I believe in Chromebooks. Windows and MacOS come with three decades of cruft, old ideas about how things work that don’t mesh with a new generation that sends more snaps than emails and doesn’t know what that weird rectangle on the Save icon even is. (It’s a floppy disk, kiddies. Look it up.) Now that the primary computer for so many people is a five-inch rectangle of glass in their pocket, it seems obvious that we need to redefine what a computer means.
Over the last couple of years, Google seemed to finally put the pieces together. Android apps were the biggest milestone: bringing millions of Android apps to Chrome OS killed the whole “it’s only a browser” thing once and for all. It never made sense that you couldn’t use Instagram on your computer, but nobody before Google actually chopped those walls down. Now, a Chromebook can offer billions of users the apps they already know and rely on, in a body that lets you see more than two cells of your spreadsheet at a time.
Light, thin, attractive hardware. Great keyboard and trackpad. As versatile a laptop as you’ll find.
Android apps are not good on Chromebooks. Not good at all. Not even a little bit.
Google gets what a Chromebook can be. And the new Pixelbook serves the vision beautifully. This $1,000 gadget is one of the most versatile devices I’ve ever used, equally comfortable as a tablet or a laptop, used with a pen or a keyboard. It’s a handsome, light, powerful device, with specs that stand up against any ThinkPad and a body barely bigger than an iPad Pro. It has all the apps, and a desktop-class browser. It’s an everything device, a clever idea for a new kind of computer.
For two weeks, I’ve used the Pixelbook as my main computer. It’s been with me on planes and in meetings, in coffee shops and on the couch. For days at a time I shut off my external monitor, pushed my keyboard to the back of my desk, and worked on the Pixelbook instead. So much of it was fantastic. It’s marred by just one flaw, which undoes what should have been the device’s best feature: Android apps suck on Chromebooks. And they don’t seem to be getting better.
Let me explain. The first time you open an app after downloading it from the Play Store, most open in smartphone-sized windows, little vertical rectangles that take up about 10 percent of the Pixelbook’s screen. In that form, lots of apps work OK. Try and resize them, though, and all hell breaks loose. Some apps crash outright. Others throw a pop-up notification letting you know that the app needs to restart to resize, because apparently a layout change breaks the app’s brain. Others resize more smoothly, kind of; I’ve seen apps smush all their buttons together when I tried to make the window bigger, and a few times everything in the app just vanishes and I’m stuck with a resizable blank window. I get genuinely excited every time an app goes from full-screen to small without crashing.
The messy Android implementation even seems to affect battery life. I notice the difference in run time even if I just have a few open in the background. I typically get about seven hours on a charge, though it varies wildly depending on everything from how many tabs I have open to how bright the screen is. Offline watching video, that number’s much higher; online, with a bunch of Android apps and two dozen tabs, it’s lower. But seven or so seems to be about average.
I’d love to write off Android apps and say Chrome OS does fine as a browser alone, but I keep coming across examples of how great the combination could be. I was able to download enough Netflix stuff (which you can only do in the app) to keep me entertained for two long flights, whereas before I would’ve been stuck either filling up my phone’s storage or scouring the seat-back selection. Evernote’s put some real effort into its Chromebook app, and as a result offers a note-taking app that works at any size and handles pen and touch with aplomb. There are maybe a dozen apps in the Play Store genuinely made with Chrome OS in mind, and all are excellent. This Android-plus-Chrome thing can work. It just mostly doesn’t.
To be fair, this is the first time the Android app implementation has ever been official and out of beta on Chrome OS, so it’s early. If it ever does come together, you’re going to want a Pixelbook to show it off.
A Real Computer
For a long time, all the Chromebook makers tried to walk a fine line. They didn’t want to make a Chromebook too powerful and thus too expensive and heavy, nor could they imbue the thing with so little power it could barely even keep a browser running. (Just kidding, everybody did that second thing.) No Chromebook has ever existed that you could reasonably compare to a high-end Mac or Windows machine.
This time, Google just went and built a damn computer. You could Hackintosh this thing and have a killer MacBook competitor with more power and a better keyboard. It has Intel’s Kaby Lake processors, 8 or 16 gigs of RAM, and at least 128 gigs of storage. At 2.4 pounds and 0.4 inches thick, it feels like nothing in my bag—especially after years of lugging around a MacBook Pro.
The Pixelbook borrows the Pixel’s two-part color scheme. Google’s laptop didn’t get the awesome color choices the phone did, but the silver-and-white aesthetic works for me. Google left plenty of space between the Pixelbook’s square grays keys, and gave them enough room to travel down that they clack pleasingly as I type. (The backlight is weirdly finicky, though.) The glassy, large trackpad outperforms anything this side of a MacBook. The speakers are weak, but enough. Most important, none of the parts get in each other’s way. You can flip the screen 360 degrees, lay it flat against the base, and use it pretty passably as an oversized tablet—too much screen for reading a book, just right for watching a movie in bed. The hinge holds in virtually any position, and has yet to feel loose or fragile. The touchscreen works just as well as the keyboard, and the pen works just as seamlessly.
My only gripe is with the big black border around the 12.5-inch, 2400×1600 display. The display itself looks fantastic, and it’s clear Google cleared the extra space to accommodate a full-size keyboard. Still, I’d argue my $1,000 should buy a little more screen, and this frame could easily handle a 13-inch panel.
There’s not much new to report about Chrome OS on the Pixelbook, since it’s the same delightfully lightweight OS as everywhere else. Google Assistant makes its way into your laptopping life here too, accessible via a button between Ctrl and Alt on the left side of the keyboard.
Assistant is great for little things: making calendar appointments, setting reminders, quick math or research, even firing off short emails without having to switch apps or open a new tab. Assistant even works alongside the Pixelbook Pen, which doesn’t come bundled (because apparently $1,000 doesn’t buy you a freaking stylus) but works really well on the Pixelbook’s screen. It’s fast and responsive, if not quite as much so as the iPad Pro or Surface, but it does have a cool trick: press the button and circle a word, and Google Assistant tries to help with whatever you’ve highlighted. I still feel weird talking to my computer, so I’ve mostly been typing and drawing with Assistant, but I’m shocked at how useful I find the process. Even if I do sometimes forget it’s there.
I wrote almost a year ago that the combination of Chromebooks and Android apps could incite a revolution in laptop design. A year later, that revolution might be coming: other manufacturers are reportedly already working on direct Pixelbook competitors, and multiple developers I spoke to are optimistic that Google’s laptop could convince them to really spend time on Chromebook experiences.
The hardware’s right, but the Pixelbook still feels like a beta product. I’m getting tired of writing this: This Chromebook could be amazing, if only the software worked better. Maybe this time, enough devs will get on board to make the Pixelbook the right combination of smartphone, tablet, and laptop to be a computer for a new generation. Chromebooks are wildly popular, after all, and Android apps seem to be part of their future. So I’m optimistic, and even somewhat confident. But until more apps work better, this epically wonderful thing is really just a web browser. And a grand’s a lot to spend on a web browser.
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