For the first time in years, I’m writing an article using Microsoft Word—and it’s all Google’s fault.
Well, that may not be entirely fair. It was Microsoft that decided to bring the excellent Android versions of its Office apps to users of Chromebooks, the low-cost laptops that run software based on Google’s Chrome browser instead of Windows or Apple’s MacOS. And for the past two weeks I’ve been working almost entirely as a Chromebook user, in an effort to try a new kind of high-end Chromebook designed by Google itself and called [tempo-ecommerce src=”https://www.amazon.com/Google-Pixelbook-i5-RAM-128GB/dp/B075JSK7TR” title=”the Pixelbook” context=”body”].
Originally, Google made software for Chromebooks and let PC makers like Asus and Samsung handle the laptop designs (with the exception of a few more expensive limited models aimed at developers). Those early models were considered somewhat underpowered and limited to apps that could run inside the Chrome browser. And that kind of Chromebook really only caught in schools, which were attracted by low prices and the simplicity and stability of Google’s software that kept viruses and bugs out.
But lately Google has aspired to do better in hardware. And in addition to its own line of phones, it came out with its own Chromebook in October. The Pixelbook starts at $1,000, two or three times the price of most Chromebooks, but has higher-end features and a much more stylish design to match the price tag. Unlike most Chromebooks, Google also equipped its new flagship with the latest low power Intel processors and more disk storage, starting at 128 GB versus the 16 or 32 GB in a typical competitor.
If you have any interest in the new Pixelbook at all, you may have already read some initial reviews. The Verge said the Pixelbook was “an incredibly nice and powerful machine that can handle most of your computing tasks — but probably not all of them.” CNET concluded that the laptop “has high-end hardware and a great hybrid design, but it’s still hard to justify spending so much on a Chrome OS laptop.”
But while those reviews are useful, they’re not exactly a complete test of the Pixelbook. I decided not just to try to work via the Pixelbook in all my usual ways with all my usual apps for a few days, but to dig in and see what the device had to offer if I optimized the apps I used for a Chromebook life and stuck with it for a few weeks.
That entailed a bit of a learning curve, as I spent hours reading app reviews and then combing through Google’s Play Store for more programs to try. Not to mention that I had to get used to a slightly different keyboard layout, including the disappearance of the standard caps lock key. Google morphed it into a “search” button instead that fetches an empty search box capable of opening apps, finding files or scouring the web. In the end, the biggest challenge of all was unlearning all the key placements and keyboard shortcuts I’ve been using on the Mac for decades and mentally replacing them with the Pixelbook’s layout.
As I mentioned, originally Chromebooks could only run limited kinds of apps that worked inside the Chrome browser. That really held the market back, as it meant forgoing many useful and powerful programs like popular photo editors, password managers and video games that couldn’t work inside Chrome. So lately, Google has added Android phone apps to the Chromebook mix, allowing users to run almost any current app on their Chromebooks.
The addition of Android apps opens a new world of vastly more choice and capabilities. Some apps that were never available on older Chromebooks, like Skype for messaging and Adobe Lightroom for photo editing, now can be used via Android versions. And many developers’ Android apps, like Slack and Evernote, are more powerful than the browser-based versions previously available on Chrome. Plus you get many new and better choices for common activities like tweeting, editing photos or watching videos.
Some Android apps can only appear in the small rectangular window at the same size as a phone screen, but many developers have updated their phone apps to work more like traditional laptop apps, with resizable windows.
With the entire Chromebook ecosystem in a bit of an app transition, the Pixelbook is on the cutting edge. The laptop, which just hit the market at the end of October, is obviously intended to be a showcase for the new app approach. And most of the time, it’s a winner.
After screening out a few duds, I found almost all the apps that I used worked pretty well. The newest Android version of Lightroom, for example, is incredibly capable, allowing me even to make selective edits on photos (hey, let’s pump up the saturation just of the bright blue sky). With the Netflix Android app, I could download shows to the Pixelbook to watch offline, a feat the browser version can’t match.
When it came time to get work done, I tried a variety of word processors and editors, but Word is pretty good. It does require a subscription to Microsoft’s cloud-based app suite Office 365 starting at $70 a year. The Android version comes without the tremendous bloat of the Windows and Mac desktop editions, and has a disappearing menu bar, lots of right-click functionality, and all the keyboard shortcuts I already know. Flamingo, a Twitter program from a small developer, worked well for quick tweets, with Tweetdeck in a browser still around for more serious news monitoring sessions. All worked without a hitch on the speedy Pixelbook, each in their own resizable window.
One challenge: There’s currently no way to filter search results in the Play store just to see apps that work well with Chromebooks like the Pixelbook. I probably downloaded and tried a dozen Markdown-compatible text editors for writing web posts before settling back with iA Writer, which I used on my Mac.
The Pixelbook is also the first laptop with a dedicated button to summon Google Assistant, the company’s digital assistant that competes with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. The button is occasionally useful, especially if you’re a big user of the Google ecosystem. It’s a speedy way to find out what’s upcoming on your calendar, who won last night’s ballgame, and when and where that new movie you want to see is playing. And you can type or use your voice to make your queries.
The Pixelbook’s hardware itself is very impressive. The 12.3-inch touch screen is bright and sharp. The keyboard is nicely clicky and gives good feedback despite being a lot thinner than the keys on a desktop keyboard. I also appreciated the padded wrist rests to the sides of the top-notch trackpad that helped me avoid discomfort during long writing sessions. And the body is thin, light, and attractive enough to get attention in the local coffee shop (“What is that laptop?”).
Battery life is…pretty mediocre. I got less than seven hours use before needing to plug in on most days. My old MacBook Air goes at least an hour longer and my daughter’s brand new MacBook Pro easily lasts nine hours on a charge (Dell’s newest XPS 13 runs for a crazy 16 hours, according to Laptop Magazine). Google says the Pixelbook can recharge quickly, however, gaining two hours after being plugged in for 15 minutes. I got almost four hours of charge after one hour in the wall socket using the included USB-C power adapter.
For an extra $100, you can add a stylus to your setup called the Pixelbook Pen that lets you interact with the laptop more like a drawing pad by writing directly on the screen. There was very little lag in the two paint programs I tried, and the full-sized pen is comfortable to grip. I didn’t find having a stylus all that useful, but those in more artistic fields may have a different view.
The Pixelbook is also a convertible, meaning you can use it as a tablet by folding the screen all the way around to sit flat against the back of the keyboard. It works well, but I’d only recommend it for some specific uses because the Pixelbook is a lot heavier than stand-alone tablets like the iPad.
The Pixelbook weighs about 2.5 pounds compared to about one pound for an iPad (even the 12.9-inch larger iPad model weighs only 1.6 pounds). So it’s fine for sitting and browsing the web or reading an e-book in bed, but you wouldn’t want to hold it clipboard-style for long while standing or carry one around while making rounds.
And I did run into a glitch a couple of times in which the Pixelbook’s keyboard would become unresponsive after shifting from using it as a tablet (a “hard reset” restart cured the problem). Whatever its limitations, using the Pixelbook as a full-blown tablet is a useful feature for travel, when you want to unwind and watch a movie, or when checking the web from your hotel room after a long day.
The bottom line, then, is that I did get all my work done and more with the Pixelbook. The easily toted and stylishly designed laptop breaks free from the pack of look-alike aluminum clad Mac and Windows machines while providing plenty of oomph for staying productive.
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