Have you kept an eye on what’s happening to Chromebooks in the last few weeks? The previously limited laptop range is undergoing a transformation thanks to Google’s renewed interest in the product, whilst other software companies are taking another look at Chrome OS.
Recently, I wrote about how the Chromebook Pixel 2015 had become my most important laptop in 2020 over my Surface Book and Macbook, despite being older than both. Read that story here. But the main reason was simple: it has shown virtually no signs of ageing.
As the joints of other, more accomplished, laptops from Microsoft and Apple creek under the weight of years of apps and files, my Chromebook remained in out-of-the-box 2015 stasis. The only thing that dates it is its physical battle scars from years of use and the fact that Google will end OS support for it next year, which I think makes no sense.
I have now upgraded to the recently released Pixelbook Go (8th gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, FHD display) which is the successor to the 2015 Chromebook Pixel. There are some key differences, both good and bad.
The angular, brutalist, design of the Chromebook Pixel 2015 has been replaced by Google’s new friendlier style: pastel colours, softened edges, lightweight and flexible. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the keyboard, which is glorious to use and easily one of the best features of the laptop. Google has found the right balance of resistance and softness when typing.
But what truly works best is that the Pixelbook Go executes being a Chromebook particularly well. Open the lid, which has a nice amount of resistance, and you’re good to go. There’s no waiting for the machine to wake up. The only thing that process is missing is some form of biometric security – the Pixel 4’s 3D face unlock would be welcome here.
It has the look and feel of a laptop far more expensive than its $849 price tag (that’s still quite pricey for a Chromebook), although you can pick up a cheaper $649 Core M3 model with 8GB of RAM. Thanks to the very nature of Chromebooks, you won’t be punished in performance with lower specifications if you opt for the more affordable model.
Google says the laptop is “made to move” and at 1070 grams, the first thing I noticed was how light it is. This meant I ended up taking it on the few travels I still undertake. For example, I had to visit the hospital and I knew I’d have to wait to be seen, so I took the Pixelbook Go to get some work done whilst waiting. I would not have done this with a heavier, bulkier, laptop, despite the difference in weight and size being entirely manageable. It’s an odd trick of the mind. Being lighter than rival laptops makes the Pixelbook appear to be more portable in comparison.
The downside is the lack of connectivity. Gone are the USB 3 ports and SD card reader from the old Chromebook Pixel. Instead users will have to make-do with two USB-C ports and searching Amazon for an adapter that won’t break in two months’ time. The headphone jack thankfully remains, though.
I’m still trying to make my mind up about whether or not the eminently functional FHD 1920 x 1080 display has a slight tint to it. It looks like there’s a very light blue screen filter running, but there isn’t. I had a similar issue with Google’s Pixel 4 XL display, but toggling the Ambient EQ feature and playing with colours fixed it. There’s no similar option on the Pixelbook Go.
Displays generally aren’t very good on Chromebooks, especially up against the excellent panels you’ll find on more expensive Macbooks and Surfacebooks. I guess that’s part of the price trade-off. Fortunately the screen isn’t a drain on the battery, which lasted solid 8-10 hours in testing. Although the promised 12 hours of battery life never quite panned out.
The specifications tell one story, but there’s another far more interesting tale playing out this year for Chromebooks.
This week Nvidia announced that its game streaming service GeForce Now is compatible Chromebooks. This is good news for Chrome OS users because it opens up a whole new world of previously unreachable content.
Google’s Stadia has obviously always worked on Chromebooks, but Nvidia’s service offers more in free-to-play and paid-for games outside of Stadia’s carefully curated selection. You can also access your Steam library through GeForce Now, so you can play the games you bought through other stores.
Microsoft tells me that Project xCloud isn’t coming to Chromebooks when it launches next month. But it’s not hard to imagine it will at some point if GeForce Now and Stadia prove to be popular mediums for game streaming on ChromeOS. Now that schools are embracing Chromebooks for students, there’s a huge user base of young people that Microsoft would want access to.
Indeed, this was part of Nvidia’s thinking, as Andrew Fear, senior product manager at Nvidia, explained to ZDnet. “Millions of students have Chromebooks and GeForce Now can give them gaming in their downtime.”
There’s also the new partnership between Google and Parallels that will bring native Windows apps to Chrome OS. Enterprise Chromebook users (at first, at least) will be able to run Windows apps locally on Chromebooks without an internet connection or rebooting. You can, of course, access your Windows apps via the Parallels Remote Application Server now, but that requires an always-on internet connection.
Dual-booting ChromeOS and Windows on a Chromebook isn’t the end goal for Google, it plans to make access to apps on both systems “seamless”, as a Google representative explained in an interview with The Verge. “In the future we’ll have other types of things where you don’t even have to run the whole Windows desktop, you’ll just run the app you need”, said Cyrus Mistry, group product manager for Chrome OS.
You can already get by on a Chromebook with a selection of decent Android and Chrome apps like Zoom, Slack and Adobe Lightroom. Not to mention Linux apps that shouldn’t be overlooked like the unfortunately-named “GIMP” picture editing app or LibreOffice document suite. Couple all of this with native Windows apps and within the space of a year, the humble Chromebook has completely transformed.
The Pixelbook Go handles – and will handle – all of this perfectly. The laptop’s specs aren’t earth shattering, but Chrome OS is un-taxing, as are the aforementioned apps and services.
For the many
You can pick up a Windows Surface Go 2 tablet and do virtually everything mentioned in this article, and more, because it can run Windows 10 Home (although the apps you can run are limited by its lightweight specs).
But this is where things are becoming interesting, your Chromebook will be able to run Windows apps at some point in the future and you have access to Android apps. All in a more secure, and cheaper (depending on what model you opt for), package.
The most expensive version of the Pixelbook Go will set you back $1399, which is too much for a Chromebook in my opinion. The appeal is the price, security and simplicity. Chromebooks should always operate just below what’s on offer from Windows and Mac machines, otherwise the comparison can become murky.
The model I’m reviewing is about the happy medium in terms of price and performance. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t run powerful applications like Adobe Premiere Pro, or run a graphically challenging video game locally, you need vastly better specifications and a different OS for that.
But for everything else, the Pixelbook Go handles it with aplomb and begs the question why you’d spend more to do the same tasks. There’s a good reason why businesses and schools are mass adopting Chromebooks, it’s because they’re good enough for almost everyone. Unless you’re doing specialist creative work, these laptops are for you and the Pixelbook Go is one of the best in the range.
After years in the wild, Chromebooks are finally having their day. They are now good value for money because of the new abilities and because of their longevity.
I know from personal experience that they last, because I used my Chromebook Pixel 2015 solidly for five years straight and I only moved on because Google won’t support it with security updates from next year. Otherwise it operates like it could continue for a few more years before age finally catches up with it.
Hopefully I’m writing a similar article about the Pixelbook Go in 2025.
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