Due to sudden and unforeseen circumstances, last year I went from having several personal laptops to none at all. This is the story of how I ended up getting a Google Pixelbook and my take on it.
Buying a beast of a laptop
As soon as I could, I bought a powerhouse laptop.
In hindsight, I should have bought a MacBook Pro, but I wanted to save some money (roughly $1,000) and opted instead for a Lenovo P51, which I purchased with my employee discount.
My Lenovo is a beast. It has a Xeon quad-core processor, 16 GB of ECC RAM (expandable to 64 GB), 2 TB of NVMe drives, 4 GB Quadro graphic card, 4K display, and so on. It’s a mean laptop that can run the heaviest IDEs, Virtual Machines, and work with my large catalog of photos in Lightroom like a champ.
Unfortunately, at the time I erred a little too much on the side of power, sacrificing portability and usability on the go in the process. It’s a fast laptop alright, but it is also super heavy, noisy, has lousy battery life, and can get quite warm.
It’s a great quasi-desktop. You place it on a flat surface and it’s nice. You hook it up to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard and it’s amazing.
Unfortunately, if you try to use it on your lap while sitting on the couch, balancing it on your body while lazing around in bed, or carrying it anywhere, you’ll suddenly understand why people obsess so much about sleek ultrabooks.
I don’t worry about this laptop getting stolen when I’m at coffee shops, because few petty thieves would be able to run off with this thing under their arm. Besides, the charger alone makes for quite a capable defense weapon. 🙂
It’s hard to regret buying such a powerful machine, but boy, it’s frustrating to use it as an actual laptop.
The Google Pixelbook as a secondary lightweight laptop
So after putting up with the Lenovo as my primary device for almost a year, I decided to look for a small laptop as my secondary device.
The idea is that my Lenovo would live downstairs in my office, almost always hooked up to an external monitor. And the lighter laptop would be with me when I’m not in my office downstairs, whether upstairs on the couch, in bed at night, or on the go (e.g., at the library, cafes, or while travelling).
I started looking for alternatives and stumbled upon the Google Pixelbook, the best Chromebook that’s currently available on the market.
I used to have a Toshiba Chromebook 2 prior to the house fire that we experienced in 2016. By and large, that Toshiba was quite nice to use, so I was willing to give a new Chromebook a go.
Reviewers took issue with the Pixelbook
The reviews from people I respect were not encouraging. Marques Brownlee found it weird. Linus couldn’t bring himself to recommend it. Dave Lee liked it but thought there were much better options in that general price range.
I decided to try it out for myself. First in store, and then by purchasing one.
It’s not a laptop for everyone and there are compromises (especially on the software side). And yet I can’t help but feel that many reviewers missed the magic that this misunderstood laptop brings into the computing world.
Its hardware is characterized by an elegant design with fantastic build quality. Its high resolution screen is beautiful. The keyboard is crisp and a joy to use despite the limited key travel. The touchpad is buttery smooth glass that I find to be on par or slightly better than the MacBook Pro touchpads.
It even act as a respectable tablet thanks to its 3:2 screen ratio, highly responsive touch screen, and excellent (purchasable as an add-on) Pixelbook Pen. The battery life is terrific as well, lasting up to 8 – 10 hours, depending on usage.
The Google Pixelbook is fast
Then there are the specs. Easy to overlook. i5 dual core processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of disk for the base model which costs $999 USD (now on sale for less in the US).
For that amount of money, you could find laptops with better specs. Allow me to let you in on a secret, however: most aren’t going to be any faster.
Do not underestimate how lightweight ChromeOS is. This laptop is incredibly snappy. As far as browsing goes, it feels faster than my Lenovo and the 15″ MacBook Pro I use at work, and neither of them are slouches. I also ran a web-based benchmark for the fun of it, and it came out on top.
It accomplishes all this, while managing to stay completely silent and produce virtually no heat. To me, this is what the future of laptops look like.
Possible competitors in a similar price bracket will typically run Windows 10 and feel significantly laggier, despite having a faster processor or more RAM. If a lot of what you do is browsing-related, it’s hard to beat this little laptop.
ChromeOS is great
But let’s address the elephant in the room: the limits of the operating system. After all, ChromeOS is supposed to be a toy of sorts; the OS you have on the cheap Chromebook that you give your kids to play with while dad or mom is busy doing real work on a real laptop.
Well, here is the thing. The operating system on the Pixelbook is actually a strength not a weakness. It is fast, lightweight, secure, and effortless to maintain.
It’s not Windows or MacOS, so there will be a slight learning curve to figure out the cloud first approach to computing, as well as the occasional workaround for an app that doesn’t exist on this system.
I readily admit that ChromeOS is not for everyone, especially if you are heavily into gaming, video editing or even photography (though Polarr is excellent).
I came in with reasonable expectations however, and was pleasantly surprised by how little there is that I can’t do on the Pixelbook.
The Google Pixelbook runs Android apps
Let me tell you what it can do. It can run Android apps out of the box and that is a game changer. After only a couple of days of using Android apps on the laptop, I really missed this functionality when using Windows or Mac.
I never realized how much I switched between my laptop and my phone, specifically because of Android apps. With the Pixelbook I don’t have to.
Android is also part of the reason why the Pixelbook’s specs, which might appear to be overkill for a Chromebook, are actually quite useful.
Now, not every Android app will work or scale properly to the larger screen, but I haven’t had a problem with the overwhelming majority of apps that I use (and Google is pushing for more and more developers to adapt their apps to larger screens).
The Google Pixelbook runs Linux apps
Then there is Linux. Without many of the hacks from the early days of Chromebooks, you can now easily install Linux apps. Even GUI apps (unlike the Windows Subsystem for Linux on Windows 10).
The year of Linux on the desktop might be here and we haven’t even noticed! 😉
To enable Linux apps, all you have to do is set the channel for the operating system to the Dev branch and enable the Linux (Beta) option in the settings. You can then install whatever you want via apt (or by compiling from source if you wish).
Linux runs in a container and you can also access your Linux filesystem directly from Files, the ChromeOS file manager. The Linux experience is seamless and I prefer it to WSL on Windows 10 by quite a large margin.
Interestingly, it also looks like the Pixelbook will be able to run Windows 10 in the future. So you could theoretically run apps from 4 different OSes on the same machine!
My colleagues were impressed
I brought my Google Pixelbook in to work to show a few colleagues and they were blown away by how nice it was.
“I’m really trying to find flaws, but I can’t find them”, said one who tried to “trip it” by asking me to do various thing a Chromebook is not really supposed to do well, only to have it pass with flying colors. “Antonio, I’m trying to make you regret your purchase decision, but I really can’t”, he said jokingly.
I overheard two colleagues who are in the market for a new lightweight laptop ask themselves, “Should we drive to Best Buy at lunch or wait until after work?”.
This laptop might not be for everyone, but I think it’s becoming increasingly relevant to a large number of people. Casual users on one end, developers and other advanced technical users on the other end.
My only concern with this machine is the size of its screen. At 12.3″, it might be too small for my eyes, and that’s the only reason why I’d ever consider returning it.
I suspect my ideal screen size is 14″ in a compact body, so 12.3″ is a bit of a stretch. But that’s on me, and not a flaw of the laptop.
Google Pixelbook alternatives
I seriously considered alternatives to the Pixelbook, many of which were mentioned by some of the reviewers I discussed earlier.
They all took issue with the price, arguing that better options were available. I’m not sure I agree, at least in Canada.
Most of the commonly mentioned alternatives are actually more expensive than the Pixelbook.
Then there is the issue of performance (despite better specs on paper) and build quality (with an exception made for the much more expensive MacBook Pro).
Google Pixelbook vs. MacBook Pro
The obvious Pixelbook alternative for me was the 13″ MacBook Pro. I didn’t buy it for several reasons:
It’s very expensive in Canada and I wasn’t looking to spend that much;
It’s overdue for an update, so buying now doesn’t make much sense;
I hate the new butterfly keyboards. I know a few people who love them, but I’m not personally a fan.
Google Pixelbook vs. Dell XPS 13
The new Dell XPS 13 came close. However, not only was it more expensive — especially in a suitable configuration that would allow you to adequately run Windows 10 — but it had a pretty lame keyboard that felt mushy and sort of annoying to type on. (I also fought with the touchpad, but maybe the store model had issues.)
It also comes with a stupid location for the camera. It’s at the bottom due to the thin bezels, so it unflatteringly looks up straight at your nostrils! In fairness, the camera is a shortcoming of the Pixelbook as well, being limited to 720p. Still, it’s located in the normal position at the top.
The Dell has a gorgeous display and a great design in general, though, particularly the new Rose Gold model. A tempting choice despite its shortcomings.
Google Pixelbook vs. Microsoft Surface Laptop
The Microsoft Surface Laptop is quite nice, too. A new version is supposedly coming out soon so I’d be a little hesitant to buy the current one now.
The keyboard is sort of spongy as well, it lacks USB-C ports, and Windows-S is so locked down that you can only run Edge as your browser and apps from their store. All in all, I think it’s more limited than ChromeOS + Android.
A paid upgrade to the full version of Windows 10 is possible, of course, but the laptop itself will then need more than the basic configuration with 4 GB of RAM to run Windows 10 properly.
It has a beautiful design, though, and was also a serious contender for me.
There were more expensive alternative, as well as more affordable ones like Asus, Acer, etc., but I didn’t feel they offered the same quality and gorgeous design as the Pixelbook, the Dell XPS 13, or the Surface Laptop.
Pixelbook vs. Tablets
Some people will recommend an iPad Pro or other tablets, instead of the Pixelbook. I don’t quite get it.
Have you ever tried using those things on your lap? They fall off their standing position all the time. They are really meant to be used on a hard surface.
The lack of a touchpad also drives me nuts. I think they are great tablets, but not a suitable replacement for laptops for my use cases.
The Google Pixelbook is actually amazing
The Google Pixelbook might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely a great laptop if it meets your needs. Especially as a secondary, ultra portable machine.
It has surpassed my expectations. The Pixelbook is in fact one of the best laptops I have ever had.
More importantly, I think Google is really onto something with the ChromeOS + Android + Linux combo.
It’s been less than a week since I got this laptop, and already I’m not sure I’d be willing to give up that combo going forward with future laptops.
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Development Manager at IBM. He authored Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers (Wrox, 2009) and Technical Blogging (The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2012, 2019). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to over 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.