). The color space covers 72% of NTSC color space, which is essentially 100% of the sRGB color gamut.
The screen is solid; nothing to complain about here. For touch, it’s highly responsive and intuitive to use, though you don’t feel like you ever have to touch the screen if you don’t want to as it has a traditional laptop touchpad below the keyboard. It's not the best iteration of a touchpad I've experienced, and the more I use it the more I'm dissatisfied with how responsive it is and how it feels to click and press on it. It's not the worst, but I think it could be better. It's actually great that the Pixelbook has a touchscreen, because I find that to be the more ideal experience.
I’ve enjoyed watching television and movies on the Pixelbook, and both look excellent streamed to the device (Netflix was the platform of choice for this testing, specifically the shows “Altered Carbon” and “Chef’s Table” as they look so darn good). Though it isn’t a 4K screen, it’s as good of a sub-4K monitor as I’ve personally experienced.
If there is one thing the Google Pixelbook does better than anything, it’s the mixture of design and user experience. The design of the Chrome-powered laptop is lithe, with it feeling like it doesn’t have anything it doesn’t need. Which, I guess is accurate. As a device, it’s a slimmed down experience, and the physical appearance of it reflects that. It sports just two USB-C ports that you mainly use for charging, a headphone jack, a volume control button, a power/lock button, and that’s it. Simple and to the point, the Pixelbook doesn’t get fancy with it.
It’s such a slimmed down experience that you might not expect the Pixelbook to be able to use external drives since it’s not running what most would consider a “full” operating system. Well, it does, and it does so really well. I honestly was surprised how browsing files on my G-Drive Mobile was quick and easy, and showed me a file management system I’d never seen before in my experiences with Chrome. Though the Pixelbook did have trouble playing large 4K files shot on a Canon 1DX II (that is to say, it did not play them), it didn’t have any issues with exported MP4 videos that I had finished in Adobe Premiere. I don’t know why I’m impressed with this, since it’s a basic feature for literally any computer, but I guess I’m just glad it’s there. It is nice to know you’re not limited really at all in this regard when it comes to the Pixelbook, since I think folks might have the wrong impression on what it can do given that the originals were advertised to just be a Chrome web browser. The platform has evolved considerably since then.
Unfortunately, the Pixelbook can’t run full applications like full Lightroom, Photoshop or Premiere. Because it’s not running a full operating system and instead uses a mix of Google Play connectivity/Android and Chrome, your only options here are what you can run on an Android phone or browser-based programs. So while you can use Lightroom CC (the renamed Lightroom Mobile), that isn’t going to be good enough for most photographers.
If you are going to try and use Lightroom CC as your main option, the Pixelbook isn’t necessarily a bad way to do it. Actually, because of the touchpad, it’s a slightly different experience than I was used to on other mobile devices, and mimics exactly what you can get on any other computer (for those who are for some reason choosing to use Lightroom CC and not Lightroom Classic CC).
I personally don’t know anyone who is using Lightroom CC as their go-to photo editing program, at least not yet since it’s not as fully featured at the time of this review as Classic CC. But if you are that person, one of the benefits of the Pixelbook over mobile devices is the aforementioned ability to read external devices, including memory cards. You are able to import photos to Lightroom CC through the Pixelbook, but that comes with a few caveats.
Firstly, the Pixelbook doesn’t have a ton of onboard storage. Even with the most expensive version of the Google laptop, you’re only getting 512GB of SSD capacity. If you’re like me, you take a lot of photos and that capacity is going to go quick. You’re most certainly going to want to use Adobe’s cloud storage if you plan to use the Pixelbook as your main editing platform in tandem with Lightroom CC.
Secondly, there was not a way to import photos directly from the memory card into Lightroom CC on the Pixelbook. It took one extra step of dragging the photos from a card into the Pixelbook, and then from that folder into Lightroom. That’s not a deal-breaker, but it is annoying. This might not be the Pixelbook’s failure, but a permissions situation with the mobile-version of Lightroom CC; the app might not have the permissions to create its own folders, and importing from attached storage isn’t super common with any mobile device. Rendering previews of RAW files is slow going on the Pixelbook as well. It can be so slow that you might think the laptop isn't capable of showing you previews of RAW photos. Odds are that it can, it just takes a while.
Thirdly, Lightroom CC is not a fast application on the Pixelbook. Sure, navigating the application isn’t slow, but seeing changes while you’re editing has a delay. For example, I imported a file and then adjusted the exposure. This I could see immediately. However, when I went to adjust the black level, nothing I did to the slider caused the image to change for 5 to 10 seconds. Additional changes to photos would, half the time or more, result in this delay. This kept happening no matter the file size (iPhone photos or DSLR images, it didn’t seem to matter), so I don’t think it has to do with the power of the Pixelbook specifically. I think it’s just how the mobile Lightroom CC application runs on the Pixelbook, and it’s not a fluid, seamless experience. Instead, it’s a bit clunky and slow. I mentioned earlier that I don't see a reason to get the most expensive Pixelbook and it's entirely possible that the better processor and RAM that you'll get with it will make this experience better. But without testing it, I can't know for sure if it's the Pixelbook to blame here, or the software.
Overall, it is nice for those who shoot a lot on their phones and for those who find that Lightroom CC is enough for them, but even the average photographer is likely going to find the Pixelbook isn’t quite enough to replace their traditional laptop computer. This may not be entirely the Pixelbook’s fault, but the applications available to it. In the end, it’s great for managing your business, such as with emails, blogging, website management and the like, but when it comes to doing actual work, it’s not quite there yet. At least not for photographers.
The Pixelbook ends up being in this strange in-between space. The device itself seems capable of a lot, but it isn’t getting a lot of help from the applications that are available to it, resulting in a kind of janky, broken-up overall experience.
I do love how light and small the Pixelbook is, and the operating system, in general. The way I interact with the computer, the speed at which it starts up, and the long battery life are all features I absolutely adore, but I can’t actually do enough real work on the Pixelbook to warrant its base $1000 price tag when I’m considering it as a laptop replacement. The Pixelbook is good as an addition to the computers I already have, but it isn’t replacing one of them… at least not yet.
But it absolutely competes with the iPad Pro. In fact, for many, it will be better.
The iPad Pro is awesome. I love mine, and use it nearly every day for managing emails, blogging, watching videos, and online shopping. But in the end, it’s limited by its reliance on applications, it isn’t super easy to use outside of itself because of the requirement to connect to it only via Lightning cables, and I’ve found that not all browser-based experiences work quite right on it (Google Docs, for example, is hit and miss). And as much as I enjoy the Smart Keyboard when it’s out, the way it folds and the fact it lacks a trackpad pad (because the iPad UI doesn’t have a cursor) means it’s a definitively lesser computing experience when compared to, well, a computer.
But the Pixelbook does not suffer from any of that. It is basically a super-powered tablet with PC functionality, a real keyboard, and the choice between a mouse or touch. I may be an Apple fanboy, but I spend most of my time in Chrome even on my iMac and therefore the transition from an Apple product to the Pixelbook doesn’t feel like I’m changing much. During this review, I’ve used the Pixelbook pretty much in tandem with my iMac, my iPhone and my iPad and found there wasn’t much of a barrier at all with using them together like there is when I’m using a dedicated PC product. It helps that the experience I’ve described is not broken up by another OS, like Windows. With the Pixelbook, it just feels like the Chrome experience I’m neck-deep in every day.
If I just want a tablet, I can have that too. The Pixelbook gives me more choice and a really good experience pretty much whenever the iPad Pro would. It’s more modular and “talks” to my other devices better too thanks to those two USB-C ports. The multitasking on the Pixelbook is better, too. Anything can have its own window and you can customize your screen just like you can on a full computer, which you cannot do on an iPad Pro. The iPad Pro’s multitasking does exist, of course, but it’s a user experience unique to Apple tablets, doesn’t bring in any of the gestures or operational muscle memory of any other device I own, and isn’t compatible with every app. You don’t have that problem with the Pixelbook.
What I’m saying is, if asked today, I am finding many reasons to pick a new Pixelbook over a new iPad Pro. They’re about the same price (the base model iPad Pro is less expensive, you get a lot less, too: only 64GB of storage and no keyboard. Also, you can choose to spend more on the Pixelbook too if you want, though I’m not convinced you need to). The iPad Pro’s display is overwhelmingly better, but the overall user experience of the Pixelbook feels more… grounded. Real. While the iPad Pro seems to focus on providing a stellar visual experience, the Pixelbook feels more focused on “doing” things.
With the iPad Pro, I have the option of adding a cellular plan, but I sadly don’t have for that option with the Pixelbook, which is unfortunate. Since the Pixelbook is Chrome-based, true and full functionality is limited when you’re not connected to WiFi. Yes, you can still do a lot, including use Google Docs offline (which will sync as soon as you connect back to WiFi) but much of what makes Chrome so enticing (syncing, sharing) and access to Google Play is lost without a signal. Google really should have given consumers the option to add LTE service to their Pixelbook, which would have given it one more ticked box in the “should I buy this or the iPad Pro” list.
That said, I honestly believe I can do more on the Pixelbook than I can on an iPad Pro. But Google’s marketing seems to frame the Pixelbook more as a computer competitor, rather than where I believe it belongs: as an iPad competitor. That’s a fight it can certainly win, or at least hold its own rather than one where it’s undeniably inferior.
- Beautiful, bright and responsive touchscreen display
- Ridiculous battery life (it really lasts all day)
- Chrome-based OS means all my web browsing experiences across all devices is synced
- Access to Google Play for robust app access
- Connects with external drives via USB-C
- Has a traditional keyboard and feels great to type on it
- Since it’s labeled a “laptop” from Google, it competes with more traditional computers in consumers’ minds. In that frame of reference, its inability to run full applications is a major downside.
- Touchpad isn't as responsive as I would like
- Display isn’t 4K
- Without an LTE connectivity, full functionality is limited outside of WiFi range. Since you can’t run full apps, it’s about as useful as your cell phone without a signal in those cases.
- Can get expensive for what it is. The base $1000 is reasonable, but to fully kit it out is wildly overpriced for what the Pixelbook is capable.
For a college student or even an average computer user, the Pixelbook is way more than enough. Almost everything the average consumer needs is found on the internet now through Google’s app suite, and anything you can’t find there you’ll definitely find on the Google Play store to accentuate the experience. But that’s the average consumer. Photographers aren’t average, and generally demand more from their computing experience. Just like PC gamers won’t find much to like about the Pixelbook, the same can be said for photographers when the Pixelbook is viewed through the lens of a traditional computer.
But if viewed through the lens of a tablet? That is where the Pixelbook looks really enticing. It’s a lovely device, and I wish all personal computers could be as responsive, lightweight, and fun to use as the Pixelbook. Against other tablets, the Pixelbook is a really strong contender, and can objectively beat out just about anything aside from the iPad Pro, where more subjective consumer tastes come into play.