Not long ago, we made a video about the Microsoft Surface Laptop SE. We obviously weren’t reviewing it and were instead installing ChromeOS Flex on the one Surface-branded device that is certified to use it. While the Surface Laptop SE was – early on, anyway – called the “Chromebook Killer”, we wanted to use the power of ChromeOS Flex to turn it into a killer little Chromebook.
And you know what? We did. As a matter of fact, I’m typing this post on that exact device running ChromeOS Flex. While I want to eventually make an entire video talking about my use of this little, converted laptop for a few days for work and leisure, today I want to focus more on this device as a part of Microsoft’s larger portfolio of Surface devices and what it represents. And what Google could stand to learn from it.
What is Surface for Microsoft?
For Microsoft, Surface represents an in-house brand that showcases the best version of Windows hardware for the company’s own software. Sound familiar? It should. Apple uses Macbooks for this purpose and Google used to leverage Chromebook Pixels and Pixelbooks for the same thing. For Apple, the formula is quite simple since they own both the hardware and software side of things.
But for Microsoft, things are quite a bit trickier. OEMs like ASUS, Acer, and HP build laptops that run Windows, making them a partner to Microsoft. Building class-leading Surface hardware changes Microsoft from partner to competitor in the laptop space, however, and I’m sure that’s been a tough thing to navigate for not only Microsoft, but for all their partners as well. For what it’s worth, Surface hardware is top-notch stuff and Microsoft’s competitor partners have their work cut out making sure they keep up.
For Google, this partnership is handled a bit differently. Instead of competing head-to-head with their partner OEMs, Google has only dipped a toe into the hardware waters when needed, using the first two Chromebook Pixels to showcase what could happen with high-end Chromebook hardware and the subsequent Pixelbook, Pixel Slate, and Pixelbook Go to shine a light on differing parts of the growing Chromebook ecosystem. Simply put, Google as a Chromebook maker only shows up when the industry needs them to.
A new need for Pixelbook
But with that ecosytem in a solid place here in 2022, Google has made it clear that they don’t have any current plans for their own, in-house ChromeOS hardware any time soon. There are great Chromebooks all over the place, and Google seems content to let their partners run with the ball at this point. Until there’s a big shift in the core functionality of ChromeOS, it looks like it will stay that way, too.
But what if there is a place where Google needs to shine that famous Pixel spotlight? Like they did with the Pixel Slate to lead the way for detachables/tablets and the Pixelbook to create a reference for convertibles, what if there was a spot in the Chromebook landscape that needed some Google-specific attention? Some Pixelbook mojo?
I’d contend there is one, and it is at the affordable end of the market. I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of less-expensive Chromebooks out there, but I’d wager there aren’t too many that make you really want to use them on a daily basis. I’d feel comfortable in saying that most cheap Chromebooks look, feel, and many times perform like a cheap laptop. And I think there’s a better way.
A Pixelbook for the affordable segment
Using the Surface Laptop SE here and there, I’m struck by its elegence. For a device that is all plastic and affordable, Microsoft managaed to make it feel solid, not creaky; attractive, not homely; considered, not re-run; enjoyable to use, not the least-common denominator. Yes, the processor inside isn’t enough to push Windows very well (it is fine for ChromeOS) and the port selection is thin, but these are small gripes for an affordable laptop that looks and feels as good as the Surface SE does.
And I think Google could do exactly that with an affordable Pixelbook. Make it with all plastic. Use low-mid-range internals. Keep the entire thing modest, keep the price down, and show the industry what a bit of consideration can do even at the lower end of the price spectrum. Cheap Chromebooks are generally unattractive, have terrible keyboards, bad trackpads, poor build quality, and eyesores for screens. They are not fun to use and feel like the most utilitarian version of a Chromebook you can buy.
What if Google stepped in and showed what is capable with affordable devices like they do with their own Pixel A-series phones? Use plastic, but build it with the end user in mind. Use a less-than-stellar screen, but make sure it is still decent to look at. Use plastic keys and a plastic trackpad, but utilize ones that still feel fine to use. Put enough processing power in it to do standard Chromebook tasks well, and leave it at that.
If a Pixelbook A (that would be a sweet name, right?) arrived and cost less than $300, had decent internals, looked nice, felt nice, and had a reasonable screen, keyboard and trackpad, the industry would have to respond. The only two Chromebooks that even come to mind that fit that description are both devices that cost over $300 regularly when not on sale, and they both have hangups.
Samsung’s oddly-named Galaxy Chromebook 2 360 delivers a brilliant display to a good-looking Chromebook that unfortunately suffers drastically in the performance department. The Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3 is pretty stunning for the price, but I really think Google needs to go the route of standard, clamshell Chromebook for this particular purpose.
But outside those examples, there simply aren’t enjoyable, low-end Chromebooks out there, and I think that needs to change. If companies can make money on great devices like the Acer Chromebook 516 GE at $549, they can make money on a $299 device that isn’t a complete compromise. Imagine if students in school who are becoming more and more comfortable with a Chromebook in their hands weren’t getting used to the lackluster experience of using cheap devices in their current state.
Instead, imagine if these students were using Chromebooks that look and feel like the Surface Laptop SE, running ChromeOS instead of the struggling Windows SE experience it ships with, and they truly enjoyed using Chromebooks on a daily basis. Don’t you think that is worth something down the line? Don’t you agree that kids would be even more likely to buy a Chromebook of their own as adults if the experience they were forced into during school wasn’t as middling?
I believe that is the case, and it is why I believe Google needs to return to Pixelbook for this reason. They’ve used the brand to guide the way in all sorts of facets of the Chromebook ecosystem, and the low-end needs their help right now. Education-focused Chromebooks will likely always be a bit more utilitarian than most, but that simply doesn’t need to be the case for all of them and most definitely does not need to be true of consumer Chromebooks. ChromeOS shines on lesser hardware, and it’s time we see the full embrace of that fact with $300 Chromebooks that are fun to use and nice to look at, too. A Pixelbook could get us there. What do you say, Google?