Review: Google Pixelbook Go – An ideal travel notebook for open source geospatial professionals

About 9 months ago I purchased a Google Pixelbook Go. I was interested in a pure Linux computer to help learn the operating system and to help me support my students who use Linux in my courses on open source GIS technology. Although I have very high-end WIndows and Mac notebooks, my Pixelbook has quickly become the computer that I reach for 95% of the time.  Especially for travel.

What is a Pixelbook Go?

The Pixelbook Go in all its glory. In this picture running R. The keyboard backlighting works automatically and flawlessly based on ambient light.

The Pixelbook Go is sold as a Chromebook and thus is easy to ignore for power users and this I believe would be a mistake.  Chromebooks have a reputation as being simple, cheap laptops  for students to learn on, mostly with internet based applications.  This was true in the past however today’s Chromebooks also can run Android applications.  If you have ever been frustrated while traveling with just a tablet because of the lack of a keyboard or when using a notebook because you don’t have access to some cool app that only runs on the tablet you left at home, your frustrations are over.

But the Pixelbook goes even further.  Both ChromeOS and Android operating systems are based on the Linux kernel.  The Pixelbook provides access to a fully functional version of Debian Linux.  This means that you can run virtually all of the open source software that is available for Linux computers.  There are some exceptions, for instance some video-editing software requires access to video processors that are not available on the Pixelbook but everything else I have tried has worked fine.  You can get great graphics editing software like GIMP(for images) and Inkscape (for vector drawings), R for statistics, Octave for numerical computation (MATLAB compatible), QGIS for mapping and geospatial analysis, and Latex for document formatting. You also have access to any programming languages that run on Linux including the Anaconda distribution of Python for data science and machine learning.  You can even run Apache for web development and local versions of PostgreSQL (including PostGIS).

QGIS Running on the Pixelbook

For more general usage (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations etc.) you have the option of the excellent and powerful Google Docs (simultaneous editing from anywhere in the world for free? Yes please!) accessed from the browser.  On the Linux side the LibreOffice suite is a decent and free solution.  Both Google docs and LibreOffice can read and write Microsoft Office documents.  If you really want to stick with Microsoft products there are web versions available in the browser and Android versions.  Any of these solutions should work for most basic document creation and editing tasks with the caveat that if you are a Microsoft power-user and create complex documents with lots of embedded objects and macros they may not be up to the task.  If you ARE a Microsoft power-user this might not be the computer for you, but then you probably wouldn’t be interested in a Linux notebook in the first place.  By no means should you be afraid, however, that you won’t be able to collaborate with colleagues that use Microsoft Office.

Once installed,  Linux applications with a GUI work seamlessly with the Pixelbook interface.  They appear as an Icon in the system tray and are accessed just like any other ChromeOS or Android App.  There is no need to switch between  Linux and ChromeOS. There is also no need to install a Linux desktop environment, although I hear it is possible. Directories and files in the ChromeOS/Android file system can be shared with Linux and the Linux file system is accessible from the Android applications as well.

PostgreSQL running on the Pixelbook. Note that some of the icons at the bottom will open Android Apps and some will open Linux Applications. All of this is seamless to the user and there is no need to switch manually between operating systems.

What I LOVE about this computer

  1. Its light. At 2.3 pounds it is half a pound lighter than even a MacBook air.
  2. Its durable.  The magnesium alloy casing is stiff and feels solid. The bottom of the case is ridged to help keep it from slipping in your hands.

    The bottom of the case showing non-slip ridges
  3. The battery lasts a long time.  How long of course depends on what you are using it for but I frequently use it all day (10-12 hours) before having to charge it.  Even better it “sleeps” and “wakes up” instantaneously and NEVER seems to use any battery when you close the cover.
  4. It has a touch screen so all those Android apps you love will work seamlessly.
  5. I can count on one hand the number of times I have had rebooted it in 10 months of regular use.
  6. The screen is very good (13.3″, 1920×1080). Image quality seems on par with my MacBook Pro. You can also change the screen resolution if you need more or less screen space and it seems to work flawlessly even with Linux applications.
    GIMP running at 90% resolution. Lots of screen space but it can be hard to see some of the icons

    Gimp running at 120% resolution. Less screen space but easier to see the text and icons. You get to choose, or switch back and forth easily.
  7. Its fast. I got a high end model with 16GB RAM and an i7 processor. For general use the operating system is simple with very little overhead so it seems to respond instantaneously, it feels much faster than even my high end Windows PC (40GB RAM, i7 processor). For hardcore number crunching its about half the speed of my MacBook Pro (32GB RAM and i9 processor) but its 1/3 the price, 1/3 the weight, and the battery lasts 5x as long so for travel its a no-brainer.
  8. Because it runs Android apps its easy to download video from Netflix, Prime, or Udemy courses and due to its long battery life you can watch videos or work throughout even the longest flights.  And it charges from USB-C so its easy to charge from an external battery if needed.
  9. Everything just seems to work well.  Second monitor? No problem. Screen capture/recording? Built right in. Want to switch to an international keyboard? Click on the keyboard Icon and choose.  Everything also seem to work well with Linux as well.  If you’ve ever tried to install Linux on a computer, especially a laptop, that wasn’t designed for it, you know that this is not always a given.

What I would like to see

  1. I’d love to see a 2 in 1 model that would allow it to be used in tablet mode.  Would be nice for reading e-books or watching movies with a smaller footprint.
  2. A SIM card slot or even better an eSIM capability to be able to use it with the Google Fi phone plan for global cellular data.  That would be cool, but its a minor inconvenience since I can hotspot it to my phone easily.
  3. This is not a problem with the computer itself but I haven’t yet found a good way for accessing my Dropbox from the Linux side of things.  I did find a Linux program called Insync that allows me to access and synchronize my files on Google Drive from Linux but most of my data is on Dropbox.  For now when I start a project on the Pixelbook I use Google Drive instead but my space there is limited.  I can see the Linux file system from the ChromeOS/Android side so if I need something from Dropbox I can use the Android file manager to move the file to the Linux side but its a bit clunky and I’d like to have a more seamless solution.
  4. Pet peeve. Lets have two button mice/trackpads on all computers.  Most software is designed for a two button mouse and its frustrating to open up a computer and not know how to “right-click” when we need to.  On MacOS you have to ctrl-click, on the Pixelbook you alt-click or tap with two fingers, but if you don’t know that you are dead in the water until you figure it out.  And even if you do know it, its still frustrating when you move between computers with different operating systems as frequently as I do.

In short, I think that the computer itself is spectacular and one of the lower end models would be worth the price just to use as a keyboard enabled android “Tablet” with a large screen.  The ability to run Linux apps is icing on the cake and justifies spending a bit more on memory and processing power which would otherwise be wasted on a Chromebook.

Things you should know before buying

Linux is not for everyone.  There can be a bit of a learning curve, but that is the case for most open source software.  If you are familiar with Linux already or, as in my case, interested in learning more about Linux and looking for a lightweight travel solution this is a great option.

The main issue in my experience is installing software.  With Windows we are used to downloading an .exe file and running it to start an installation program to install software and pretty much everything is taken care of for us.  With MacOS we can often download a .dmg file from a website or the Apple store and copy it to the Applications folder and bam it is installed.  In other cases, especially with open source applications you might have to open the terminal window and type a command to download and install a program from an online repository.

Installing software on Linux can be a bit more complicated.  It may be as simple as typing a command to install from an online repository but there are several other options as well.  Most Linux software will have a web page with detailed instructions.  There may be dependencies that need to be installed first, you may need to install a signing key before your computer is trusted by the repository, you may need to add your repository name to a text file before it can be accessed, there might be a third party installation utility (flatpak, appimage, snap, etc) that you need to run to install, etc.  To make matters worse the installation instructions can be very different for different Linux distributions so be sure that you are using the instructions for the Debian distribution.  If you can’t find specific instructions for Debian you can try the Ubuntu instructions as Debian and Ubuntu are very closely related.

In short, installing software on Linux can involve a lot of googling, typing commands into the terminal, and sometimes a lot of frustration.  The good news is that A) there is almost always a solution that can be found on the internet and B) Once the software is installed the first time you run it you can pin the icon to the system tray and from then on out, all you have to do to start the program is click on the icon, just like any other app.

What can a Geospatial Professional do with a Pixelbook?

In short, pretty much anything other than run ESRI desktop software.  But then if you are mired in the ESRI world you probably aren’t interested in a Linux laptop in the first place.

QGIS runs great on my Pixelbook and that is the core geospatial desktop software.  Local instances of PostgreSQL and PostGIS can be installed easily for data storage and efficient geospatial querying and analysis of local data. If you are a web  GIS developer you can install a local version of the Apache web server for developing web mapping applications.  All development can be done locally and offline and then uploaded to a live server once your application is ready to be made accessible to others via the internet.  If you are a Python developer you can develop stand-alone Python applications or QGIS plug-ins.  If you are a geospatial data scientist you can install Anaconda and have full access to the standard Python data science stack (numpy, matplotlib, pandas, etc) along with the geospatial extensions (geopandas, rasterio, etc) and the machine learning packages (sci-kit learn, tensor flow, etc.). Statisticians who work with spatial data can install R and its full suite of packages for working with geospatial data.

If you have taken any of my Udemy courses on open source technology, you can do all of them on a Pixelbook.  If you are reading this and want to learn more about any of the software mentioned please check out my courses page on my blog Geospatial Brainstorming.

Who is the Pixelbook for?

  1. Anyone who wants to be able to combine Android apps and/or browser based apps with a keyboard in a light, durable, travel computer.
  2. GIS professionals comfortable in the open source world (QGIS etc).
  3. Developers who want to take their Linux development environment on the road with them.
  4. Data scientists who need access to Python and/or R when they travel.

If you want to learn more about the open source tools and technologies available for working with geospatial data please see my courses page.  In addition to basic GIS functionality available in QGIS, you can do all of the advanced level things like multi-user editing, spatial analysis, network analysis, web development, mobile data collection, etc that can cost 10’s of thousands of dollars with commercial software for free.


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