Review: Google’s Pixelbook nearly everything breaks new ground
Review: Google’s Pixelbook — nearly everything breaks new ground:- Google’s Chromebook Pixel was one of the oddities of the laptop world. A hefty slab of aluminium with rounded corners, a strip of coloured lights on the lid that lit up when you closed it, an almost-square screen with an aspect ratio you would not see on any other computer: the lengths to which Google went to break the rules with its first laptop, introduced in 2013, felt almost perverse.
So it is disappointing to pick up the successor to that machine — now renamed Pixelbook — and find a piece of hardware that in many ways has joined the mainstream. The disappointment, though, is short lived. For a lover of oddities and boundary-pushing, there is plenty under the hood to make this very different from your standard-issue corporate laptop, even if it means sacrificing some of the extreme simplicity that distinguished the first Chromebooks.
The purpose of Google’s Chromebooks was always summed up by the three Ss: simplicity, speed and security. The machines were designed to be windows on the web. Everything happened in the browser and Google supplied constant software updates and security to make sure the machines remained fast and reliable.
Other hardware makers sold low-cost versions, but with its own Pixel, Google added a high-quality touch screen to take the device upmarket against Apple’s MacBook and Microsoft’s Surface.
The new Pixelbook — $999 in the US and £999 in the UK — takes all of this to a higher plane. It is ultra-light at 2.4lbs, charges quickly (I got half a tank in 30 minutes) and lasts a full day on a single charge, as claimed. It is, above all, lightning fast.
It brings with it the familiar frustrations of all Chromebooks, though these have diminished over time. Since they are designed for the web, the lack of an internet connection threatens to turn the machines into useless bricks.
That does not feel as much of an issue as it once did. WiFi hotspots are easier to find (and many smartphones have them built in). Also, there is more you can do while offline, like work in Google Docs. Gmail is still a frustration, though: without a connection you can read messages, but not type responses to be delivered once you are online again.
So much for the basics. Just about everything else about the Pixelbook breaks new ground. Where Apple’s devices feel edited down to their essentials, Google’s feel more experimental.
In hardware terms, the laptop has 360-degree hinges that let you flip the screen over and turn it into a tablet, or prop it up to watch as a video screen. Personally, I have never seen much purpose in this versatility: laptops work pretty well for most purposes in their traditional configuration. Reading on a heavy tablet-like screen while feeling the keyboard folded over on the back does not seem an advance.
For stylus lovers there is a pen that can be used to write, draw or highlight text. But unless you are the type of person who likes to take notes by writing directly on to a screen, it is a distraction to keep switching between different input devices — keyboard, touchscreen and pen.
It is the other uses Google devised for the pen that start to hint at some of the biggest differences in the Pixelbook. Circle any words that appear on the screen, and Google’s digital assistant springs to life. Often it simply returns a web search, but circle a date and time and it will automatically take you to your calendar.
Google’s Assistant can be summoned as a box in the lower left of the screen at any time, either by speaking to the machine or by pressing a special key. But as with Microsoft’s Cortana assistant, which first made its appearance on Windows 10 PCs, it is not obvious that people want to talk to their computers when they have so many other input mechanisms at their fingertips.
The Pixelbook also brings a convergence of Google’s Chrome and Android worlds, with mixed results. The company has been working towards this for some time: the sheer volume of Android smartphones and tablets has drawn developers to write apps for the ecosystem, but at the same time Google has not wanted to give up on the Chromebook web experience.
Combine the two on one machine, and things get a little complicated. To use Google Maps, for instance, you could open a tab in the Chrome browser. Or you can go to the Play store and download the Google Maps app. The former appears in a browser frame, the second as a full-screen app.
Confusingly, both the browser and full-screen app can be opened by calling up a screen of icons (it takes two clicks to get to this, which is tiresome). Look carefully, and you will see slightly different Maps icons for each experience. Even more befuddling, on my screen I found three Google Maps icons (two of which opened into a Chrome tab) — and the icon for the full app disappeared on to a second page. The same happened for Google Photos and Docs.
This merging of computing metaphors inevitably brings back memories of Microsoft’s disastrous Windows 8. This was the operating system that tried to subvert the familiar PC home screen by steering users to a screen full of colourful tiles. Luckily Microsoft saw sense and reversed course.
The Chrome plus apps plus digital assistant mix is not quite so discordant. I suspect that is partly because these different ways of interacting already coexist on smartphones, making the combination more familiar. But on smartphones, each seems to come into its own: it is sometimes easier just to speak to the device or get a quick experience from an app with a tap or two. On a laptop-cum-tablet it is not immediately clear why all these different options exist.
I suspect that users will come, fairly quickly, to their own preferred way of working with this machine. Mine has been to keep a string of browser tabs open, and to call up the app icons (and a multi-purpose search box) as a back-up.
Once you get to grips with this unnecessary surfeit of options, I am glad to say that the Pixelbook is as clean, fast and reliable as its pedigree suggests — or at least in the short time I have used it. It is this, above all, that makes the top-of-the-line Chromebook worthy of consideration.