Sometimes the difference between a subpar response and overwhelming success rests on a single feature, like Chrome OS' Android application ecosystem.
As I first mentioned back in July, I’ve given up waiting for my Toshiba Chromebook 2 (2014 edition) to gain access to the Android apps in the Google Play Store, and have instead acquired a Google Pixelbook. I’ve finally gotten around to cracking open the Pixelbook packaging and thought I’d devote this particular post to my initial hands-on impressions.
Speaking of external packaging, let’s begin with an unboxing. Here’s what the top and bottom of the box look like (clever folks, those Googlers, eh?):
Pop off the top and here’s what you’ll see inside:
The paper sleeve on the right contains a few documentation snippets:
Underneath it is the AC-to-USB-C power adapter and the accompanying USB-C cable:
And here’s the star attraction (top and bottom):
Along the upper left edge (look how 10.3 mm-thin it is!), you’ll find (left-to-right) a charging LED, USB-C connector, headphone jack, and volume up/down toggle.
Below it, in the lower left corner, is the power button, and along the upper right edge, you’ll find another charging LED/USB-C connector combo.
Here’s the Pixelbook opened up, but not yet powered up, in both full frontal and side perspectives of the traditional “laptop” operating mode (one of the four "4-in-1" operating modes touted in Google's literature), and with a reflection the Continental Divide in the LCD in the middle shot:
This is what the “tent” operating mode looks like:
And here’s “tablet” mode (I didn’t snap a picture of “entertainment” mode, but you can see what it looks like here):
Finally, let’s press that power button. Once again, here’s “laptop” mode:
And “tablet” mode:
Time now for some screenshots. The Pixelbook unsurprisingly came with its initial October 2017 Chrome OS release pre-installed, although as you can see below, it immediately began updating to the latest "stable channel" Chrome OS release as soon as I booted it up and connected it to my network (and the broader Internet) via Wi-Fi.
By the way, the majority of the screenshots shown here were taken at the system's 1200×800 pixel "default" display resolution setting, although the Pixelbook supports a range of options, from 800×533 pixels (yikes! huge!):
to "native" 2400×1600 pixels (yikes! tiny!):
Once the update completed, I was at latest-and-greatest Chrome OS 68 (which, ironically, got supplanted by Chrome OS 69 later that same day):
And I didn't need to do anything special to enable Google Play Store access; it was right there in the settings from the get-go:
Is it just me, or do you also find it ironic that the Google Play Store's home screen recommends Microsoft's Office suite front-and-center?
Where both smartphone- and tablet-tailored versions of a particular app were available for download, the Play Store was smart enough to auto-recommend the latter (which makes sense when you think about it):
And in short order, using my Android phones' home screen icons as a prioritization guide, I'd downloaded and installed a bunch of additional apps beyond those that came bundled with the Pixelbook:
I was even offered a couple of freebies; several years' worth of gratis Google Drive capacity upgrades, plus a free add-in pack (for a game I'd admittedly never heard of, but hey ... free!).
Cutting to the chase, how well do Android apps run on Chrome OS? Quite well, on average, from my limited testing so far. Here are a series of proof-of-concept screenshots; Microsoft Word (which I actually even used to write the first draft of this particular post):
The Firefox browser, which came up initially in smartphone "windowed" mode and grumbled whenever I toggled between that and full-screen mode, but seemed to be fine:
Feedly, my RSS reader:
Problems? Sure, a few, but only a few, and none of them critical (again, with the qualifier that my testing has been limited so far). Yahoo Weather, for example, displays better with the Pixelbook in "tablet" mode versus "laptop" mode:
And Microsoft Word seems to get confused when I change the display resolution setting while the app is running (other apps may similarly be affected; Word is, as previously mentioned, the one I've used the most so far). It stops responding to keyboard presses, although the trackpad continues to function, and if I quit and restart Word all is well again. Perhaps obviously, this is a somewhat uncommon operating scenario.
Minor glitches like these aside, what's not to like? The Pixelbook is thin, light weight (2.4 lbs), and sleek, with a stunning display and responsive keyboard. It's fanless, therefore completely silent, runs "all day" on a single battery charge, and recharges quickly. Now that it's Android app-augmented, it does pretty much everything I'd task a conventional computer with on an average day. And it handles those tasks in impressively speedy fashion. Think of it as a big Android tablet with a connected keyboard, and (unlike the iPad mini) with both an integrated trackpad and support for external wired and wireless mice.
The performance aspect is particularly pleasantly surprising to me. ARM architecture CPUs dominate in the Android smartphone space, although x86 processors are more common with Android-supportive tablets. While it's possible to use Google's developer tools to create an app that natively supports both Arm and x86, a notable number of Android apps are Arm-only; in these cases, an Intel-developed translation layer dynamically recompiles them into x86 binaries, with consequent performance loss.
Why is this relevant? My particular Pixelbook runs an Intel Core i5-7Y57 x86 processor; a higher-end variant uses the Core i7-7Y75. Consider, too, the added virtualization overhead involved in running anyAndroid app on top of Chrome OS (now joined by Linux apps), and the speediness I'm seeing is impressive indeed. Working in the Pixelbook's favor, of course, is that these are apps originally intended for use on comparatively resource-poor smartphones and tablets, therefore with light memory and CPU horsepower demands (versus, say, a full-blown MacOS or Windows app equivalent).
As you can probably tell, I've so far only scratched the surface of the Android-on-Chrome OS experience. Still to be tested (and subsequently blogged about) is a broader set of Android (and Linux) apps, each of them also in greater depth, as well as the Pixelbook Pen and suite of USB-C power supplies and adaptation cables, "dongles," and hubs that I recently wrote about. I'm also curious to see how well the Pixelbook runs Windows 10, should those particular rumors end up panning out.
Even at this early stage, however, I'm struck by how thoroughly (and positively) my opinion of Chrome OS has shifted. "All" it took was the Android-supplied platform augmentation by a diverse and robust application ecosystem, notably one with substantial offline functionality. The lesson here is broadly applicable to my readers, even if you're not in the mobile computing space; sometimes the difference between subpar market response and overwhelming success rests on a single feature (and sometimes that added feature doesn't even need to be substantial from an implementation standpoint). Sound off with your thoughts in the comments.
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company's online newsletter.
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