Google Pixelbook review: Finally

Meet the Pixelbook, or as Google calls it, "the laptop reimagined".

It's the latest Chromebook from Google and it's a lot different than anything we've seen from them before. It's thin and light and futuristic in design, filled with powerful, over-the-top specs, works great as a laptop or a tablet, and has Google Assistant on board. You can even buy a dedicated Pixelbook Pen, and paired together with the Pixelbook you can do some pretty cool stuff.

After you use it for a while you come to a simple understanding: the Pixelbook is a mobile device. It's the natural evolution of the netbook when people with grand ideas are the ones designing it.

That's the broad interpretation of the Pixelbook, but it's far too simplified. It's amazing hardware matched with Google's vision of computing and built simply to show what can be done. So it's not really too far away from Google's efforts with the previous two Chromebook Pixels. These aren't built to sell by the millions. They're built because they're cool.

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About this review

I've been using the Pixelbook for about a week. A week isn't long enough to find everything you love or everything you hate, but it does give me enough time to form an opinion and share it. That's what this review is — some thoughts on the Pixelbook from someone who uses a Chromebook most of the time, and is all-in with the Chrome OS experience. Essentially, I'm the type of person Google made the Pixelbook for.

In video form

Google Pixelbook Video review

There's nothing like a good video to give you a feel for a product. The Pixelbook is no exception. Watch as Jen Karner, Russell Holly and Jerry Hildenbrand become fans of this great device.

Bold and risky

Google Pixelbook Design

The first thing you'll notice about the Pixelbook is how different it looks. Side by side with a Microsoft Surface Book you'll see they are actually pretty similar, but the white glass section of the back and the very squared edges draw your eyes. They almost look out of place, as it's rare to see a thin aluminum laptop be anything but aluminum. It's polarizing — you'll either love it because it's different, or you'll think it's just different and strange.

Like Google's Pixel phones, there's a wide band of glass that covers the top fourth behind the screen. In this case, it's white glass and stands out. It's a design choice, but it's also functional. Like the Pixel phone, glass is used to cover radio antennas to boost reception. The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas sit behind the glass rather than behind a section of plastic on the edge or bottom like we see in other aluminum laptops.

When you open the Pixelbook, you're also faced with a large white band across the front fourth of the keyboard deck. The trackpad sits in the center and it's surrounded by a strip of white silicone-like material. It's soft but not thick, and a little sticky or tacky. Functionally, it provides three benefits: it's a great wrist or palm rest, it keeps the screen away from the keyboard or any aluminum parts and acts as a sort of non-skid surface when you have the Pixelbook in its tent or tablet mode.

So far, it's stayed clean and white, but I have some reservation about the materials choice. Eventually, white silicone (or whatever silicone-like material is being used here) is going to show some dirt. A cursory test using a sprinkle of ash from the fireplace wiped away with a damp cloth, but I wasn't trying to grind it in. Hopefully, Google did its homework here and the material will prove to be stain-resistant and easy to keep clean.

Built for user input

Centered in its cushiony nest is the trackpad. Trackpads on Chromebooks have a mixed history; we've seen plenty of sub-par ones. The Pixelbook carries the trend of great trackpads the Pixel line of Chromebooks is know to have used, thankfully. The trackpad is spacious and glass covered (white, of course), and I'm finding it great to use. It's smooth but has just a hint of friction, much like a MacBook after you've used it a while and the ultra-slickness has been tamed by a bit of finger oil and dirt.

The keyboard itself outperformed my initial reaction, which is good. My first impression, as someone who uses a stiff mechanical keyboard on the desktop, was not great. Surprisingly, it didn't take very long to "train" my hands to use it and the typing experience is a lot better than I expected. It's certainly not my favorite way to put some words on the screen, but there's nothing I can single out as bad. You'll probably need some adjustment time with the Pixelbook keyboard, but I'm betting you won't have any lasting complaints. It's also fully backlit, which is great and expected at this price.

The future of the convertible

The hinges seem sturdy and completely functional without standing out and spoiling the smooth rectangular look. They're 360-degree solid hinges and you can fold the Pixelbook over completely to use it in tablet mode. The Pixelbook is also designed to be used in tent mode, where both sides are folded over and it stands like a tent, and in "Entertainment mode" where the keyboard is folded behind the screen so it's out of the way for watching movies. The hinges are smooth and fairly stiff. You won't have any problems flipping the screen over in any configuration, but it's not going to flip on its own from gravity.

The hinges also house a set of disappointingly average speakers. They sound muffled and muddy, even at full volume. The placement in the hinge certainly contributes to this, and while using the Pixelbook in laptop mode, it's not something you'll want to use to listen to your music all day. It seems like the speakers were designed to be at their best while the Pixelbook is in Entertainment mode and the keyboard is folded behind the display. I understand this move and it's smart to have speakers that work best while watching a movie, but I still was wanting more.

Just laptop things

To round out the external features and design are a handful of ports and controls along the edges. On the right side you'll find a USB-C port and a charge indicator LED, and on the left, you'll see another USB-C port with indicator light as well as a 3.5-millimeter standard audio port that supports headphones and a mic in any combination along with a volume rocker switch and a power button.

USB-C ports and no SD card mean you're probably going to need some adapters.

Both USB-C ports confirm the Power Delivery standard. You can use either to charge the Pixelbook, use the Pixelbook to charge your phone, connect a USB-C headset, or connect any device that uses USB-C to communicate or transfer data. To compliment them a 45-watt power adapter that can provide two hours of use after 15-minutes of charge time (thanks to the USB-C Power Delivery standard) comes in the box.

One thing missing is any type of SD card slot, so you'll need an adapter of some sort to transfer photos from your camera or copy any files from an SD card to the Pixelbook. Likewise, any peripherals you have that use the long-standing USB-A connection will need an adapter.

Above the display, while in laptop mode, you'll find a 720p 60FPS camera. It's perfect for things like Hangouts or other video chatting applications and captures movement nicely with little to no blur. You'll probably not want to use the Pixelbook as a camera for taking stills even if you find an app that makes this easy to do, but for its intended purpose, it's great. Rounding it all out are four microphones that are designed with video conferencing in mind. Their placement and noise cancellation deliver exactly what was advertised, even in noisy environments.

The gorgeous display

The Pixelbook's 12.3-inch display is stunning. It carries the tradition of previous Pixel Chromebooks with a 3:2 aspect ratio and delivers a bright picture with great color depth and separation. With a resolution of 2400x1600, the LCD has a density of 235 pixels per inch and provides excellent detail. Casual testing shows it has a wide viewing and several people will be able to get a distortion-free look at any sensible angle.

This display. Wow.

There's a wide bezel all around the Pixelbook's screen, and this is by design. Every step of the design process was done with tablet functionality in mind, and like a tablet, there is room to hold the screen without touching it on all sides. It can be a little distracting, depending on what you're doing, but the configuration does work well when you use the Pixelbook as a tablet. And Google thinks you'll be doing a lot of it.

Of course, it's a full multi-touch screen, and as expected the touch response is excellent. Whether you're running an Android app, using any of Google's suite of office applications or just playing a game on the web the touchscreen performs flawlessly each and every time.

Google has always gone all-out with the display on their Pixel line of Chromebooks. The Pixelbook is no exception. It's amazing at full brightness, and completely usable in a power-sipping dimmed setting. You will love this display.

Delicious excess

Google Pixelbook specs

The Pixelbook will come in three different configurations.

The base $999 model, which is what we're reviewing here, has a seventh-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. This gives you a Chrome experience that's as flawless as you'll ever find and the extra storage is great for installing Android apps or your own videos. Chrome is designed for the cloud, but there are still things that need some local storage. Managing that storage because you only have 16 or 32 GB of it can be frustrating, but that won't be an issue here.

Stepping things up to $1,199 gives you 256GB of storage space, and for the ultimate power-user a Core i7, 512 GB storage, 16GB RAM model will be available later in the year for $1649. The full specs as tested here:

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CategoryGoogle Pixel 2
Operating SystemChrome OS
Display12.3-inch 2400x1600 (235 ppi) Quad HD
72% NTSC color LCD
Multi-touch with Google Pixelbook Pen support
400 nits brightness
ProcessorIntel Core i5 processor
Seventh Generation (Kaby Lake)
RAM8/16GB
Storage128/256GB SSD
Battery41 Wh (Use time of up to 10 hours)
45W charger (5V/3A, 9V/3A, 15V/3A, 20V/2.25A)
Fast charging: up to 2 Hrs in 15 min., or 7.5 Hrs in 60 min
USB-C Power Delivery compliant
KeyboardFull-size with 19 millimeter pitch
0.8 millimeter travel
Fully backlit
TrackpadEtched glass edge-to-edge trackpad
CameraFull color 720p @ 60FPS
ConnectivityWi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2x2 (MIMO), dual-band (2.4 GHz, 5.0 GHz)
Bluetooth 4.2
Additional featuresPixelbook Pen active stylus
Google Assistant with one-touch button
ColorsSilver Aluminum unibody
Corning Gorilla Glass detail
Platform updatesYears of free OS updates
Dimensions11.4 x 8.7 x 0.4 in
290.4 x 220.8 x 10.3 mm
Weight2.4 lb
1.1 kg

Great at multitasking

The Pixelbook Pen

A $99 accessory, the Pixelbook Pen offers a great way to draw on the screen, take notes, or interact with Google Assistant.

It's virtually lag-free. This is a big deal for anyone who wants to create digital art and also a must-have for any type of handwriting input. Its 10 millisecond response time pairs well with 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity and full tilt sensing to make the Pen a natural extension of your arm when it comes to any type of input.

The pen is powered by one AAAA battery, which should last a full year. As an active stylus, it can communicate with the Pixelbook's display so the position and distance can be carefully monitored. The Pen's body is nice and full for easy holding and the point is very fine for precise drawing and annotation.

With 2,000 levels of sensitivity and full tilt support, the Pixelbook Pen really is worth $99.

Note-taking is easy with apps like Squid or Nebo, and at release, an update for Google Keep not only works great with the Pixelbook Pen but also will show on the lock screen for easy note taking and time management. The Infinite Painter app was recommended by Google to test the drawing capabilities, and we'll second that recommendation as it offers great support for pressure sensitivity and brush tilting. Screen capture and annotation work directly through the operating system and apps like Nebo will easily convert handwriting into text when you feel like being creative.

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The circle is complete

Google Assistant meets Chrome

The showcase feature of the Pixelbook and the Pixelbook Pen is Google Assistant. It's the same Google Assistant you'll find on your phone or inside a Google Home, but there are a few extra touches.

The Pixelbook Pen's button links you to Google Assistant with a configuration that's part Google Now and part Google Lens. Press the button and draw around any portion of the display and Assistant springs to life to offer details on whatever you've captured. Public figures will be identified, words will be looked up in the dictionary, and it can look at a picture of everyday things, like your phone for example, and define them as well as provide a direct link to Google search results.

For the most part, this gets all of the easy things — circling a photo of Lucille Ball will identify her every time — and misses many of the difficult things. For example, a photo of the Essential Phone is recognized as a Pixel. We're not sure how well Assistant will be able to learn things like this, but it's using the same methods as Google Lens so there's definitely a learning component at play.

You can also bring up Google Assistant with its dedicated keyboard button. This opens the Assistant window and you use it the same as any other Assistant-ready product, but one feature unique to the Pixelbook is a standout and has doubled my use of Assistant: You can type your query as text instead of speaking, and the response will also be silent. This is great for times you're out in public where Assistant might have trouble recognizing what you're saying or you just don't want to be that person who is talking to their laptop or tablet. For someone who types all day for a living, it's also a natural way to ask Google for any answers.

Assistant is even more useful when it stops talking.

Assistant on the Pixelbook isn't very different from Assistant on any other device. The unique Chromebook features are a nice touch, and hopefully they roll out for any Chromebook with a pen and it can be mapped to the search button once Google is satisfied with the way it all works. A unified experience is key for any software that purposes you use it throughout your daily routine.

Same as it ever was

Chrome is still Chrome

The Pixelbook comes with Android app support through Google Play out of the box. The onboarding experience is great: F