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Google Pixelbook First Impressions

Posted November 10, 2017 | Android | Chromebook | Google Pixelbook | Hardware | Mobile | Windows

This morning, I made an espresso and sat down on the couch in the sun room to read the newspaper, as I always do. Well, not quite as I always do: This time, I was toting the Google Pixelbook, an elegantly-designed new Chromebook convertible that can work like a tablet, instead of the iPad Pro I usually use.

Last night, likewise, I sat in front of the TV in the living room, opened the Pixelbook in a more familiar laptop mode and typed about 1000 words using its surprisingly excellent and backlit keyboard. This type of work is usually—OK, always—done with a Windows PC of some kind, preferably Surface Book.

Earlier yesterday, I spent my obligatory 20 minutes with Duolingo, the language learning app. I normally perform this work on my smartphone, a Pixel 2 XL these days, but this time I used the same Android app, but on the Pixelbook, and I interact with it using the keyboard and mouse.

Previous to all of that, the Pixelbook had arrived in a box, so I opened it up, plugged it in, signed-in to my Google account and watched as the device quickly configured itself with my apps and personalized settings.

And in doing all that, I discovered a few things.

Key among them is that Google’s efforts to meld Chrome OS with Android is starting to come together, finally, and after months and months of delays.

There are absolutely some rough spots. But this combination of previously separate platforms is starting to make sense.

There’s also a very dire warning for Microsoft here.

I’ve long argued that there were two opposing forces at play, with Microsoft trying to simply Windows and add mobile features like a store and apps platform, and mobile platform makers like Apple and Google racing to mature their products so that they might replace PCs for traditional productivity work.

The question has always centered on which approach makes more sense. Or, more to the point, which approach would win. Would it be easier for Microsoft to simplify an aging, legacy code base while adding a new mobile apps platform on top of that, or would it be easier for Apple/Google to make their mobile platforms more sophisticated?

I’ve argued that the latter was the more achievable, though stilted efforts like the iPad Pro and iOS 11 may suggest that it won’t be as easy as I thought. But Google has come at this problem from another angle, if only because its own iPad Pro-like efforts at Android tablets and 2-in-1s have failed too.

And that other angle is Chrome OS, the once-laughable web browser in a box. Chrome OS has long since shed its early issues, but the addition of the Android apps platform is what puts it over the top. Assuming, again, that they can make it works.

Folks, the Pixelbook proves that they can make it work.

In the future, the arrival of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) in the Microsoft Store may reset this conversation yet again. But as of today, Google’s vision of the post-PC world is the one that makes the most sense. It’s not even close. The combination of the web browser and web apps platform that everyone really wants (Chrome) with the most popular mobile apps platform (Android) is going to be tough to beat.

Of course, the Pixelbook is sort of a new thing, too.

No, this isn’t the first time that Google has foisted a premium Chromebook on the world. But are we finally ready for such a thing? Does the maturation of Chrome OS justify such a product?

The value proposition is clear enough, at least in theory: The new Pixelbook combines the style and versatility—and, yes, the pricing—of Surface Pro with Google’s lightweight Chrome OS and Android app compatibility. Chromebooks are a good idea, and I suspect that most readers would at least acknowledge the usefulness of such a device, if grudgingly.

But premium Chromebooks? That is still unclear. And my Magic 8-Ball is telling me to try again later.

So I’ll fall back on Microsoft’s marketing message for Surface Laptop, which you’ll recall ships with the very limited Windows 10 S. Surface Laptop is very much a premium device, with prices starting at $999, the same starting price as the Pixelbook.

According to Terry Myerson and the good folks on the Surface team, this combination of elegant hardware and the limited—sorry, streamlined—Windows 10 S isn’t arbitrary. They believe that there is a class of user, even in the business space, that values the security and performance promises of this system. And they have telemetry data that shows what software those customers actually use. Their claim, thus, is that Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S will meet the needs of real customers.

That’s also unclear, in my opinion. But Google feels the same way about Chrome OS and Chromebooks. And while previous Chromebook Pixel laptops at least proved that a premium Chromebook was possible, if not necessary, this new Pixelbook arrives at a more auspicious time. The stars are aligning.

So the bet here is that a Pixelbook can do for Chromebooks what Surface does for PCs, and provide an aspirational and premium example of what’s possible. Some customers will hopefully pony up the $1000 or more it requires to fly first class, and I’m sure Google would be happy to take their money. But a bigger audience will more likely see the Pixelbook as proof that this product type has legs. And then they’ll spend less on a more affordable Chromebook. And hopefully do so en masse.

Regardless, the Pixelbook advances our understanding of what a premium Chromebook can be. Unlike its predecessors, which were just laptops, the Pixelbook is a 2-in-1 PC, just like Surface Pro. Well, not just like Surface Pro, as the display doesn’t detach from the keyboard. Instead, it’s a convertible laptop design, like the HP Spectre x360 or the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga. Which means that the display can spin around so that the device can be used as a slightly-thick tablet, or in a tent- or presentation-type form factor.

Folks invested in the PC space get this. We’ve been using 2-in-1s and convertible PCs for years. But these kinds of PCs are somewhat limited in that there isn’t a vibrant mobile apps market that can help us take advantage of these different form factors. With Android app compatibility, being able to transform a laptop into a tablet actually starts to make some sense. It really does.

The Pixelbook has some other potential advantages. It can integrate tightly with your Pixel smartphone, if you have one, or another Android handset. There’s an optional smart pen, which I did not buy. It is thin and light and beautifully designed. It is thoroughly modern, unlike any Surface, with USB-C expandability. It is, arguably, the first truly desirable Chromebook.

The Pixelbook and the platform(s) which it runs are a dire threat to Microsoft and to Windows. And it offers a better transition to the post-PC world than that which Apple still touts with its iPad Pro.

I’m going to use it more. I’m going to see whether my early impressions are supported by more experience, see where the seams of that Chrome OS and Android integration work, and where they fall apart. And I’ll let you know what I find out.


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