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Google’s Pixelbook is the first high-end Chromebook in years

Google has made a very nice, pretty expensive laptop

Photography by James Bareham

Chromebooks mostly exist in two camps. The first is the education market, where an entire generation of students have been using cheap, low-end laptops to get their schoolwork done. The second camp is the direct-to-consumer market, where manufacturers like Samsung and Asus have been introducing higher-end models that creep up into the $500 range, but don't have the power or flexibility of a proper Windows or Mac laptop.

Now, for the first time since Google discontinued the Chromebook Pixel last year, it’s back in the top end of the market with the Pixelbook, a laptop that starts at $999 and can be priced all the way up to $1,649. And if you want, you can spend $99 more on the Pixelbook Pen, a stylus designed specifically for this laptop.

The Pixelbook itself is stunning. It's an incredibly well-built, thin, and beautiful laptop that you can convert into a tablet by flipping the screen over. In this top-tier camp, Chromebooks aren't judged solely on their power and looks. Instead, they're judged on a different question: is it really worth spending over a thousand bucks on a Chrome OS device?

When Google released the first two Chromebook Pixels, you almost could detect an apologetic tenor to its answer to that question. Sure, it'd say, then add some sort of caveat about how it was only meant for a small subset of people.

Talking to the executives and engineers who built the Pixelbook, I detected a distinctly different attitude: sorry, not sorry. They're excited about this laptop, and I don't blame them.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Still, the most obvious question is simple: why did Google make a Chromebook that costs this much? According to the director of product management for the Pixelbook, Matt Vokoun, one of the reasons is to keep that generation of students as customers.

Google's Chrome OS accounts for well over 50 percent of the education market. Many of those students are perfectly comfortable with Chrome OS, and are ready to buy a laptop for college. "As they start making their first purchase decision, they aspire for great, premium design. They want more performance specs."

For decades, Apple sustained its Mac business on students who used its computers in school and wanted to keep using them when they graduated. Google wants to follow the same playbook.

There's also just straight economics: "Devices above $999 are 20 percent of the market," Vokoun says. "It's actually the fastest-growing part of the laptop market right now." Google wants a piece of it.

And there hasn't been a more interesting time for laptop design than the past year or two — especially laptops made by the biggest companies. Apple revamped its entire lineup; Microsoft finally created the laptop Windows customers were asking for; and now Google is introducing its own laptop, one that isn't just a little experiment, but something meant to compete.

The Pixelbook can definitely compete, at least on the specs and the hardware design. It's just over 10mm thick and weighs just under two and a half pounds. Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh tells me that 10mm and one kilogram were always the targets, and Google basically hit them.

It's made of aluminum, but with some striking, symmetrical design flourishes. The most obvious is that the glass shade is on the back of the screen where the Wi-Fi antenna sits. It mirrors the glass shade on the Pixel phones, but it also mirrors the Pixelbook's other major design element: the "advanced silicone" pads on the keyboard deck that surround a glass trackpad.

Those pads serve multiple purposes: they're more comfortable to rest your palms on than aluminum, they add a small gap to protect the screen from getting schmuckle from the keyboard on it, and they serve as anti-skid feet when you have the Pixelbook flipped around in "cinema" mode, or in tablet mode.

To me, though, the most impressive part of the design is that it's fanless. The Pixelbook isn't the first computer with a true, full-powered Intel i5 Kaby Lake processor to go fanless, but it also doesn't need fans on the more powerful i7 configuration.

The 12.3-inch touchscreen has fairly large bezels around it. Trond Wuellner, group product manager for Pixelbook, claims that was a conscious choice. It makes it easier to hold in tablet mode and it also helps keep the laptop itself thin. It seems sharp and bright to me, but I'll wait for a full review to fully opine on it.

They keyboard is very comfortable to type on, although it only has 0.8mm of key travel (little more than the MacBook). The keys are less clacky than a MacBook keyboard, and less mushy than a Surface Pro keyboard. The keyboard is also backlit — a depressing rarity on Chromebooks — and it’s slightly recessed into the body, which adds a break when the laptop’s closed. Maybe it'll collect lint like Microsoft's Surface Book.

The Pixelbook has two USB-C ports and supports fast charging from its 45W charger. Google claims it'll pick up two hours’ worth of charge in 15 minutes, and that it can last 10 hours on a single full charge.

The Pixelbook Pen is interesting. First off, it doesn't require Bluetooth pairing; it acts as a traditional Wacom stylus with support for both pressure and angle. It uses an AAAA battery for power, which should be good for about a year. And as more than one Google engineer pointed out with a wry smirk, it doesn't require you to awkwardly plug it into the side of the device to charge.

Google is claiming very low latency on the pen, too, on the order of 10ms. The director of product management for Chrome, Kan Liu, says that the API for the pen (which works on both Android and web apps) bypasses a lot of the layers of the OS. So, an app that uses the API can read the pen's input more directly. Chrome OS also uses machine learning to try to predict where the pen is going to reduce the perception of lag; a similar algorithm runs on the trackpad to help with palm rejection.

Like nearly everything Google makes these days, the Pixelbook was built to support the Google Assistant. It has its own key down on the lower left of the keyboard. When you tap it, the Assistant pops up and you can type questions to it. It also responds to spoken "OK Google" requests. If you speak to it, it'll speak back. If you type, it replies silently.

The Assistant has new tricks on the Chromebook, too. If you opt-in, it will quickly read your screen when you hit the Assistant button and give you a suggested result based on what's on your screen, just like you can do on Android phones. Crossword puzzle cheaters, rejoice.

You can also use the Pixelbook Pen with the Assistant. The pen has a button on it that, when pressed, enables the Assistant mode. You can circle anything on your screen, and the Assistant will open up and do some kind of search based on what you circled. It can do the usual Assistant-style demos like recognizing an actor or a movie, but it can also do lookup and automatically offer to add stuff to your calendar.

It’s nice that the Assistant is on the Pixelbook, but the Pixelbook (and the Pixel phone) hurtle toward an inevitable conflict between the Assistant and traditional Google search. The Pixelbook still has that traditional Search / Launcher button where the Caps Lock key would be on other computers; it brings up a brand-new launcher with a more traditional Google search box in it. They have overlapping functionality, so it's worth watching to see if that causes any confusion.

Oh, there's also a button to bring up the system menu in the upper right of the keyboard, shaped like three hot dogs. Or like a hamburger. It's food-related, in any case.

Unfortunately, there's no fingerprint scanner, but Chromebooks do allow you to set an Android phone as a key to unlock your laptop, if you trust that sort of thing. If you have a Pixel phone, the Pixelbook can turn on tethering directly, just like Apple laptops can do with iPhones.

If you haven't heard, Chromebooks have had beta support for natively running Android apps for some time — and it hasn't exactly been an enjoyable beta period. That beta is over, at least on the Pixelbook. Android apps are now supposed to be able to run side by side with regular Chrome web apps with fewer compromises.

Android apps can be dynamically resized like any regular window, though when you flip to tablet mode they're full-screen only. Android apps are part of the reason the Pixelbook has so much more storage and RAM than your standard Chromebook; it solves some of the issues Android apps have had on Chrome OS with brute computing force. But there is a less conspiratorial reason, according to Liu. "Things like Netflix, you'll be able to sync that stuff offline. Especially games, media content… it really starts to add up quickly."

However, Android app support for large-screened devices is still lackluster, to put it gently. Both Adobe and Microsoft have been good citizens in this regard, updating their Android apps regularly to support more powerful features. Color me skeptical until I've had a chance to really try it all out, though.

The people who made the Pixelbook are not shy about name-dropping, it turns out. When pressed on the question of whether people really believe that a Chromebook can truly serve all your computing needs, Vokoun says: "Reed Hastings [the CEO of Netflix] is one of the the biggest Chromebook proponents. He has entire call centers at Netflix using Chromebooks and he, himself, is a [Chromebook] Pixel owner."

There is still a gap, though — edge cases where I’ve only been able to get something done with Windows or a Mac. The iPad Pro faces the same issues. Google's hope is that Android apps will someday be able to fill that gap, but the early results haven’t been great.

The truth is that the people I've spoken to at Google are less likely to be apologetic about that gap than they were before. They built a really great machine in the Pixelbook, and they know it.

Up next: First look at Google Home Mini and Max

More from Google's huge hardware announcement

Video Credits

Sup. Producer: Sophie Erickson
Director: Vjeran Pavic, Tyler Pina
Editor: Tyler Pina
Camera: Ben Williams
Photo: James Bareham 
Audio Mix: Andru Marino