When I was trying to decide whether or not to buy Google’s Pixelbook, the final factor for me was the artist’s experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an artist’s review of the device, so I decided to buy it and try it.
I’m pretty firmly into Chrome OS for everything, and I wondered how well the Pixelbook’s pen and Android apps could satisfy my digital illustration needs. Previously, I’ve used a Wacom Intuos board, and then a Surface Pro for direct-to-screen illustration. I’ve not used any of the apps or the pencil on the iPad Pro. Why not? I’m not a fan of the pure tablet format, and wouldn’t have much use for the iPad beyond art, so it’s not something I would spend money on. I write a lot, and wanted a backlit keyboard and UHD/4K screen, so the Pixelbook was already looking pretty good to me. Because of where I work (Google), I’d already seen a few in person, and they are gorgeous.
I’m not a professional artist, but I have been in the past. I was a production artist for years, worked in print production, and did fine art and animation for a while. Years ago, a project that I helped with ended up being included in a MoMA exhibit. The point is that I’m nothing near a full-time working artist, but I’m also not a complete derelict who has zero experience, so adjust your expectations of this review accordingly.
So, is it usable?
Absolutely. The Pixelbook is optimized for a handful of art apps, most notably Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, Infinite Painter and ArtRage. I tried all three, and didn’t bother with the note-taking apps because I don’t care about taking notes. The apps were all extremely responsive. I experienced no perceptible lag when drawing. I’ve used ArtRage before, and I like it for what it does, but after trying all three apps I settled on Sketchbook Pro. I didn’t put Adobe’s Photoshop Sketch app in here because when I tried it, I experienced a fair amount of lag.
The nice thing about the Android versions of these apps is that they are much less expensive than the Windows/MacOS versions. They seem to have a little less functionality, but not much. Each also has a free trial, which is usually just a severely reduced tool set. I paid the $5 for the Sketchbook Pro upgrade. One downside of the Android version of Sketchbook is that you can’t import external brushes. Hopefully this is changed in a future version, because it was annoying reading about people’s cool brush sets and not being able to use them.
Everything seemed as sensitive and responsive as my older Wacom setup, and because it’s all on a touchscreen, you can do things like grab the canvas with two fingers on the screen and zoom in/out and rotate at will. It’s far more like working on, for example, a sheet of paper. In a purely subjective judgment, I found the actual drawing experience better on the Pixelbook than on my Surface Pro.
One thing I did miss from my Intuos days was the feel of the board itself. With the Pixelbook, just like the iPad Pro or Surface Pro, you’re drawing on glass, and you can tell. There is no texture to it. You forget about it after a while, but still, it’s a thing.
The one thing I’m still missing on Android
I’m okay with the raster illustration tool set on Android. It’s not spectacular, but I think it’s serviceable. As far as the illustration pipeline goes though, I’m still missing one crucial piece. While many of the illustration apps have some limited ability to adjust colors for an entire layer, it’s just that — limited. A strong part of my illustration pipeline is to take my finished-but-still-layered work into Photoshop and tune it layer by layer. Maybe I’ll sharpen or lens blur some things, or maybe I’ll do some masking and spot color adjustments. Coming from a print production background, Photoshop’s color adjustment tools are an old and good friend. Sometimes, I’ll also pull pieces of an illustration into the Liquefy tool to adjust proportions after the fact.
As of now, there is nothing on Android that supports that level of control. I was hoping that Lightroom CC Mobile would allow you to apply its relative power to layered PSD files, but it doesn’t.
Sadly then, I’m not 100% removed from the traditional desktop OSs. Sigh.
The Pixelbook Pen is an additional $100. There’s nothing outstanding about it, so I’ll just do the gripes:
- It requires a battery, which adds weight.
- The body is metal, so even for apps that support “erase with the butt” you’re putting metal against your screen. Not all apps support it anyway.
- There is only one button on it, and it launches the Google Assistant. You can’t reprogram it. From the artists’ perspective, it’s a huge waste.
- You can’t change nibs like you can on a Wacom stylus.
Other than that, it does its job. My hand doesn’t get tired holding it. It functions well. I noticed no degradation from a pressure or tilt perspective against my old Wacom setup.
Here are a handful of things that I’ve done with it so far (I think that two were Sketchbook and one was ArtRage):
And then here’s something I started, and due to OS resets I lost 🙁
Unless you’re really into premium device design, there’s not much to recommend the Pixelbook over, say the Samsung Chromebook Pro. It has the same res screen, more or less the same specs and features.
However, and this is a big however, if you actually want to do digital art, I’d say that as long as you’re good with the illustration offerings on Android, the Pixelbook + Pen is worth the extra cash.
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