Debugger

The Pixelbook Go Can Do More Than You’d Expect

I relied on the Chromebook — even at work — for a week. It worked great.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Google announced the Pixelbook Go in October, many complained it seemed too expensive for a Chromebook, with prices starting at $649.

That’s because Chromebooks have generally been viewed as lightweight computers that are fine for watching Netflix at home, but aren’t great for work. They run a Google-built operating system called ChromeOS, and because they’re optimized for the web — built to run Google’s browser Chrome as quickly as possible without zapping the battery — they don’t include any desktop apps like Excel, Visual Studio Code, or Photoshop.

But I think this reputation is a little unfair. After relying exclusively on the Pixelbook Go for a week, I’m convinced that it is much more powerful than it gets credit for.

Google has positioned the Pixelbook as a “go-there, do-that” laptop with a battery that lasts all day and light enough to throw into a bag and take everywhere. As a manager dragging around a chonky 15-inch MacBook between meetings all day, it was an alluring sell for me. I dived in head-first, testing out the black version of the Pixelbook Go with an i5 processor and 8 GB of RAM.

Because I was switching to the Pixelbook Go from a MacBook Pro with the failure-prone butterfly keyboard, the first thing I noticed is the Go’s keyboard. It’s an absolute delight and one of the nicest laptop keyboards I’ve ever used, with a refreshing “clacky” feel. The rest of the computer reminds me of the black plastic MacBooks a decade ago — extremely light, without much branding.

When you first boot up a Chromebook, you sign in with a Google account. If you’ve used Chrome before, your entire setup will sync on the device, with all of your extensions and themes as you left them.

Many of us already live in browsers all day long, and I found switching to a web-based computer to be fairly painless. The company where I work uses Google’s cloud services and web-based tools like the design service Figma. That made transitioning to a Chromebook much easier.

For just about all the other software I use regularly, I was happy to learn, I didn’t really need desktop apps at all. Instead, Chrome can create desktop apps that run in their own windows just like a desktop app using a technology called “Progressive Web Apps.”

When I visited Twitter, for example, I found an “install” button that added the app to my dock. Later, I could use the icon to launch Twitter in a dedicated window that felt like a native app. Any Twitter links I clicked on in Chrome opened in the app instead.

Image courtesy of the author.

For services with no web app, I installed the Android counterpart from the Google Play Store instead. That means, for example, I could run the full mobile version of Telegram from my laptop, or even fire up the same Instagram app I’d use on my phone.

ChromeOS is a little rougher around the edges when you need to use a heavier app, such as when you’re coding.

For programmers, Google offers a special switch in the settings simply called “Linux.” Flipping this on makes it possible to install any Debian Linux package (such as those built for Ubuntu) from the internet, including Visual Studio Code, and even full development environments such as Docker.

I was able to code and test my PHP-based side projects right inside ChromeOS, which was a surprise. I had assumed that complex workflows weren’t possible on a Chromebook.

While the Linux switch works fine for web developers, ChromeOS could still really use a Google-built powerful code editor or design tool that runs in the browser. Linux support for the existing workaround is still in beta, occasionally causing apps to get stuck launching or not work properly.

The most delightful part of using the Pixelbook Go was more practical: The battery just keeps on going, all day long. It doesn’t get hot like a MacBook, nor are there any noisy fans to fire up.

While my test device only had the i5 processor with 8 GB of RAM, it felt more than adequate most of the time for my day job. Though I should note that the 1080p screen felt underwhelming and limited how much could be on the display at once.

If you’re planning to go all-in on the Pixelbook Go, I’d recommend upgrading to the i7 model, which comes with 16 GB of RAM and a 4K screen, and is much more capable if you are planning to push it for complex tasks like coding.

It’s the simplicity of ChromeOS, paired with the ability to handle more complex tasks if you wish, that is the beauty of the Pixelbook Go: It just works, and it feels like a modern take on the computer with the web at its heart.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify. https://twitter.com/ow

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