Thursday, May 16, 2019

CHROMEBOOKS Google's Pixelbook Go Is Really Weird, But Holy Crap That Battery Life

The Pixelbook Go is the cheapest Chromebook Google has made to date. Google’s flagship Chrome OS devices typically start at $1,000, so the $650 price tag on the base-level Pixelbook Go is incredible. Compared to other Google-made Chrome OS devices, the Pixelbook Go is a fantastic budget alternative that gives you some of the best elements of Chrome OS in a very thin, light, and well-made device. The problem is Google isn’t the only one making Chrome OS devices, and $650 is, in fact, an average to above-average price for a Chromebook not made by Google, and it’s an above-average price for a Chromebook that can’t be used as a tablet. You will be faced with a tough question when considering the Pixelbook Go versus the myriad of cheaper and more versatile Chromebooks: Is it really good enough to justify paying $650? The battery life alone makes me think yes.

Pixelbook Go’s battery life is some of the most remarkable we’ve seen in a laptop at this price point. Without that, you’d find yourself confused by the Pixelbook Go. There are four variants of the Pixelbook Go, a $650 version with an 8th-gen m3 processor, 8GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a 1080p touch display, a $850 version that bumps the processor up to an i5 and the storage to 128GB, a terribly priced $1,000 version that tacks on an additional 8GB of RAM, and finally a maxed-out $1,400 version with an i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 4K display. The $650 version is what most people should be considering, but Google sent us the $850 version, and that’s what’s featured here.

I say the $650 version is what most people should consider because I’ve used a lot of Chromebooks over the year, and an inordinately larger number of them this year alone. Chrome OS is a brilliant little operating system that’s perfect for 2-in-1 devices meant to function as fun tablets for playtime and little laptops for work time. It’s very good, but it still isn’t good enough, in most instances, to warrant a high price on hardware compared to a Windows or macOS device.

The amount of stuff you can do on a Chromebook continues to pale compared to macOS and Windows. There is now the option to turn on Linux tools, which makes it a much more solid machine for some quick dev and programming work. But there’s still a limit on what you can do in Linux. Google’s Pixelbooks are fan-free products, so if you start getting too intense with the CPU workload, it will slow down to avoid overheating.

Most people don’t want a Pixelbook for coding though. You just want a really good Chromebook that’s, ideally, cheaper than a Windows or macOS device. The problem for the Pixelbook Go is, it’s priced very oddly. If you opt for the $850 one Google sent Gizmodo, there’s a really solid selection of similarly priced Windows laptops you can get for around the same price. The HP Envy 13 and Lenovo Yoga 700 series both start for around $750 and allow you to do a lot more—including some light PC gaming. The downside is, they’re bigger and heavier devices.

Google’s play seems to be to sell a laptop at the same price as those Windows devices, but that does less and yet is way more portable. At 2.3 pounds and just .5 inches thick the Google, Pixelbook Go is lighter and thinner than the competitors and feels just a little more sturdy. The waves along the bottom are a unique feature that gives the Pixelbook Go a sense of purposeful style that laptops at this price range generally lack. It looks great, the 1080p display is sharp and responsive to touch, and even the speakers have a little more detail and boom than you expect for a “budget” device.

The keyboard, in particular, is outstanding. It sort of reminds me of the Surface Laptop 3. It’s not very clacky and gentle on your fingers. But where the Surface Laptop 3 veers into feeling mushy, the Pixelbook Go stops just short of mushy. It’s almost like there’s a little tactile bump at the end of the keypress that slows each keypress down and makes them feel more enjoyable. If I had to liken it to any kind of key available now I might compare it to the Topre hybrid mechanical and membrane key—though it lacks that switch’s excellent travel and satisfying clonk.

But remember how I said the Pixelbook Go is priced awkwardly? That’s because it’s kind of smack in the middle between the best budget Windows laptops and the best budget Chromebooks. If you decide to go for it because you don’t need the additional productivity capabilities (and weight and size) of a Windows device, then you’re likely already in the market for a Chromebook. If you’re in the market for a Chromebook, though, the $850 version of the Pixelbook Go starts to make a lot less sense. The $650 version with the m3 processor and measly 64GB of storage is really all you’ll need, and it’s spec’d quite similarly to sub $600 Chromebooks like the Asus Chromebook Flip C434 and Samsung Chromebook Plus V2. Although, again, it’s lighter and smaller than they are.

And those devices, for the most part, are 2-in-1 convertible laptops. The Pixelbook Go is purely a laptop, and I’m not crazy about that choice. Google has made such an effort to create a really engaging OS that easily switches between laptop and tablet mode, and it’s frustrating that, apart from a touch display, there’s no physical nod to Chrome OS’s excellent touch elements. It’s also frustrating because a lot of the Android apps now available on Chrome OS just don’t work as well (or at all) with a mouse and keyboard. A 360-degree hinge feels like such a relatively minor thing, but it would have made the Pixelbook Go just a little more competitive with our favorite Chromebooks.

And this is where it’s time to talk about battery life, because as much as build quality and OS choices and even 360-degree hinges matter, for a lot of people only two things really matter: price and battery life, and the Pixelbook Go might be priced weirdly, but there’s no question it has some damn exceptional battery life.

Our battery test is pretty simple. We set the brightness of the display to 200 nits, turn off all the extra radios and notifications and power-draining stuff, navigate to a 24-hour video on Youtube, and play it in full screen until the computer dies. That sadly doesn’t replicate how we all use our laptops (except for me on weekends), but it’s how we test every laptop and it gives us a solid baseline for understanding each one.

By our metric, the Pixelbook Go has incredible battery life. On average in our test, a Chrome laptop lasts 9 hours and 6 minutes, and a Windows 10 laptop lasts 9 hours and 44 minutes. The Google Pixelbook Go lasts over 13.5 hours—the only machines that beat it are wimpy Windows 10 devices with Qualcomm processors. It’s a remarkable battery life—especially given that I’ve been using the i5 version. The cheaper m3 version is presumably even better, and that battery life alone makes it a compelling option. There’s nothing that can really compete with it in terms of weight, size, or battery life.

Back at the early October event where Google introduced the device, I spoke with Google VP Phil Carmack and Senior Product Manager Ben Janfosky, and they insisted that every element of the Pixelbook Go was about creating a device that’s a perfect portable machine. I don’t think it quite nailed that goal. Chrome OS is a great tablet OS, and it would be nice if the Pixelbook Go made use of that strength. But it’s also really light, thin, has great build quality, and it has some of the best battery life found in a laptop right now. It’s not the perfect portable machine, but it comes awfully close. If you’re in the market for a Chromebook and you can afford to spend just a little more money, the $650 Pixelbook Go should be a laptop that lasts you for hours after the cheaper ones have died, and if the price ever drops there’s no better Chromebook choice.

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