On my list of articles to eventually write, I left a note about writing one day a hopeful post about what my dream Tensor-powered Pixelbook would look like. Time and time again I considered writing it, but I always stumbled upon a key point in the history of the Pixelbook and Google-created Chromebook that made me doubt it would ever happen.
With Google now deep into the SoC game with Tensor, it wouldn’t make sense for them to build a Chromebook in-house with anything else under the hood. Seriously, can you imagine how inconvenient it would be for a new Pixelbook with an Intel, Qualcomm, or MediaTek chip to launch at this point. That would be weird, right? But, if you look at it with a lens, it also wouldn’t make sense for them to build one with Tensor inside either. Let me explain.
What are Chromebooks made by Google used for?
To understand this point, it’s imperative that you first understand why Google’s proprietary Chromebooks existed in the first place. Along the way, devices like the Chromebook Pixel, Pixelbook, and Pixel Slate have all appeared at times when the ChromeOS market as a whole needed a push in a particular direction.
From the start, Chromebook Pixels showed manufacturers what a high-end Chromebook could look like. The Pixelbook gave Chromebook makers a model for the convertible, stylus, slim 2-in-1s we see all the time these days. The Pixel Slate was a showcase for the shift to tablet-optimized software for Chromebooks and the Pixelbook Go was a shining example of what fine craftsmanship without every high-end component can deliver in a Chromebook.
They all served their purpose and I would say they all met the goals set by Google’s ChromeOS team. Granted, in the process they’ve become somewhat iconic and desirable, and in a market where Google chooses to partner closely with OEMs for Chromebook releases, that can easily become problematic. After all, Google isn’t trying to compete in this space like they are in the smartphone world with Pixel. Instead, with Chromebooks, they’re trying to lead, innovate, and shed light to drive the market forward.
Tensor is the only hardware change Google could make
So here in 2022, how exactly would Google move the needle with a new Pixelbook? What remains to be introduced, modified or redirected? Like smartphones, I think laptops have largely taken off and we’re now at the point where iteration trumps innovation. Seriously, what would you add to the Chromebook mix at this point from a hardware perspective? Apart from better versions of existing components, what else is there to add or subtract from the equation?
And if we can’t find good answers to these questions, what do we expect from Google with a new Pixelbook? If competing with HP, ASUS, Acer, Lenovo, Samsung and Dell isn’t preferable and there’s nothing new to entice manufacturers to do, what else could Google do with a different new Pixelbook and a big change in this ecosystem?
Tensor. That’s what. Like Apple did with their internal M1 and M2 processors in Macbooks, we all looked at each other and thought it would be a great idea for Google to create a proprietary Chromebook with Tensor inside, giving them vertical integration complete between hardware, software and the internal SoC. It all makes perfect sense, right? If Google is serious about Tensor and serious about ChromeOS, it really felt like that was the only way forward and we were all extremely excited to see it unfold with a brand new Pixelbook.
A problem with this line of thinking
But there’s a problem with that line of thinking which I hadn’t considered before this week, and this particular conundrum now makes me think that unless some things change, we may never see a Tensor-powered Pixelbook.
First, we have to assume that Google has no plans to share its in-house SoC with other Chromebook makers. They might choose to, but with the recent reveal that upcoming Pixel tablets will run on the phone version of Tensor (and not a new tablet-only version), the idea of Tensor in all doesn’t exactly feel realistic right now. We really had a feeling there would eventually be a desktop Tensor chip, a watch-sized Tensor chip, a phone-based Tensor chip, and maybe even a Tensor smart home at some point. Right now, that’s just not the case.
Now that we know there’s no tablet-specific Tensor and that the desktop Tensor we thought we’d see in the next Pixelbook is clearly not a thing either, I’d bet we’ll see Tensor like Pixel -phone only for a while. I could be wrong on that front, but the evidence is in my favor at this point, and that means that instead of an abundance of Tensor everywhere, it might stay in one lane – the Pixel phone lane – for the foreseeable future .
That fact alone makes me all the more confident that Google isn’t preparing to make Tensor a shareable SoC with other manufacturers, and that means Tensor is becoming a divisive force, not a unifying force in the Chromebook market.
Google doesn’t want to compete with Chromebook OEMs
If a new Pixelbook emerges with Tensor inside as a new core feature, it would put Google in direct competition with other OEMs. Imagine it for a second: Google shows up and is hyping a new Pixelbook with superior build quality and the first-ever laptop-ready Tensor SoC inside. It’s integrated and fast and the best ChromeOS experience yet: and Google is the only one that can do that.
You see where this is heading, don’t you? This kind of siled thinking works for companies like Apple that don’t share their hardware or software with other companies, but it’s been a bit of a thorn in the side of OEMs that build Windows laptops. With Microsoft now making its own high-end hardware, they are in direct competition with their OEM partners and, it seems, many of these OEMs aren’t big fans of that.
At this stage of the Chromebook game, Google has no intention of going down this path. A brilliantly built Pixelbook that only exists to show off Tensor would spit on the same OEMs that Google truly considers partners. In an environment where Google is trying to foster growth and pave the way for OEMs to create really great hardware for their desktop OS, it would make absolutely no sense for Google to step on all those toes with a new Pixelbook just built to boast the Tensor SoC.
Why Pixelbook Could Eventually Return
Does that mean we’ll never see a Pixelbook again? I do not think so. After all, they just redistributed the Pixelbook team to other places in the organization, so when it comes time for a new Pixelbook, they can just get the gang back together and get to work. It turns out that the time is not right and Tensor is not the right reason for a new first-party Google Chromebook to emerge.
Instead, I think the time for the next Pixelbook will come when it will be necessary to explore new, untested hardware again. We’re not there yet, but I could see a future where something like a Pixelbook Fold becomes a thing. Sure, big folding laptops are rare and priced out of most people’s budgets right now, but that won’t be the case forever.
In a few years, a foldable laptop like the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 will be thinner, lighter, and much more reasonably priced as the technology becomes more standard. In that future, I might see a Chromebook with this kind of sought-after functionality, and then a Pixelbook would be needed to light the way again.
But an example like this is a hardware move that all OEMs can replicate. Google highlighted convertible Chromebooks, inking experiences, detachable keyboards, 3:2 displays, glass trackpads, and superb build quality with previous Pixelbook hardware, but these are all hardware properties that other OEMs can realistically aspire to and build on. A custom internal SoC like Tensor is not that at all. Instead, it’s anti-competitive and a very un-Google thing to do in the world of ChromeOS.
That’s why, even if I wanted to see it, a Pixelbook with Tensor just doesn’t make sense right now. If Google’s strategy regarding Chromebooks, OEMs, partnerships, and Pixelbook hardware changes in the future, this discussion will need to be revisited. As they did after years of the Nexus program, Google could become a real player in the Chromebook market. For now, however, they are not, and it is precisely because of this fact that I think a Tensor-powered Pixelbook never made sense at all. It’s a shame, though. It would have been pretty great, I think.