Google’s Chromebook Pixel: A Very Nice Machine for a Very Small Market

If you're willing and able to spend $1299 or more for a web-only computing device, you might love Google's high-end Chromebook.

  • Share
  • Read Later

When Google unveiled its new Chromebook Pixel at a San Francisco press event last week, it played up one feature above all others: the Chrome OS laptop’s 12.85″ screen, which, at 2560-by-1700 pixels with 239 pixels per inch, is one of the most outstandingly crisp displays ever to be put on a computing device. It’s also a touchscreen, the first ever on a Chromebook.

But when chatter about the Pixel commenced on blogs and Twitter, the feature which attracted the most attention wasn’t the screen. It was the price — $1299 for the version with Wi-Fi and 32GB of flash storage, and $1449 for one with Wi-Fi, LTE broadband and 64GB of storage. That’s as much as a MacBook Air or a high-end Windows Ultrabook. For Chromebooks, it’s uncharted territory: you could buy six Acer C7 Chromebooks for the price of the Wi-Fi Pixel and have a hundred bucks left over.

But hold on a moment. This Chromebook has an exceptional screen. It has a beautifully put-together aluminum case, still a rarity on any notebook without an Apple logo. It has a fine backlit keyboard and a great AC adapter. (It’s pretty much a black knockoff of Apple’s square power brick with the removable cord, but it’s much, much slicker than the cheesy adapters which come with even top-of-the-line Windows computers.) It may be the most impressive piece of industrial design that’s ever run a Google operating system.

Google is also throwing in a terabyte of Google Drive online storage for three years, an $1800 value; if by chance you were thinking about paying for the service separately, buying a Chromebook Pixel is like getting a computer for free.

The Pixel surely doesn’t cost a lot because Google is charging too much. It costs a lot because the company pulled out all the stops and made the best Chromebook it possibly could. Which means that the machine is a litmus test of sorts.

Pretend, for a moment, that some kind soul has given you $1299 to spend on any portable computer you choose. If you’d plunk it down for a Chromebook, you’re seriously committed to Google’s vision of a browser-centric world in which computers boot up instantly, everything is stored on the Internet and consumers don’t have to fret about operating-system updates and security holes. And if you’d spend your dough on a MacBook or Windows laptop instead, you’re saying that you’re not ready to give up conventional computing for Google’s cloud-centric dream.

Me, I’ve been using a Chromebook Pixel provided by Google for the past six days or so. I’m still not sold on the idea that Chrome OS has rendered traditional operating systems which run local software obsolete. Even so, spending time with the Pixel has improved my impression of Chrome OS, an operating system I’ve found frustrating in the past. I feel less like the idea’s a nonstarter, and more like it’s a work in progress.

As is my occasional wont, I’m going to share the rest of my thoughts on the Pixel in the form of an interview with myself…

So how’s that screen?

Really, really nice, when it’s displaying stuff that shows off just how many pixels it packs. Text on web pages is super-crisp, and Google provides wallpapers and a scenic video with spectacular detail.

As with Apple’s Retina-screen MacBook Pros, however, the Pixel’s display is so cutting-edge that it’s raced ahead of much of the web it displays. Many of the images I encountered, produced with lower-resolution devices in mind, looked blocky on the Pixel, which scales them up so they stay in proportion with the other elements on a web page. Some icons were razor-sharp; others (including the one for my Google Apps Gmail account) were pixelated eyesores.

And when I tweaked photos in Pixlr‘s excellent browser-based image editor, it didn’t take advantage of the Pixel’s additional resolution to squeeze more of the image on-screen at one time: it only displayed a third of a photo which, in theory, should have fit in its entirety.

Google cheerfully admits that the Pixel’s specs sail past the needs of most of the sites it displays. Its Chromebook site declares that “The Chromebook Pixel is a laptop that brings together the best in hardware, software, and design to inspire future innovation.” It’s hoping that the very existence of the high-res screen and other features will encourage the web to catch up with its capabilities. We shall see.

How about the aspect ratio of 3:2? This is the first non-widescreen notebook to come along in years.

It makes for the tall sort of display that used to be universal before widescreens came along. That means widescreen video gets displayed with extra acreage of black bars up top and on the bottom. But I basically like it: as Google says, the web needs height more than it needs width, and the additional vertical pixels permit you to see more of stuff like word-processing documents without having to scroll incessantly.

You didn’t mention that it’s a touchscreen.

That’s because it may be the least interesting thing about this laptop. You can scroll around and jab at buttons with your fingertip, but I’m not sure why you would, given that your fingers will be closer to the machine’s sizable touchpad. Weirdly, pinch-to-zoom only works on web pages if you turn on an option buried in a secret configuration page.

The real issue here is that almost nothing on today’s web was designed with touch input in mind. Google is readying a Google+ photo app which may show off the touchscreen to better advantage, and it says it’s encouraging web developers to build touch-friendly sites and services. For now, though, I don’t think the Pixel’s touch capability is a major selling point, even for touchscreen aficionados.

What’s it like using Chrome OS?

Way better than it was the first time I tried living with a Chromebook, back in 2011. Back then, the experience was rife with glitches — such as random crashes and a balky touchpad — which made me feel like I was participating in a science experiment.

On the Pixel, Chrome OS is smooth, very smooth. When you open the case, it springs to life almost instantly. The laptop’s big, glass touchpad is one of the best I’ve used, handling precise mouse pointing, two-fingered scrolling and other gestures with aplomb. I haven’t tried formally benchmarking the browser, but it feels super-snappy, even when I hop between tabs — and even when I have more than forty tabs open at a time.

Some things which didn’t run on a Chromebook in 2011, such as Netflix, now work fine. The only technical oddities I encountered were occasional instances when links on web pages didn’t work until I refreshed the browser. Then again, that sometimes happens with ordinary browsers on conventional laptops, too.

Using a browser as your sole computing interface still has its drawbacks: I wish, for instance, that the full-screen mode was more sophisticated. (Once you’re in it, there doesn’t seem to be any way to switch to other web apps without exiting it.) But in most respects that matter, Chrome is the best browser I’ve ever used.

How easy is it to get online?

Easy, especially if you buy the $1449 version with Verizon Wireless LTE, which is what Google provided for review. But I did notice that when I opened the Pixel’s lid, it took a few seconds for the machine to reconnect to LTE; by contrast, my Verizon iPad seems to be online the moment I press the power button.

How well does it work when you don’t have an Internet connection?

It depends on what you’re expecting, and what you need to do. Some of Google’s own productivity apps — Docs, Sheets, Slides — work well offline. I was also able to edit images with Pixlr and save them to the Pixel’s local storage. Gmail is usable, although you use it in an entirely separate, reduced-feature web app, not the standard Gmail one. A number of games, including Angry Birds, are playable.

Google Calendar supposedly is available without a connection, but only in read-only mode; I couldn’t figure out how to make even that work, though. And some of the other web apps I wanted to use, such as Evernote, aren’t designed for offline use.

One of the least polished aspects of Chrome OS is its behavior when it isn’t connected to the Internet. Sometimes it knows it’s offline and tells you so; in other instances, it seems to mistakenly suspect that there’s something wrong with the site you’re trying to use. The whole experience would be more pleasing if it were more clear that you were disconnected, and if the operating system always behaved in the same way.

Aside from offline issues, what else couldn’t you do?

Well, a couple of things in the brief time I’ve had with the machine: I wanted to make a Skype call to my colleague Doug, but Skype currently requires a downloadable app. I also tried listening to an Audible audiobook, but discovered that it was in a format Chrome OS doesn’t understand. And I plugged in my beloved Microsoft LiveCam, which I prefer to any built-in webcam, just to see if the Google+ Hangouts service would notice it was there. No luck.

Of course, there are many other tasks a Chromebook is simply incapable of handling: My colleague Matt Peckham, for instance, uses a powerful piano app called Synthogy Ivory II which won’t run on a web-only computing device and involves libraries of audio files which require more local storage space than the Chromebook has. Chromebooks aren’t for people like Matt. They’re for people who already find themselves doing most or all of their computing on the web rather than with traditional software.

Tell us about the battery life.

Oh, right. I found Google’s estimate of “up to” five hours of use on a charge to be accurate. And disappointing. The Intel Core i5 processor that gives the Pixel such brisk performance also drains its battery rapidly. My iPad has trained me to believe that a new-wave computing device should get something in the neighborhood of ten hours of battery life, but Chromebooks are moving in the wrong direction: the first one you could buy, Samsung’s original Series 5, claimed 8.5 hours and came close in my experience.

What’s the storage situation?

The $1299 Pixel has 32GB of solid-state storage; the $1449 LTE model has 64GB.  If you’ve got a profusion of videos or other portly files, that could be tight. But if you buy into the Chromebook proposition, you’ll use that space mostly when you’re unable to connect to your online Google Drive. And the Pixel comes with an awe-inspiring 1TB of Google Drive storage, at no charge for the first three years. (Actually, you don’t need to fret that Google will start charging you for the stuff you’ve stored after three years — if you fill up your 1TB, the company says it’ll store those files indefinitely for free.)

Now, an online drive isn’t really a substitute for a local one: for one thing, as my friend Avram Piltch of LAPTOP magazine pointed out on Facebook, the monthly data caps many ISPs enforce may prevent you from moving massive files back and forth willy-nilly. Still, having that much room — 500 times the base allotment of a free Dropbox account — will allow virtually anybody to store virtually all of their data on the web, with room to spare.

Give us a bottom line, please.

Just as I can admire a $100,000 electric sportscar without contending that it’s a practical machine for the masses — or even craving one myself — I’m happy that Google built the Chromebook Pixel, even though the market for it is likely going to be negligible. If you’re a Chromebook believer, aren’t fazed by paying $1299 or more for one and can live with around five hours of battery power, the chances are good that you’ll be delighted by this computer. (I’ll bet a meaningful percentage of folks who buy and like it will be satisfied owners of previous Chromebook models.)

For everybody else, it’s a curiosity. But it’s also proof that Google can design and ship an outstanding piece of hardware. Here’s hoping it plows some of what it learned from building the Pixel into gizmos for the rest of us.

VIDEO: Let’s Talk About Google’s Chromebook Pixel