For the past few years, Google has been pushing Chrome OS onto the world. It's exactly what the name suggests — an operating system based on Google Chrome designed to be fast, secure, and simple. Emphasis on the simple, because Chrome OS doesn't have anything like the kind of features you'd get with Windows or OSX. To the point where I can't not see it as a gimmick. And for that very reason, I have no idea why anyone would pay £999 for a Pixelbook.
For those of you that forgot, the Pixelbook is Google's answer to devices like Microsoft's Surface Book. It's a laptop at its core, but it has a 360-degree hinge that can be use to turn it into a tablet for tablety-based work. So it's got a touch screen, a thin frame, and a design that mimics the shiny look often associated with the Macbook and blends it with the glass panel from the Pixel and Pixel 2. Being a Google device, it naturally runs Google's ChromeOS.
7th Gen Intel i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 128GB storage, 41Wh battery (10 hours of regular use), 2 x USB C ports, 12.3-inch 2400 x 1600 LCD touchscreen, 720p camera, £999 price tag.
What's Wrong With Chrome OS?
To me, Chrome OS just feels like Google created a very basic operating system with one sole purpose: to run Google Chrome. Aside from a few backend functions like settings, a file explorer, and basic media player, that's all Chrome OS is. You want to do more than browse the web? Install a Chrome add-on that will offer an extra feature. Extra features that always seem to be running within Chrome itself, which means you could, theoretically, do pretty much everything Chrome OS can do on any operating system that runs Chrome.
The extensions in your taskbar or apps menu are little more than glorified bookmarks, which is bizarre seeing as how bookmarks are also supported if you open up Chrome. A lot of devices, Pixelbook included, can run Android apps from Google Play now — which is something at least — but there are limits to what can be used, making it less useful than the likes of the iPad Pro or the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Tab with its own S Pen.
Both options are cheaper than the Pixelbook, and because the apps are designed to run on their operating system (not jerry-rigged for Chrome OS) there's a lot more that can be done. Sure, you won't get the same laptop-like experience, but you get a close enough approximation and use of damn near everything iTunes and Google Play have to offer. Chrome OS offers a lot of Android's best apps, but there are certain things you can't change - or at least I could never figure out how to. Things like keyboards, so if you want to use the touchscreen keyboard on Chrome you're pretty much stuck with Google's rubbishy default version.
It's worth mentioning that both Windows and OS X let you install stuff that hasn't come from an app store. Hell, Windows would be fucking useless if you couldn't. As far as I can tell, Chrome does not. You can sideload Android apps, but if it's not made for Android or Chrome then you're kind of stuck. No continuing to rock Photoshop CS6 for you, Chrome users!
Ok, So What About the Pixelbook Itself?
As for the hardware itself, don't even get me started on the port situation. While I liked the fact that you could charge the Pixelbook from either side, there were only two USB-C ports. It's an irritating trend that isn't exclusive to the Pixelbook, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. My current laptop has two USB ports, and it sometimes I feel like I could do with a third. Removing the card reader, HDMI, ethernet, and power socket without adding some sort of replacement would be a nightmare.
I am all for standardising ports, but what's the point in having a laptop if you need an expensive USB-C hub to use your stuff? Again, this isn't Google-specific, but it's the kind of design choices that make me wonder what sort of world the people who make these decisions think they're living in.
At this point you might be wondering about the Pixelbook Pen, the stylus that's effectively a fancy optional extra for pen-based activity.
Yeah, Tell Us About the Pen
Left to right: Pixelbook pen, Portege Z20T Wacom stylus, blue Uniball because it's cool
The Pixelbook Pen is nice, but it's not that special. Plus it's an extra £99 to add onto the almost-£1,000 you spent on the Pixelbook itself. The stylus is fine. It's lovely to use, it works exactly as it's supposed to, but the problem is that it doesn't do anything that's not already been done. Handwriting is fine, but if you want to use the handwriting keyboard to turn your scrawls into digital text then the whole system is a huge chore.
My own laptop came with a Wacom stylus that I used to experiment with, and the Pixelbook pen isn't really any better. Google's handwriting keyboard is a lot, lot better than Windows 10's, but it's still much slower than typing on the keyboard. For comparison, I tend to write reasonably quickly and find that pen and paper is faster than the keyboard - the obvious downside being that I can't digitise it easily and would have to type it in anyway.
Let me explain how it works. You write into the handwriting keyboard's box, and the autocorrect suggestions try and guess what you said. It's usually pretty accurate (aside from some trouble with punctuation), but you still need to tap each sentence to add it to whatever text box or document you're using. And god forbid you make a mistake, because it becomes a massive pain to go back and edit it with the stylus. Particularly since hitting the backspace button deletes everything you've written but haven't imported.
And to top it off, after using a stylus that has a right-click button for two and a half years, moving to something that swaps this feature for Google Assistant is definitely a downgrade - especially since you can activate assistant with a voice command anyway. But that gripe is also true of the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil, so like the USB-C ports it's less Google messing up and more Google just copying what everyone else is doing without thinking.
So... Are There Any Good Bits?
The real issue with the Pixelbook is that it doesn't have any features that redeem the fact it's running Chrome OS. I'm not saying Chrome OS doesn't have its advantages, though. It's generally fairly cheap, which means it's easier to go out and grab a budget Chromebook than it is to get a Windows-based equivalent. Cheap Windows devices aren't exactly rare, but they're few and far between in comparison to the Chromebook market.
The cut-down nature of Chrome OS makes it an ideal machine for distraction-free work, whether that's kids at school, remote workers, or people who just want to be able to use a machine that is only really designed for one purpose. Including Android apps might detract from this a bit, but you can disable their installation if you just want to stick with Chrome. In fact, I found that some business Google accounts can't even activate Google Play on Chrome OS - mine certainly couldn't.
But if you're interested in Chrome OS for those reasons, then you're not going to have any interest in the Pixelbook. Not after you see the £999 base price tag, anyway. Frankly, I feel like you'd be better off buying an iPhone X — and anyone who knows me knows damn well that I never recommend Apple products to anyone. (For the record I still think the iPhone X is obscenely overpriced and not worth the expense. The same goes for the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and other similarly priced phones.)
There's nothing inherently wrong with the Pixelbook, but there's nothing particularly special about it either. I have to wonder who this device is made for. If you're willing to spend a grand on a laptop, you do not want one running something as cut down and simplistic as Chrome OS. I spent £1,800 on my laptop, and while that was a lot of money it suited my needs perfectly, which helped justify the expense. Two and a half years later it's still going strong, and I regret nothing. I can't say I'd feel the same way about the Pixelbook, because there is no way in hell you can justify £999 for a Chromebook with no unique features.