Google set out to build “the best laptop possible”. The result: the Chromebook Pixel. A sleek and powerful device designed specifically for life in the cloud. If the display doesn’t make your jaw drop, the price tag will.
What Is It?
The Pixel is the latest iteration of Google’s Chromebook series. But unlike the $250 beat-around that preceded it, the Pixel focuses on high-end features like a retina-rivalling, pixel-packed touchscreen display and powerful Intel i5 CPU. It runs Chrome OS, Google’s browser-based operating system.
Who Is It For?
It’s certainly not for everybody. Google says that the Pixel is built “specially for power users who have fully embraced the cloud”, and both its performance and price tag seem support that claim. But few folks beyond those already heavily invested in Google’s online services actually meet that definition. Or Google fanboys. People married to a specific program like Photoshop or Garage Band and need the specific functionality that the program provides won’t have much use for the Pixel. However, if your normal workday is almost entirely browser and cloud based — like mine is for example — or you’ve just fully bought into the Cult of Google, the Pixel can be incredibly useful.
Why It Matters
It’s Google’s first foray into the high-end market and a direct assault on a segment held by rivals Apple and Microsoft’s legion of manufacturing partners. Google appears to be giving Chrome a legitimate shot at establishing itself as a viable OS. Chromebooks up until this point cost $US250 and performed like it. They were great as secondary laptops, something to give your kids to destroy so they would keep their grubby mitts off your MBA. But the Pixel is built as an ultrabook competitor, not merely a stand-in. This is especially significant given Google’s popularity among the huddled masses. With the meteoric rise of Android, Google’s shown what its software can do with the right hardware partners. The Pixel looks to be the company’s first steps towards doing the same with Chrome OS. By providing it with inarguably top-rate hardware, Google has freed Chrome OS to succeed or fail on its own merits.
The Pixel's main attraction, however, has got to be its big, beautiful touchscreen. It's 12.85 inches diagonal, running on an Intel HD Graphics 4000 card at 2560x1700 resolution -- that's 239ppi, better than Apple's 227ppi MacBook Pro Retina display. And rather than a conventional 16:9 aspect ratio (and in order to fit the full keyboard) Google went with a 3:2, providing nearly 20 per cent more vertical space for web browsing without sacrificing the ability to display 16:9 video content.
Its exterior is minimalist without appearing completely barren; the Pixel is smaller than a Thinkpad X1. It measures 11.7 inches (298mm) wide, 8.8 inches (225mm) deep and 0.63 inches (16.2mm) thick with the lid closed. By comparison, the MacBook Air is 0.68 inches when closed. But it weighs in at 1.5kg, noticeably heftier than the MacBook Air's 1.3kg. The dark grey aluminium frame is squeaky clean -- Google intentionally omitted the ID symbols for ports, for example -- and square, lots of rounded right angles, with a thin status light running along the top of the lid. The lid itself is sturdy and shows no signs of flexing, even when I'm pressing against the touchscreen -- it opens smoothly and effortlessly.
Opening the lid reveals a full size keyboard, with a set of functional keys -- back, forward, reload, full screen, switch screen, screen brightness, volume control and power -- running left to right across the top of the board. The 10-point touchpad is velvety soft and responsive (adjusting its responsiveness is easy enough through the Settings menu). It also includes a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a mini-HDMI, a front-facing 720p HD camera, an SD card reader and a headphone/mic jack.
Internally, the Pixel features an Intel dual core i5 processor, 32 or 64GB SSD with 4GB of DDR3 RAM. The 32GB version comes with a built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi antenna, while the 64GB version comes with Wi-Fi and LTE connectivity.
Holy hell this thing is fast. Powering on takes just 15 seconds, and it wakes instantly from sleeping. But consider the fact that it's booting up a browser, so... yeah. Both the Wi-Fi and LTE connections make short work of moving large files to and from the cloud. The LTE slurps data and should be used sparingly. The keyboard is perhaps the best I've ever used on a laptop. The keys are well-spaced, sturdy and responsive with a firm action. The touchscreen is incredibly accurate and responsive. Unlike the Acer S7, where I found myself secretly wishing for a stylus. I could switch effortlessly between using the touchpad for navigation and the screen itself for making selections (while minimising the amount of fingerprint smudging left on the screen). The video quality was superb, with minimal chop and pixelation on streaming content from YouTube (GoT Season 3 trailer). Even powering through archives of large vertical-format web comics was much less of a hassle than on a 16:9 screen thanks to the extra 18 per cent of vertical real estate.
The battery life was impressive as well, lasting about six hours a charge. I also liked the charging cord's indicator ring which glowed red, yellow or green according to how much power remained.
This machine is put together really, really well, and the attention to detail is phenomenal. Every external screw is hidden from sight, the fans are efficient and almost completely silent, porting from a tiny gap in the rear of the lower lid. From opening the lid, to swiping across the pad and screen, you get the feeling that every single aspect of the computer has been agonized over for the user's benefit. The same goes for the software; everything fits within a Google-curated UI, so it works together seamlessly and manages the content you produce automatically. At heart, the Pixel is a basic web browsing laptop with Office functionality and an incredible screen. It picks a function and does it very, very well.
This is an awesome rig saddled with an albatross of a price tag. Even if the limited potential functionality of Chrome OS didn't turn you off, paying $US1300-$US1450 for it probably will. And even given as much time as I spend on the internet, dropping $1300 or more on a system that does only that, no matter how well, is extravagant. Even when you can find a decent replacement for your standalone apps -- using Pixlr Editor, say, rather than Photoshop -- you've then got to go through the whole learning curve of adapting to the new software and workflow. It's a hassle, no two ways about it. In addition, the speakers were decent but not in any way outstanding, they tended to squeak a bit with the volume above 80 per cent.
Should You Buy This
Again, it depends on what you're looking for in a laptop. Similarly specced Windows 8 ultrabooks retail for less, and you can pick up a refurbished MBP (or tricked out MacBook Air) for about the same. So if you need a "full-function" workstation or can't stand the thought of a device not being used to its fullest potential then, no, you probably shouldn't.
However, a lot of people also use their laptops for little more than checking email and surfing the web -- your parents, for example. It's easy to forget just how enormous the internet is, how much there is to see and do on it. And how gorgeous it all looks under 239ppi.
Google Chromebook Pixel Specs
• Screen: 12.85 inches, 2560x1700, 239ppi
• Display type: touchscreen LCD
• CPU: 1.8GHz dual-core Intel i5
• Memory: 4GB DDR3 RAM
• Storage: 32GB or 64GB local SSD, three years of included 1TB Google Drive cloud storage
• GPU: Intel HD Graphics 4000
• Connectivity: 2 x USB 2.0, SD card Reader, mini-HDMI, 8023.11n Wi-Fi, LTE, 720p front-facing camera
• Weight: 1.5kg
• Dimensions: 298mm x 225mm x 16.2mm
• Price: $US1300 32GB Wi-Fi, $US1450 64GB Wi-Fi/LTE