Can a supercomputer for web apps challenge the iPad Pro?

There are many questions about the Pixelbook, a new $999 Chromebook manufactured by Google. Who should buy this thing? Who would want to? Is it supposed to compete with MacBooks? Surface tablets? Windows convertibles? iPads? iPad Pros? All of the above? Can a laptop that is mainly designed to run the Chrome browser (with a side of Android apps) really be worth spending this much money on? Is Google high?

The answers to all of those questions depend entirely on something that’s different for everybody: what do you do when you really push your computer? For some, it’s video editing. For others, it’s photography or gaming or Excel or whatever. For 90 percent of what most of us do on computers, anything decently fast and nice will get the job done. But for that last 10 percent, everybody needs something different.

So it’s impossible to give you all the answers, even after spending just under two weeks using the Pixelbook as my main computer. I set aside both my MacBook and my iPad Pro and just used this machine to see if I could finally figure out that last 10 percent for myself.

Before we get into all that, let’s talk about this hardware. It’s superb. Laptops, even convertible laptops (lamentably called 4-in-1s now), have been around a long time, and I figured I’d seen pretty much every variation of them. But Google has created an industrial design that is not only unique, but uniquely functional.

Closed, it’s just under half an inch thick and weighs just over two and a half pounds. It’s all aluminum and gorilla glass, and it’s as sturdy as anything I’ve used. The keyboard has plenty of travel; it feels way better than the keyboard on most laptops this thin, especially compared to the MacBook or a Surface Pro. And, in a sad rarity for Chromebooks, it’s properly backlit.

There are subtle and not-so-subtle design elements that artfully combine form and function. The most prominent design element is the glass shade on the back, which is there to allow more wireless signal through and also provide visual symmetry. Three of the four sides of this laptop have a symmetrical, white panel on them.

The white panel on the keyboard deck is the most interesting. The palmrests here are made of silicone. Google insists that it won’t yellow over time or get too dirty; Google engineers have been taping the material on old laptops to test it for a year now. It gives a nicer feel when you’re typing compared to cold aluminum. But it also has two other functions: to keep the screen from getting pressed against the keys, and to serve as anti-skid pads when you’re using it in tablet or easel mode.

The display is a 12.3-inch touchscreen in a 3:2 aspect ratio, with a resolution of 2400 x 1600. It looks great and gets bright enough to use in sunlight, but be warned: it’s super reflective. The only real problem with the screen is actually with the bezels that surround it. They’re too big. Google says it’s to ensure thinness and to make it easier to hold in tablet mode, but other companies have figured out how to make them smaller.

As for specs, the base model comes with a seventh-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. Almost all of those numbers are overkill for what most people think they want on a Chromebook, but here they’re put to good use. The processor makes it fast, the RAM lets you have more tabs and apps open, and the storage is for movies and music and games you store with Android apps. As with a lot of recent machines, Google makes it all work without the need for a fan, and I haven’t had any problems with heat on the Pixelbook.

The trackpad is glass and is fast and accurate — though if you wanted to gripe you could say that when you squeeze the closed laptop you can feel it click. One nice touch is that the speakers fire up out of the base of the laptop into the hinge, so in most configurations the sound isn’t muffled like you’ll find on other convertibles.

Google’s other hardware this fall has had some problems, but the Pixelbook is stellar. It’s elegant, sturdy, fast, and smartly designed. If you’re wondering where your thousand bucks is going, there’s your answer. Judged just as a physical object, it’s my favorite laptop of the year.

But of course, you don’t buy a laptop to just to appreciate its industrial design. You have to actually use the thing. Which brings us to the software.

The usual rules for Chrome OS apply: you can run web apps and web apps designed specifically for Chrome. You can save any webpage as a “window” that opens up like an app instead of just another tab in your browser. You can split-screen windows (in laptop mode, anyway), save stuff in a file system, and get stuff directly from Google Drive. You can do it all with the trackpad and keyboard, or by tapping on the screen. (Even small buttons seem easy to hit.) Perhaps most importantly, it’s a rock-simple and rock-solid OS that gets security and OS updates every six weeks or so, almost without fail.

Taken just at that level, as a laptop designed to do Chrome stuff, the Pixelbook could justify its asking price for a fair number of people. Usually, when I talk about Chromebooks, I have to give a little spiel about how many tabs you can have open at any given time. Using this one, I have yet to reach that limit and it has almost never felt bogged down. It is basically a supercomputer for web apps.

I’m impressed by performance, but have found battery life to be nothing to write home about. Google claims about 10 hours of mixed use, but I haven’t quite hit that. Admittedly, I’ve pushed this machine pretty hard, but I wouldn’t trust it past eight hours or so, unless you’re being super diligent about managing power. At least it charges super fast via either of the two USB Type-C ports.

Google has done some things to the basic OS to improve the experience. The launcher has been redesigned as a big black shade with icons that better distinguish between web apps and Android apps. There’s also a Google search bar at the top of it. You use the same search bar for the web and for local, on-device searches. It’s similar to what you can do with Cortana on Windows or Spotlight on the Mac.

But, perhaps confusingly, there’s another place to type (or speak) your queries: the Google Assistant. Google gave it its own button on the keyboard: when it pops up, you just type your question. If you’re typing, it responds silently with the answer. If you say “OK Google,” it responds audibly.

It works just as well here as it does on your phone or on a Google Home. And it can also read your screen, presenting a best-guess answer based on what it sees on your display right when you first open it up. It pays special attention to anything you’ve highlighted, which is super smart. You can also circle things with the Pixelbook Pen (more on that in a bit) to do a more specific search on an image.


My only complaint about using Chrome and web apps on the Pixelbook is when you flip the screen around into tablet mode. For now (though changes are coming), everything defaults to full screen whenever you flip it around. When you flip it back, your windows end up willy nilly all over the place. There’s also no simple way to set up virtual desktops, as you can on Windows or Mac.

With the Pixelbook, Android apps on Chrome OS are officially out of Beta. That Beta period lasted a long time, and much of it was not fun at all to use. But now that these apps are official, everything’s fine, right?

Well. Let’s get into it.

Here’s the good news: Android apps run very well on the Pixelbook, with nearly none of the showstopping issues I had before. Games don’t stutter unless you have a lot of background stuff running, nothing freezes up the machine, and apps aren’t randomly quitting. This is where the Pixelbook’s high-end hardware proves its worth, but some of the better performance is thanks to bug fixes as well.

That is the lowest possible bar, of course, so here is some slightly higher praise. Some apps, especially Microsoft Office apps, Netflix, and several Google apps are genuinely great. You can resize many of them like regular windows instead of being forced to look at either weird phone-sized rectangles or blown-up full-screen versions. Their interactions with regular Chrome windows aren’t seamless (drag and drop is nonexistent), but they basically feel integrated with the rest of the OS.

Even other apps that aren’t optimized for the Pixelbook’s large screen are still just nice to have. I’ve saved a bunch of Spotify playlists offline. Having Facebook Messenger available as a little Android app is a little more convenient than the web app. There’s just a ton of little things that are more useful to do inside an Android app than in a web app.

The problem is that the work of uniting Android land and Chrome land isn’t done yet — and in many cases they don’t even speak the same language. Using it, you feel like a dual citizen who doesn’t feel totally at home in either country. Adobe Lightroom CC, for example, is a fairly powerful Android app now, but it thinks it’s running on an Android device (I mean, technically it is), so it sometimes doesn’t see stuff Chrome OS can, like unzipped folders.

The dual citizen problem extends to other areas. There are lots of apps that have both web and Android versions, so you’ll need to choose one. Gmail’s Android app does a better job offline, but the web app is more powerful. Pick one, sure, but then you have to pick which version of the app is going to give you notifications. Same for Slack, which works better in tablet mode as an Android app, but better as a web app when you have the keyboard out.

Even if you get to a place where it all makes sense (and I feel like I’m pretty close), you still run into head-slappingly silly moments like switching to tablet mode and finding out that the Spotify app is a tiny little rectangle floating in the middle of a vast, black expanse. I get why that’s happening, sure, but I also know it should not be like that. Users shouldn’t have to think about whether apps are using the right APIs for window sizing.

Most of these problems can be solved with better, updated versions of Android apps that understand that they’re running on a Chromebook. But let’s not pretend that it’s a good idea to trust that Android apps will be updated to work better on big, tablet-sized screens. Google’s struggled with this exact issue for years.

The other headline feature — or option, rather — is the Pixelbook Pen. It’s a separate, $99 active stylus that lets you do stylus things on the Pixelbook. It was developed in collaboration with Wacom, so it can detect angle and pressure. Unlike Apple’s Pencil and its ridiculous lightning port power plug, the Pixelbook Pen just uses a AAAA battery that should be good for about a year. You don’t even have to bother pairing it over Bluetooth. It just works.

Except that it only “just works” with Android and web apps that have been updated to support Google’s latest APIs. On those apps, it operates with minimal (sometimes undetectable) lag. On apps that don’t use the latest code, the lag between moving the pen and seeing pixels on the screen is downright atrocious.

I am not really a stylus kind of guy, so I’m not a great judge of this pen. But after talking with my colleague James Bareham and trying out the pen with a bunch of apps, the gist is that, as a piece of hardware, Google did all the right things here. But hardware needs software, and there’s just not enough support yet to say if this thing is worth the extra hundred bucks.

One trick I do like: you can hold the single button down on the pen and then circle something on the screen to do a search with Google Assistant. It works, and it’s fun. But that’s a bad reason to buy the pen.

When I think about whether the Pixelbook could reasonably replace a MacBook or a Windows laptop, my gut says that, for most people, the answer is “no.” To solve the “last 10 percent” on a Pixelbook, you really have to be very savvy about how to navigate the different computing paradigms of Chrome and Android to make the whole thing work — and even then, it’s not easy. Unless you’re an expert in the ways of both the web and Android, it shouldn’t be your only computer.

If I were Apple or Microsoft, I would be thinking a lot about the generation of students who are savvy with Chromebooks and Android apps, and who might just want the same thing they’re used to from their classroom, just in a much nicer package. I don’t know that it’ll happen this year, though.

Honestly, I think the iPad Pro is a better comparison. On both devices, you can get quite a lot more done than you’d expect, but you have to deeply understand how the platform works to get there. And if you’re debating between them, here’s the TL;DR: the iPad Pro has better apps, is a tablet-first device, and has a worse web browser. The Pixelbook has worse apps, is a laptop-first device, and has a better web browser.

Just like the iPad Pro, the Pixelbook is an incredibly nice and powerful machine that can handle most of your computing tasks — but probably not all of them.

Source: The Verge

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