Google Pixelbook review: the big Chromebook comeback

Has the Chromebook finally come of age?

Google Assistant and Pixelbook Pen

Unsurprisingly, Google has also loaded the Pixelbook with features that take advantage of the company's machine learning chops. In this case, it takes the form of the Google Assistant, the AI helper that sits at the heart of the Pixel phones.

The Assistant is baked into the Pixelbook from the ground up; it can be summoned with a dedicated key on the keyboard (occupying the slot where the Windows or Option key would be on another device), by saying the 'OK Google' wake-word, or with the brand new Pixelbook Pen - which we'll talk more about shortly.

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Once you get into the habit of using it, the Assistant is actually surprisingly useful. For starters, it makes it much easier to access the staggering power of Google's search algorithm. Not only that, but it also allows you to do all the stuff that the Assistant can do on phones, such as interacting with your apps and smarthome tech. If you can't get over the awkwardness of asking your computer questions out loud, you can also type your queries out - but that's not nearly as quick or as cool.

An alternative way of invoking the Assistant is via the Pixelbook Pen. Hold down the button on the side of the stylus and highlight an object, such as an image or a piece of text. The Assistant will then use object recognition and other fancy machine learning technologies to determine what it is you've selected and provide contextual search results about it, including links to any recent news stories, relevant videos, definitions and factoids.

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The pen itself is nice - a smooth, uniform cylinder sporting the same two-tone white and matte-silver colour scheme as the Pixelbook itself. Writing is smooth and fluid, although it doesn't feel as natural as either the Surface Pen or the Apple Pencil. Still, it's fine for sketching and note-taking, which is likely to be more of a concern for most users than hardcore graphic design or art.

The biggest downside to the Pixelbook Pen is that it's 99. Admittedly, that's no more than Apple is charging for its stylus, but it was daylight robbery when Apple introduced it, and it's daylight robbery here as well. I don't care how nice it is; charging almost 100 for a stylus is borderline criminal.

Ports and features

Moving onto ports, Google has followed in Apple's footsteps and fitted the Pixelbook with one USB-C port on each side of the device for display, power and data transfer. As with the MacBook, couple of extra USB-C ports would have been appreciated, but it's hard to complain about the lack of traditional USB ports or display connectors. The Pixelbook is just too thin to accommodate anything larger than USB-C.

One odd bug that we noticed was that if you shut the Pixelbook, it loses any active Bluetooth connections. If you're listening to music with wireless headphones, whatever you're listening to will start blaring out of the laptop's speakers - an unfortunate issue that we discovered the hard way, and one that's likely to be annoying for anyone that uses Bluetooth headphones in a busy office. We found Bluetooth connectivity to be patchy in general.

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Another weird quirk that affects business users is that depending on your organisation's corporate policies for Google accounts, certain flagship features may not be enabled. When we signed in with our work account, we found that the Google Assistant and the Google Play Store were both unavailable. When we signed in with our personal Google account, they were both ready and waiting for us.

Verdict

The Google Pixelbook is a truly spectacular machine. The whisper-thin and gorgeous-looking chassis hides an excellent screen, with a processor that offers surprisingly impressive performance for a Chromebook. If you've been looking for a device that proves Chromebooks are ready for the big time, well, this is it.

Unfortunately, it's also undercut by a myriad of smaller issues, from frustrations with ChromeOS's file management capabilities to issues with occasional crashes and bugs. These problems are infuriating - not because they make the Pixelbook unpleasant to use, but because they're the few blemishes that mar an otherwise perfect user experience.

There's also the matter of price; at 999 after tax, the Pixelbook is an expensive machine, up there with the MacBook Pro and Surface Pro. We think that its design, performance and features justify this price tag, but we wouldn't blame anyone for taking their money and spending it on a MacBook instead.

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Even with all this in mind though, the Pixelbook is still an incredibly attractive machine. It's the nicest-looking laptop we've seen for some time, and it's got the hardware to back it up. Cap that off with Android app compatibility and some smart AI tech and you've got a very nice package indeed. As a showcase of the best Google has to offer, this laptop delivers the goods - and if it sparks a Chromebook renaissance, then so much the better.

Verdict

Google's Pixelbook delivers on the promise of ChromeOS - a speedy, lightweight laptop with all of the intelligence and functionality that we've come to expect from Google. It may be expensive compared to most other Chromebooks, but it makes up for it with a slick design and some very clever features.

ProcessorDual-core 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-7Y57
RAM8GB
Memory slots (free)1 (0)
Max memory16GB
Dimensions290 x 220 x 10mm
Weight1.1Kg
SoundRealtek HD Audio (3.5mm headset port)
Pointing deviceTouchpad
Screen size12.3in
Screen resolution2,400 x 1,600
TouchscreenYes
Graphics adaptorIntel HD Graphics 615
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