Thoughts on Setting up a Pixelbook
Setting up Google’s New Laptop and Comparing it to the Macbook Pro and iPad
So I recently got a Google Pixelbook and have been testing it out and trying to get it set up. I have been using a Macbook Air or Macbook Pro and Apple computers generally for a while, so there are a lot of things I have learned through muscle memory that are hard to switch with any sort of new operating system.
I got the Pixelbook set up and have been trying to configure it to be used as a computer to use in the same way I had used my Macbook computers. Here are some of the things I tried to do while setting it up, some things I configured, and thoughts along the way.
It’s a sweet computer, but not there yet
My initial thought is that it is a sweet computer. It is definitely not there yet in terms of being the top computer to replace someone who has been using a Macbook for a while, but I could see the next generation getting there. There are things that are clearly better on this computer, and things that are clearly worse.
Almost everything here depends on your use case, but I’m going to describe it compared to my use case. The way that I use my Mac is mostly in the browser, with heavy usage across many, many tabs, lots of Gmail, other web applications, a number of native apps, installing custom apps, and having a development environment set up.
It is very fast, faster than my Mac
Right away I think it’s clear the Pixelbook is a fast computer. This computer has 16GB of RAM and feels significantly faster and snappier than the Macbook Pro with 16GB of RAM — which I think on its own is noteworthy.
Specifically, using Chrome on a Pixelbook is just much, much faster than a Macbook Pro. If you use a large number of tabs even a new, top of the line Macbook Pro lags quite a bit. I’m noticing sites load faster, and there is just less delay overall. This is so far after not much usage, but we will see how this works after testing for longer.
There are some apps that perform slower on the Pixel book, these would be either Android apps or apps that had a native Mac version.
It doesn’t “just work” — lots of random bugs
The Pixelbook is definitely not a “just works” type of computer. I actually don’t think Apple computers are like that anymore, but I felt like they were a few years ago. I ran into a lot of snags setting it up. My firmware for the touchpad needed to update within 10 minutes of setting it up. It crashed a few times. There were some weird hiccups or screens that I got stuck on that didn’t make sense. So it was not the smoothest start.
It’s interesting because since a Pixelbook is mostly Chrome and I have Google accounts I would have expected that it would have “just worked.” But actually many of the technical parts of how the Pixelbook work means it is unlikely to just work for any sort of intensive usage.
I think if you are just using it for just a personal account that is likely to simplify the setup a huge amount. Also the fewer things you do on it, and the more you just use a web browser for email, google docs, or social media… then much of this may not apply.
I was trying to set it up to access personal accounts and work accounts. This does not play nice with the Pixelbook.
Many new keyboard keys are…confusing
I noticed quickly that the keyboard is different than the Mac keyboard, and that is hard to get used to. There are some new keys, the search key and the assistant key. I’m not a fan of the assistant key. The search key is a good idea, but it’s weird to remove caps locks. They don’t have the command key and that is causing me lots of trouble. I’ve found the lack of a previous song/next song key to be frustrating (now 3 clicks and taps instead of 1). Now many keyboard shortcuts are split arbitrarily between ctrl and alt which I have found confusing. I updated the settings so my ctrl key functions as the alt key, and the alt key functions as the ctrl key. That gets it a bit closer to working how I would expect but not all the way there. I have submitted some feedback to Google to ask that they allow any custom re-mapping of keyboard shortcuts.
There area few handy keys at the top of the keyboard in the sort of vendor-specific random section. There is a full screen key, a see all windows key, and a show the notification bar key. They have play/pause but no next/previous.
Assistant is better than Siri
I’ve only played around with Google Assistant a bit, but it’s clear it is much better than Siri. Siri almost never transcribes or understands what I say. Or it gets it 80% right which is frustrating. The Google Assistant is mostly understanding me. I think this shows that machine learning/AI/data is just a core strength of Google and not Apple. I also think Google’s voice recognition is poised to get way better over the next few years as usage ramps up.
Development environment and terminal — it’s there, not by default, and hard to use
One thing that I have liked about Macs is that the terminal and OS make it pretty easy to get going right away with a helpful development environment. It’s easy to use the file system and the Mac terminal. This is at the moment not really what the Pixelbook seems to be for. However, I did find a handful of people writing tutorials about how they reconfigured it to do so. It seems a bit hacky at the moment, but also there are people who are interested in making this better.
So I tried to enable the Linux environment and get the terminal working. I ran into a few hiccups but was able to access the terminal. I downloaded a few packages which worked. I tried to install a few text editors and open them, and it seems these were the Linux versions (for Sublime Text and Atom), and at the moment, the UI of these as they appeared on the Pixelbook was far behind the Mac version.
One thing that is tricky here is it seems also the Linux Pixelbook file system is totally separate from the main Pixelbook file system and Google Drive.
Easy help chat
One thing I noticed while exploring the help articles is that the Pixelbook has 24/7 chat support. Which is pretty crazy — it worked very well in answering some questions.
Price: much better than Apple
Today you can buy the top line Pixelbook for $1650 (right now $1200 with promotions). This is for 16GB of RAM and 512GB storage. Google also I think is willing to sell better devices cheaper over time. The comparable Apple Macbook Pro right now is $1900. So the Pixelbook is cheaper (really by $700). But the iPad Pro is at least $1000. So the price is really $1200 for a Pixelbook (laptop + tablet), vs $2900 for a Macbook Pro and iPad.
OS Identity Crisis: Is it Chrome or Android?
Another thing I had tried to figure out was installing apps with the Google Play store. This… kind of worked. Not that well. There is a bit of an operating system identity crisis happening on the Pixelbook. It does not seem to know if it is a Chrome operating system or an Android operating system. This leads to a lot of weird things. I hope that soon they figure out what to do here, maybe they merge things a bit, but right now it’s not very clean. So the Chrome browser is very prominent. Then there are Chrome web apps you can install (just websites mostly, some extensions…). Then you can install Android apps. So you can install these from the Google Play store. Some of these apps seem designed for a tablet, some for a phone. It’s not very clear if any of them are optimized for the Pixelbook or a tablet. Most don’t seem to be. It’s also pretty noticeable that the tablet Android versions of the apps are significantly worse than the iPad versions of these apps.
So sometimes it feels like it is a regular laptop, with a web browser. Then some are tablet apps. Then some are phone apps. But then sometimes there are web apps and Android tablet apps for the same thing. Like Gmail. Or Google Photos. So it feels like what is missing from the Android store is — where are the “native desktop app” equivalents of the Mac app store. I’m familiar on Apple with the differences between accessing a web site through a browser, using a native desktop app, using a native tablet app, a web app on a tablet, and a web app on a phone, and a mobile app on a phone. Right now you can tell when an app is built for the appropriate use case.
Since the Pixelbook is a laptop and a tablet (which is one of the cool features), it also hasn’t fully sorted out how to merge the two contexts seamlessly. I think that may take a few versions. Sometimes it seems like I should be working in a laptop context and it’s like a tablet and then vice versa.
Additionally, there are a lot of gotchas with installing Android apps, especially if you are using a work/GSuite account.
Another place this shows up is the file system, which here acts more like an iPad.. which doesn’t really give access to an easy filesystem, rather than a Macbook Pro.
Using a work and personal account — extremely confusing and bad design decisions
They do not have this workflow worked out yet — so be warned. Maybe if you just use one personal account or one work account, it works. But trying to set this up for both I ran into so many hurdles. They have the theoretical building blocks in the UI to make this doable, but the actual experience is way too confusing. I think they made a lot of wrong design decisions here.
So there are many “user accounts” which seem to be just users that can log into the system. These are your Google account logins. That seems fine. But then when you log in, you are logged into that user. But then within Chrome, they have removed Chrome profiles. This can cause huge issues. So it’s not like logging into a laptop and then accessing different browser sessions. It’s like there really is only one browser session within the whole computer. What this means is you can either log into one account, or then log out and log into the other account, just like user accounts on the computer. This seems like it could be okay, but if you need to access both contexts at the same time on different programs this is not workable.
They have a feature that seems that it could save this, but that doesn’t work well either. You can log into multiple accounts at the same time. So first you log into one, then sign into another user while logged in. Then you can at the bottom bar, more easily switch between these users. But even here it’s not just switching browser profiles, it’s switching everything. I’m wanting to just switch browser profiles, not entire user sessions.
This is also made complicated by the fact that there are lots of GSuite settings that likely will not work right away. First, you can only link accounts in one order but not the other because of permissions. Then when you link, I found out all the apps I had installed on the personal account were not available when in that user session connected to the work account! Another permissions issue — one I still haven’t figured out.
To enable the correct permissions is… not easy. First, you need to be a GSuite super admin (so already there is trouble). Then you need to go switch about 4 random settings to allow Android apps, update certain user permissions, and allow the Google Play store. Then you will be able to download apps on the work account. But when I did this… it seems it introduced a new problem, which was that I couldn’t access apps on the linked personal user session!
If it sounds confusing… it’s because it is.
Honestly, I’d much rather have it work where I log into the user account and now I’m logged in. That user account could be a Google account, which is fine. However, within that they need to allow multiple Chrome profile sessions. Right now it feels like I’m using a tablet/laptop combo that is just slightly too far leaning towards tablet in a way that is pretty frustrating.
It’s like on an iPad you can’t just go download a dmg file and install an app you need — that’s a tablet limitation. It still feels like you have that (practically) on the Pixelbook. It’s like you could download a mac app, a windows app…. there isn’t the equivalent to that for a chrome native app. People aren’t really thinking or developing right now in terms of desktop Chrome/Android apps (but maybe they should?).
I feel like I’m testing beta software
Using the computer feels a bit like I’m testing beta software. First though, I like testing beta software. But things are pretty buggy and confusing. I don’t know who the user is today of the Pixelbook, but it feels like with some important fixes they can make it much better for users who need simple web browser use, and also power users who want to have the whole kitchen sink on a powerful and simple machine. It’s not there right now… or if it is, I just haven’t figured out how to get that configuration. It may be the case that with light usage people find that it’s easy to use, I’m not sure.
The file system is hard to use
The file system is a frustrating part. It feels like I am almost getting access to a file system. But the setup with Google Drive and the local file system isn’t super clear. It’s also not as functional as Mac finder. For example, if it was really a full file system I could use it in lots of ways, like my Dropbox files could show up there. Is that possible here? I don’t think so. I figured out a way to install a third party Chrome extension to mount my Dropbox, which is a half-working solution. Right now it feels like the apps are silos (like on a tablet), rather than the apps have access to a file system (like on my Macbook). I’ve for a while felt like GDrive doesn’t really do a good job as a file system. It’s really good for collaborative documents. But not the other parts.
Most exciting part: it’s an iPad and a Macbook Pro in One
So what is clearly really cool is that this is both a laptop and a tablet. While Microsoft may have had this, I did not try theirs out. It feels like this is like a Macbook Pro and an iPad together. Which is great. But it feels at the moment with this one device you get maybe 70% of those devices. However, I actually think that is a big accomplishment. The hardware here is clearly better since it is a tablet/laptop combo and Apple does not have that. I’ve thought Apple should make that for a while and maybe that is what they will make. However, that innovation is coming from Google and Microsoft, not Apple.
The fact that the screen is a touchscreen is pretty sweet. You can fold it over and use it as a tablet and that works pretty easily. It seems the battery is better tan the Macbook Pro. So a lot of things are directionally right, though there is a ways to go. I think it would be great to have this device replace a high power work/personal computer and a tablet in one, with a super fast web browsing experience and simple development environment, and fully functional native apps/file system.
I think what needs to happen, is there needs to be an ecosystem built out around Desktop Native Chrome/Android apps. Right now I think Desktop apps are needed for many users. Those apps are probably built as Mac apps or Windows apps. They need a version that is a Chrome/Android app that works really nicely on a Pixelbook. Right now the ones that are Android apps are just tablet apps, which are not good enough.
An example of this is, I used the Zoom app. It was not good on Pixelbook. It was the tablet version and I needed the desktop version. If this exists and I totally missed it… that is possible too. But it seems most Android apps are phone apps, there are a few Android tablet apps (which are generally worse than iPad apps), and then the Chrome apps are just websites. So they need to build up the clear tablet/desktop Android/Chrome apps.
In some way this also suggests that web apps and tablet apps and native apps will converge where it is harder to tell the difference, or you switch to the right one more seamlessly. That is not what happens today. I open the play store to download an “app” — and I think I would like to be getting a desktop app, thinking I’ll probably get a tablet-type app, but actually I get a app for a phone (example A: Salesforce).
Overall: It’s really cool but needs some work, I could see the next generation replacing Macbooks for lots of people
Overall, I think this is a great device, and shows that Google hardware is at the moment innovating more than Apple hardware. Especially since the top of the line Mac laptop today is really no different than 6 years ago.
The Chrome browser is fast, it’s a lightweight tablet and laptop. There are a lot of gotchas: work/personal accounts doesn’t work well, the file system is not there, and there is a bit of an Android/Chrome identity crisis.
Once Google works out a few of the weird issues, makes the tablet/laptop combo more seamless, gives you a bit more power like a regular OS, and opens up better development tools, I could see this replacing Macbooks for lots of people.
So there are drawbacks, but I think it’s promising and I’m going to keep testing it out!
What do you think?