Saturday 25 November 2017

Seriously impressive: Google Pixelbook can travel light and do heavy lifting for business

Google Pixelbook

Price: €1,200

Rating: ★★★★

Google Pixelbook
Google Pixelbook

Five years ago, Google was a software and online ad company. Now, it makes hardware such as phones and laptops. It has deliberately gone for the high end in both categories. The latest incarnation of this is the Pixelbook, a 12-inch machine that has a touchscreen, a 360-degree hinge, the latest power specifications under the hood and Google's web-focused Chrome OS operating system.

This latter element is the big feature that either attracts or repels potential buyers. While most people overwhelmingly use their laptops for online operation, many still like to have the promise of a deep offline reservoir of functionality - facilitated by a highly evolved operating system - that they can default to.

Personally, I have always wanted to take to Chromebooks. I believe in the ascension of cloud over individual devices and have habituated lots of my work practices to it, from Google Docs and photo-editing to music, movies and other things.

Twice before I've bought a Chromebook, hoping they could substitute for traditional Windows or Apple laptops. Twice before, I've faded away from them because of critical limitations in workflows. Will the Pixelbook lure me back?

Anyone who has tried a Chromebook will know that one of its key traits is to act as a speedy gateway to fully functional apps and programmes that live online.

The Pixelbook is a testimony to this. It's lighting fast to start up and get into Chrome - there's no 20 to 30 seconds of fidgeting as you wait for things to warm up.

Another advantage is design and form factor. The 12-inch Pixelbook is very slim and very light, at just 1kg. Considering the heavyweight tech under the hood, that's great. But its biggest design feature is its 360-degree hinge, which allows you to stand the device up as a video screen (in 'tent mode') or use it as a slight heavy tablet. I like this in laptops because these devices are increasingly also being used in our downtime as Netflix, YouTube or Sky Go screens.

The display on the Pixelbook is absolutely excellent - really bright (up to 400 nits) and sporting a high-end 235 pixels-per-inch resolution.

To differentiate the rear casing from every other silver-coloured laptop, the Pixelbook has a white glass rectangular panel on the upper side of the casing. From afar, this looks like plastic, so don't be surprised if your first impression of the look of the machine is that it's a little cheap. Once you're used to using it, however, it's quite an attractive feature and sets it apart from the gazillions of silver laptops out there.

The Pixelbook's keyboard is sleek and really nice to use. A small quibble is the backlit keyboard: the keys are lit unevenly. For example, on one of the 'shift' buttons, the 's' and the 'h' are lit brighter than the 'ift'. On the 'enter' button, the 'r' is much brighter than the 'e' beside it.

There are also a few other small things to get used to. For example, camped in the place of a caps lock button is a search button. So to turn on caps lock you have to jointly press the 'alt' and search button.

Don't expect many physical connectivity options here. There are just two USB-C / Thunderbolt ports on the device with a 3.5mm headphone jack. This goes back to a core point: with this machine, software and additional storage (over the 128GB to 512GB options available) is primarily accessed online.

In the Pixelbook's favour, there is almost no application that you can't now get or download online. The first thing I did on this machine was to sign up to Adobe's Lightroom software (for a subscription of a fiver a month) and get to work editing photos on the machine without any noticeable lag.

Google has widened the potential for app usage here, making the Pixelbook compatible with downloads from its Play Store. Obviously, very few are optimised for it. Still, this has great potential. Google says that developers are adding more beta versions of Chrome OS apps to optimise for screens such as the Pixelbook's.

That said, some programs on the Pixelbook aren't really apps, but are better described as shortcuts to webpages. Coming from a pro tablet (such as the iPad Pro) or a hybrid (such as the Surface Pro), this can feel a bit cheap by comparison.

Ironically, using some of Google's own apps with the touchscreen Pixelbook is not as fluid as devices such as the iPad Pro. For example, I'm a big user of Google Docs. But when you try to highlight a word or sentence using your finger, it immediately pulls up a menu, disallowing you from deciding how much more of the sentence or paragraph you want to edit.

Adding insult to injury, there's no such problem using touchscreen edits on rival systems such as Microsoft Word.

However, the idea that the Pixelbook is some sort of a lightweight machine that can't handle heavy software processes is increasingly a shaky one.

Despite its slimness and lightweight frame, the hardware is beefy enough with 8GB of Ram (16GB is available) and an Intel i5 processor (an i7 version is optional). This is easily enough horsepower to handle almost any mainstream application, or several of them at once.

For those into voice control, one of the laptop's big features is its integration with the Google Assistant. Saying "OK Google" immediately opens up the Assistant, which can help with general web queries, location information, weather, sport results and other minor queries. The more you use Google's ecosystem (such as Google Calendar or Gmail) the more helpful it is. However, it has some limitations. Sitting in an Insomnia cafe in Drumcondra, Dublin, I asked it for the nearest cafe. It gave me the name of one a mile away, despite at least three others being closer (including the one I was sitting in). But this is a small quibble. Integrated into one's workflow, this could be a very useful feature.

The Pixelbook has one other trick when used with the Pixelbook Pen stylus.

Using this gadget, you can circle text or images and get information instantly. This also works for some locations or public figures. Calendar entries also work using this method, too, by circling a date and a time. It's one of the best implementations of a screen stylus I've ever seen, with one drawback: the pen itself isn't rechargeable (it takes batteries) and it can't attach to the Pixelbook.

Battery life is fine, although it's a stretch to say it's 10 hours, as Google guides. Expect six hours without too many exceptions.

So what's the verdict?

This is one seriously impressive laptop. It's easily the best Chromebook I've ever used. It's light and portable and serves me way better in downtime (for things like Netflix) than most laptops do.

However, it should be said that this type of machine won't suit everyone. If you use a few custom pieces of software, particularly those you need for your work, the Chromebook format is still inherently more limited than Windows or Mac machines.

But I can honestly say that there's almost nothing I use a laptop for that wasn't satisfied by the Pixelbook.

I use laptops mostly for work (writing, word processing, presentations, photo-editing and web research). I suspect that's not so different from the majority of laptop use cases out there.

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