CHROMEBOOK PIXEL : An Expensive Toy
And yet, here we are: the Chromebook Pixel is real, it’s on my desk, and it starts at $1,299. For the kind of hardware we’re talking about—state-of-the-art Intel processors, a high-density touchscreen, and build quality to rival the best from both the Windows and Apple ecosystems—that price tag isn’t unreasonable. However, the Pixel is still running Chrome OS. Whether your Chromebook costs $199 or $1,299, that operating system still has all of the same features: it relies on constant Internet connectivity, it seeks to replace traditional desktop apps with Web apps, and it’s mostly just a Web browser running on top of a lightweight Linux distribution.
The question is, does this combination make sense? Are the professionals and power users who are willing to spend that kind of money on a computer the same kind of people who can live within Chrome OS’ limitations?
Body and build quality
|SPECS AT A GLANCE: GOOGLE CHROMEBOOK PIXEL|
|SCREEN||2560×1700 at 12.85" (239 ppi)|
|CPU||1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5|
|RAM||4GB 1600MHz DDR3|
|GPU||Intel HD 4000 Graphics (integrated)|
|HDD||32 or 64GB solid-state drive|
|NETWORKING||Dual-band 802.11n, Bluetooth 3.0, USB Ethernet dongle, optional LTE|
|PORTS||2x USB 2.0, mini DisplayPort, card reader, headphones|
|SIZE||11.72 × 8.84 × 0.64" (297.7 x 224.6 x 16.2 mm)|
|WEIGHT||3.35 lbs (1.52 kg)|
|PRICE AS REVIEWED||$1,449.99|
|OTHER PERKS||Webcam, 1TB of Google Drive storage for three years, 12 free GoGo Inflight Internet sessions, 100MB of Verizon Wireless data per month for two years (LTE model only)|
The body of the Pixel is one solid gray anodized aluminum rectangle. It lacks the curves or tapering that define many Ultrabooks, and it’s a consistent 0.64” thick throughout. This is about a tenth of an inch thinner than Apple’s 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and, at 3.35 pounds, the Pixel is also just a bit lighter than that laptop (which weighs 3.57 pounds all told). This means the Pixel is neither Ultrabook-thin nor Ultrabook-light, but it’s still pretty easy to sling in a bag and carry around, even if you’re used to something a bit lighter.
The all-aluminum construction is very solid, and the palm rest and keyboard don’t bend or flex even a little under pressure. The laptop is all clean, straight lines with just a couple of exceptions: the indentation in the front that’s used to lift the lid (an action that doesn’t budge the laptop’s base), and the rounded hinge (which protrudes from the back of the laptop). There’s also the standard array of ports: two USB 2.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort, and a headphone jack on the laptop’s left side, and an SD card slot and (optional) SIM card slot on the right.
Google even went so far as to hide normal computer-y things from view—the speakers are hidden underneath the keyboard rather than behind cutouts, there are no visible screws, and the system’s air vent (located at the back of the laptop near the hinge) is also essentially invisible. The device’s two Chrome labels, one on the hinge and one above the keyboard, are understated and don’t use the colorful Chrome logo as seen on other Chromebooks.
The device’s sole visual flair consists of three horizontal strips near the top of the lid—two of these, on the left and right sides of the lid, are cutouts for the Pixel’s wireless antennas. The strip in the middle is a lightbar that can flash in different colors. When the machine is powered on or put to sleep, the strip briefly flashes blue, red, yellow, and green; when the computer is in use the light is a solid (but gently pulsating) blue. It’s a unique take on the traditional power LED, and it’s a touch that further emphasizes the attention given to the Pixel’s design.
The speakers under the keyboard get pretty loud without sacrificing clarity, though as expected in a laptop there’s not much bass to speak of. Google has also hidden a second microphone under the keyboard to help cancel noise from the keyboard during video chats, though Google told us the software to help with this wasn’t quite ready yet and would ship with a future update. The webcam itself is competent but unremarkable, perfectly usable for Google Hangouts (but not Skype or other services without an extension in the Chrome Web Store).
The Pixel is different from these panels in four important ways: the first is quality, and both the color and viewing angles on its touchscreen are excellent. They're fully up to the level of Apple’s Retina MacBook Pros or the better Windows 8 Ultrabooks we’ve seen in recent months (we’ll cherry-pickDell’s XPS 12 and Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 13 as good examples). The display also gets quite bright, though the brighter settings will sap the machine’s battery life fairly quickly (more on that later on).
The second difference is touch—the Pixel’s display is also a ten-point capacitive touchscreen not dissimilar from those currently shipping in high-end Windows 8 laptops. Like those displays, both the screen and its bezel are coated by a sheet of glass that looks nice but is extremely glossy and reflective.
Despite sporting a touchscreen, Chrome OS doesn’t yet do much to take advantage of it. No UI elements from the operating system have been tweaked to be more finger-friendly, and there definitely aren’t any touch gestures meant to simplify navigation (as exist in Windows 8 and many other smartphone and tablet operating systems). Even within the Chrome browser itself, the only thing you can really do with touch is scroll. Pinch-to-zoom is supported by some Web apps (Google Maps is probably the most prominent), but not universally. We suspect that Chrome OS’ list of touch features will grow over time, especially if the Pixel inspires other Chromebooks to pick up touch support (and it will probably be a boon to games like Angry Birds on the platform). But at the moment a touchscreen is in no way integral to the experience.
The third difference is the one that gives the Pixel its name: its screen uses a 12.85-inch 2560×1700 panel. At 239 PPI, this is even a bit denser than the 227 PPI of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. The comparison to Apple’s laptops is especially apt because the two operating systems take a similar approach to increasing screen density. They both choose to quadruple the resolution of a common display resolution and scale all of the text and graphics to 200 percent their normal display size, as opposed to the incremental (and sometimes messy) 140 percent and 180 percent scaling that Windows favors.
Because they take the same approach, the Chromebook Pixel’s display shares all of the same virtues and shortcomings as the displays in the Retina MacBook Pros (and, for that matter, the Retina iPadsand high-density Android tablets like the Nexus 10). Text, graphics, and applications that have been optimized for 200 percent scaling look crisp and clear, while images and apps that haven’t been optimized look just a little fuzzy.