It's Not You, Pixelbook; It's Your Apps

Previously, I wrote about how I moved to the Pixelbook and life went on.

Well, in November 2018, I bought a new (latest generation) MacBook Air again, after four months of travelling with only the Pixelbook, which I'll sell. Yes, I moved from a Macbook to a Pixelbook, and now I'm moving back from a Pixelbook to a Macbook.

Here's why.

Background and context

I used a Google Pixelbook i7 512GB for this test. It's the highest-spec Pixelbook there is. It was my only computer for months. I used it to write web articles, modify HTML, CSS and Javascript code, connect to remote servers via SSH, used Lightroom and other small apps to modify images, and totally abused the Chrome browser. I attempted to install a few Linux apps.

I used a fully-updated, non-beta version of ChromeOS and all the apps. I wasn't doing anything funky with software. I also did a clean re-install after about two months to try to solve some of the below issues.

I'm a traveller, moving country roughly once every month as I write Discover Discomfort, and so have weight and size constraints, and prefer to have one item of hardware. I also want to not spend a fortune on travel insurance.

After a few months of intentionally only using the Chrome browser on my Macbook Pro, I gave moving exclusively to a Pixelbook a try.

Summary

The Pixelbook's (and ChromeOS's) limited app support is what killed it for me. The app support is not fixed by allowing Android or Linux apps, which (other than the most basic ones) are feature-limited and unreliable.

I'll miss some aspects of the Pixelbook, like hardware and Google suite integration, but won't miss some other key features like the touchscreen. So I'm going back to Apple. Sigh...

The Pixelbook is terrible for photography

When trying to use the Pixelbook for a photography workflow I found it was severely limited.

There are almost no apps that can process raw photos. In fact, the only one worth mentioning is Adobe Lightroom, which is only available in Android app form (Lightroom CC Mobile).

Conceptually, this is fine. It's a stripped-down version of Lightroom, but does everything I need. But there are aspects here that make it impossible to use.

Firstly, Lightroom CC Mobile crashes constantly. If you click a few places in a row, it'll just give me the "Lightroom has exited unexpectedly" notification. I never lost work, but it meant I couldn't push it.

Secondly, Lightroom CC Mobile is extremely slow. It was slow to browse throught photos. Slow to import. So painfully slow to export (about 20 seconds a photo for 24MP photos). It could only export 15 photos at a time, which meant I couldn't set it and forget it overnight, either. This obviously isn't the processor's fault - I have an i7 in there! It is the way the mobile app is not optimized to use the processor.

Thirdly, Lightroom CC Mobile works only via the cloud. I had to import from the hard disk to the cloud, and then edit the photos. After only a few months of limited photography, I'm nearly halfway through my measly 10GB data allocation.

Image editing is another thing that's much better on a Mac (or Windows computer) than on a Chromebook. Randomly opening up images using Apple Preview and doing manipulation, or editing in Apple Photos, is amazing. I had to use a mixed bag of web apps and it was frustrating - nothing was up to par (I tried Pixlr, Polarr, Lightroom and a few Android apps).

Play Store Android apps were not reliable or as smooth as using native Mac apps (or browser apps)

I was pretty excited about the idea of using Android apps on my desktop computer. In the ned though, the only ones I ever used were Instagram and the NordVPN client.

I tried a few others, but none worked very well for me.

  • Slack - lousy interface that's not optimized for mobile, requires too much clicking around.
  • Netflix - Always bizarrely kept a bar along one side of the screen that I couldn't make go away.
  • HBO - never flipped around the right way when I put the hardware into 'tent' mode.
  • Spotify - jittery music, and hiccups and crackles whenever I'd scroll a web page.
  • Lightroom - see above.
  • Skype - unreliable interface. I pressed buttons and nothing happened.

In response, I used the browser versions of the apps. But that wasn't good enough either.

The browser version of apps are not good enough

There were multiple apps I had to end up using in the browser, including all of the above (Skype, Slack, Spotify, Netflix).

This meant that I had to re-open those tabs every time the computer shut down or crashed, which was not infrequent. The web apps themselves were fine and just as reliable as the web versions.

Also, having lots of browser apps open means limited control. For example, I can't have Skype open while browsing a document because it's hidden away. (I can open a tab separately, but it's awkward.) I can't use buttons to control Spotify. It just means a lot of compromise this way.

Finally, the browser versions of apps just weren't as good. Lightroom was slow as it had to operate entirely via the cloud. I mean that's an amazing feat, but it's not good enough as the only option. The Netflix web app was fine for watching when connected, but coudln't download content for offline viewing. I could go on.

Google hardware support wasn't good

I bought the Google hardware second-hand on eBay. Well, this was a mistake. But it taught me something: I can't expect Google to take care of its hardware, as new as it is, unless you buy it through their channels. They don't have physical stores to take places to. They didn't care that it was only a few months old because I hadn't bought it through their store.

In th past, Apple has fixed hardware for me irrespective of where I've bought it, as long as it was under AppleCare - and even a few times when it wasn't, or when the failure wasn't covered. I've come to expect a high level of hardawre support from Apple that is, to this date, unparalleled.

The right side USB-C port of my Pixelbook never supported charging. Frustrating. I could never get it fixed.

The Pixelbook is even worse for video production

Windows computers and Apple computers all come with movie production tools that are great. They're totally useable for making simple Facebook ads or Kickstarter videos. On top of those there are many apps you can buy which are even better.

The Pixelbook mostly has a few Android apps available. Given my poor experience editing photos, I only downloaded a few, saw the terrible interface and didn't even try further.

I never used some of the key features of the Pixelbook

I ended up almost never using the touch screen. Or the pen I bought. Like Apple says, people don't erally use touch screens. Firstly, I didn't like reaching up. Nor did I when I had to in my experiment of switching from a MacBook Pro to an iPad. Secondly, I didn't like fingerprints on my screen, just like I didn't like them on the iPad.

I used the pen a few times, but entirely unnecessarily. For example, I signed a few PDF documents. It was cool, but unnecessary because you can use a trackpad, use an auto-generated signature that's just as legally valid, or use a pen and paper in Preview on a mac. I also tried using it in Lightroom to make edits to photos, like retouching. This was fine, but no better than a finger or using a mouse.

At least the trackpad on the Pixelbook was fantastic, as good as that of any Apple product I've used.

Tent mode wasn't very useful. Yes, I'd stand it up sometimes to watch something. But then I had to touch the screen to control the video, which I hated, because it'd put a fingerprint on the video as I was watching the video. I used this just a few times and it was always a bit gimmicky.

It was cumbersome in pure tablet mode. With the keyboard around the back it was unnerving pressing it when holding the tablet, so I'd try to hold it using the flat wrist-pad parts... which was fine, but limited how I could hold it. I never seemed to be able to find the volume buttons very quickly. It was heavy and too thick to hold with one hand or even two compared to an iPad. So I only used it in this mode a handful of times. Mostly, I was thankful that it had a screen that stayed fixed relative to the keyboard.

Linux apps barely worked

Firstly there's almost no reason to install Linux on the Pixelbook.

I was excited to open a terminal, so I could edit code in it, and use ssh natively. After it took more than five seconds to load I totally lost interest.

The other thing is, with some Linux apps installed, my computer would randomly shut down and restart. Yes, it only took a few seconds, but all my tabs would have to reload. This meant waiting for them to reload, and it would also mean stopping doing any work if I'm in a plane.

Other Linux apps I tried

  • GIMP - the free alternative to Photoshop. I've always hated the interface. I also hated the loading time on my Pixelbook and the clunky visual contrast with the rest of ChromeOS. No thanks. Uninstalled it very quickly.
  • Signal - I use Signal for encrypted communication with family and friends (because some of them demand it, though I'd be fine with Apple Messages or Whatsapp personally). It installed fine, but took ages to load and constantly caused my Pixelbook to crash.
  • Firefox - to test some websites. This didn't work. (I tried the mobile one too, but it didn't have developer tools.)

Depite all that, there are things I'll miss about the Chromebook

I'm definitely going to miss a few things.

The Pixelbook keyboard was fantastic. It was one of the main reasons I bought it over a Macbook with its tiny, shallow butterfly keyboard. The new generation Macbook Air has the a newer butterfly design that's good enough, but still not as good as the Pixelbook's buttery keys.

The Google suite integration was amazing. I LOVE clicking on an email link and getting Gmail pop up. I love having all my history and contacts constantly in sync with my phone with no sync issues. I love having Google Drive right there in my file explorer, constantly sync'd—again, with no sync issues (I have to frequently restart the Google Drive File Stream tool on my Mac to keep it working—actually I just had to do it right now...).

There's no "bloatware". You buy a Mac and there's so much stuff installed you can't get rid of: Mail, Chess (??), Books and many other things. The Chromebook has nothing but a browser and a few configuration apps. It felt lightweight and wonderful.

It looked cool. People would say "What is that??" in random coffee shops and talk to me about it. Stroked my ego. Then I'd say "It's fine. It's slow and can't do much."

It taught me what to expect from a mobile device. Basically, there's no way I'd use an iPad after using a Chrome tablet device. The Chrome browser on the Pixelbook (or any Chromebook) was a full, desktop-class browser, capable of handling 20+ tabs without a hiccup.

I loved being always online and fully backed up. Using the Google cloud for everything is amazing. Now that I'm back to a Mac, I am tempted to think I might have to get Crashplan again.

What's next?

I'm going to sell the Pixelbook, and maybe get a ChromeOS tablet. Either a Slate or something else.

I bought a Macbook Air with 16GB ram. The experience with the Pixelbook taught me that I don't need crazy hardware for my needs, just optimized software on decent hardware. Most of what I do is in the browser, so I just need the hardware to be compliant with the few apps I need.

Previously I might have been tempted to get a high-spec 15 inch Macbook Pro as I normally would. But I'm sure this Air is going to do the trick for the next few years until I settle down into one location.

The only reason I like tablets is casual video watching and occasional gaming. They thus have to have great screens and be light in weight.

I definitely wouldn't spend more than about $5-700 on my next ChromeOS device. I know now I'll mostly just use the browser and it won't be my primary, so 8GB of RAM would be plenty (and less might be plenty, too).

Let's see what tablets come out soon!