Google's first Chrome OS device combines high tech and high fashion
"Disposable." When Eric Schmidt and Google first introduced Chrome OS, its operating system designed for desktop and laptop PCs, they kept using that word. Schmidt promised cheap devices that were essentially interchangeable — when all the computing power, storage, and apps come from the internet, because the entire operating system is just a slightly modified version of the Chrome browser, why build good hardware? Google even claimed to be entertaining the idea of selling you a free-on-contract PC.
Well the times, they are a changin'. The latest Chromebook off the assembly line, the Chromebook Pixel, is the first designed by Google itself, and it's many things — but it's sure as hell not disposable. From the ultra-high-resolution display to the powerful Intel processor, there's nothing cheap or compromised about the Pixel.
Then there's the price tag: $1,299, or $1,449 with an LTE connection and some data included. The price, and the Pixel itself, feel like a statement from Google: it's bringing its armies over the hill, ready to fight head-on with Windows and OS X PCs. $1,299 typically buys you a pretty spectacular laptop, whether it's a MacBook Air or any of a handful of high-end Windows ultrabooks — Google's putting its cards on the table and betting it can measure up. Perhaps even more audacious, it's betting that what we need from our laptops has changed, too.
The Pixel is the best-designed laptop I've ever used. It's not the flashiest or the most noticeable, necessarily — when it's closed and off, the matte gray lid certainly won't catch your eye next to the glowing Apple logo on a MacBook Air. But the Pixel's smooth, anodized aluminum body and slightly boxy look give the Pixel a refined, handsome, business-y vibe — this is the George Clooney of laptops.
It's a bit heavier than the MacBook Air — 3.35 pounds vs. about three flat — but everyone who asked to use the Pixel said something about it being noticeably heavier. I chalk that up to the Pixel's lack of a wedge design — the .65-inch-thick device looks much larger than the Air, which tapers down into near-nothingness. But despite its relative largesse, I'd rather use the Pixel: its slightly rounded edges don't dig into my wrists like the Air's, and I like typing on a flat surface rather than the Air's uphill slope.
During my review, I used the Pixel on an overnight flight from New York City to Barcelona. I used it for several hours on the dark plane, and nearly every single person walking by my aisle looked at the Pixel as they passed. One guy even did a double-take, screeching to a halt in the aisle as if he'd seen a ghost in seat 17G. They were all reacting to the Pixel's lightbar, which as far as I've discerned exists only to look cool and futuristic and maybe a little menacing. (The device's product page corrobrates this idea.) If it does have a true purpose, I don't care; I just love watching the blue light glow. Every few seconds, a bright spot travels from left to right, and when you close the lid it briefly glows the rainbow of Google colors. (Also, try the Konami code on the keyboard and see what happens.) It's cool all the time, but especially when the blue strip lights up dark rooms; I'm pretty sure I looked like Daniel Craig in a cerebral spy thriller, hunched over my laptop deciphering codes and saving the world as the blue light crosses the Pixel's lid.
It belongs in a spy movie, or an episode of 'Homeland'
The moment the laptop glows Google's rainbow is the only indication you ever get that Google made this machine. There's a Chrome logo above the keyboard, but the word "Google" never appears anywhere on the Pixel. I'd like to chalk that up to internal politicking or self-hatred at Google, but it's really more a testament to the incredibly spartan existence of the Chromebook Pixel.
There are no stickers, only the smallest set of fine print on the bottom, and nothing but the essentials anywhere on this machine. You get an SD card reader on the right side, next to the SIM card slot if you spring an extra $150 for the connected model. On the left sit two USB 2.0 ports (not the faster 3.0, unfortunately), a MiniDisplay port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the hole for the AC adapter brick. That plus trackpad, keyboard, HD webcam, and display make up everything there is to see on the Pixel.
I barely noticed the keyboard and trackpad, which is about the highest compliment I can pay them. I'm used to the MacBook Air, which I firmly believe has the best keyboard and the best trackpad of any device on the market — that's most of the reason the MacBook Air was our favorite Windows ultrabook, too. Using the Pixel felt identical. The smooth, glassy trackpad is fast and responsive — though it's missing some of the gestures I love about OS X, and is really limited to pointing and scrolling plus the rare pinch-to-zoom gesture. Likewise the chiclet-style, backlit keyboard clacks and travels just right, is well-spaced, and even uses a cool font on the keys.
There are a few Chrome OS-specific tweaks, like the swapping of a Caps Lock button for a dedicated Search key, and a row of function buttons above the keyboard that let you change brightness, switch between windows, reload a page, and the like. Those keys are are a little stiff to press and awkward to find, but they're really handy — I wish I had dedicated "Reload Page" and "Search Google" buttons all the time.
I've never seen a better laptop screen
Let's say the Pixel had a league-average 1366 x 768 display, like the MacBook Air's — maybe a little washed-out, but viewing angles are solid, and the screen does its job fine. I'd still like the Pixel more than most laptops, because the hardware is so good.
But I get to have my cake and eat it, too, because the Pixel's screen is the best laptop display I've ever seen. Its only rival is the Retina MacBook Pro, and it really doesn't matter which is better — the upshot is this 2560 x 1700 display is astonishingly sharp, bright, accurate, and vivid. When I lie on my bed with my MacBook Air on my chest, watching a movie or reading, I can make out individual pixels pretty easily; even with my eyes three inches away from the Pixel's screen text still looks perfect.
I constantly complain about 16:9 tablets — they're too wide and not tall enough, or awkwardly tall when you hold the device vertically. Laptops don't have the latter problem — why would you be holding your laptop sideways? — and I've been sort of Stockholm Syndrome-d into dealing with a lack of vertical space.
But the Pixel's 3:2 display, which is nearly as tall as it is wide, makes me wonder why no one else has thought to do this — the 12.85-inch display isn't quite as wide as a standard 13-inch screen, and you do get some letterboxing above and below any movie you're watching, but the tradeoff is simply more vertical space to read a web page. The unusual aspect ratio was probably an easier decision for Google to make, because web pages comprise the entire operating system, but I wish every laptop offered a 3:2 screen. That won't happen, of course, which is only more fodder for my wanting a Pixel.
At various points, I forgot the Pixel's display was a touchscreen. Unlike with Windows 8 machines, where I constantly reach toward the screen whether it responds or not, I never found myself instinctively tapping on the Pixel. The touchscreen works relatively well when I try to use it, though it does tend to scroll in fits and starts rather than glide smoothly underneath my finger. But thanks to some combination of the excellent trackpad and my subconscious reticence to sully the gorgeous display with fingerprints, I just used the Pixel like it had no touchscreen. Google's taking steps to make Chrome OS more touch-friendly, which might change that — there's a cool photo editing app that I did use with my finger — but for now the touchscreen feels more like future-proofing than anything else.
In the last six months or so, there's been a race toward the bottom with Chromebooks — how low could the specs go before performance took a noticeable hit? The answer, apparently, is really low: even an ARM-powered Chromebook worked, well, like a Chromebook. That makes it odd that the Pixel is easily the most powerful Chromebook ever, with a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics. That's roughly equal to most Windows ultrabooks in the Pixel's price range, though a few come with more powerful Core i7 processors.
The Pixel works well, but then of course it does. Chrome OS has always been the most stable version of Chrome on the planet, and the Pixel is likewise fast and virtually crash-free. It boots in less than ten seconds, and resumes almost instantly — it's a very fast, stable, powerful machine that never gets too loud or too hot. But it's not noticeably better than any other Chromebook, and it doesn't fix the problems seemingly endemic to these devices, like their odd inability to smoothly play local videos. I tried to watch 50 / 50 on a plane (solid, surprisingly intense movie), and the Pixel stuttered hard for about five minutes. Even once it settled, it jerked through the whole movie, jittering and pausing every few minutes. Yes, it's pushing a lot of pixels on that display, but the Pixel and its Core i5 should have no trouble playing a movie. Oddly, files stream from YouTube or Drive much better — I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but let's just say Google really wants you to use Drive. It pushes you there at every turn: you only get 32 or 64GB of internal storage, but you get 1TB of Drive storage for three years if you buy a Pixel. Of course, no amount of space can help me when I'm offline on a plane wanting to awkwardly cry during a Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie.
I'm willing to give up a lot to use a Chromebook. I know there are apps I can't use, I know printing is going to be a mess of non-compatibility, I know that being offline severely limits the usefulness of my computer. In return, all I ask is battery life. There, Chromebooks have been hit-or-miss: the ARM-powered Samsung model lasted just nearly seven hours on a charge, but the Acer C7 only made it four hours and change. Sadly, the Pixel is more akin to the C7: on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness at 65 percent, the Pixel lasted 4 hours and 30 minutes. On one hand, this result is a little skewed, since the Pixel's screen is so bright you can often use it at lower levels. But even stretching the battery as much as I could while still using the device normally, I never got more than five hours of battery life. That's just not very good, and doesn't make sense given how many sacrifices Google already asks you to make.
High-end specs feel like overkill in some places
Even the best web browser has its limitations
Sacrifices are really the name of the Chrome OS game, but not quite in the way I expected. I was pleasantly surprised to find that most apps I use work on the web, or at least have equivalent apps that do. Between Evernote, Simplenote, Wunderlist, Gmail, Google Docs, Office 365, Rdio, and TweetDeck, I quickly set up a pretty good approximation of my standard workflow — Google's built-in photo editor is even pretty good. I do miss Photoshop, though, and I have yet to find even a decent IRC client that works on Chrome OS. Google's even done a pretty good job of disguising that Chrome OS is just a web browser, especially with the latest updates — Aura added a taskbar of sorts, and the most recent version brings better notifications and an awesome searchable app tray. Once I set up a few apps to open as separate windows rather than browser tabs, I could have convinced you that it was a desktop OS as long as I have an active and fast internet connection. (If I could have a Chromebook Pixel plus Google Fiber connectivity, I'd die a happy man.)
It's not a desktop OS, though, and it's missing some of the things I rely on on my PC. Some are crucial: way too many of the apps I named above don't work offline, and even those that do are stripped-down, slow, and often clumsy. Other issues are minor, but annoying. There's no easy way to switch between apps, for instance: you either Alt-Tab through your open windows in some order I don't totally understand, or you use the trackpad to select the app you want. I quickly and deeply missed Expose on OS X, or Windows' far superior Alt-Tab setup. There are lots of these little issues with Chrome OS, like the fact that offline features can only be enabled for Gmail, Google Docs, and the like for a single Gmail account. I can't be the only person with work and personal email accounts who might need to access both on a plane, right?
On the other hand, there are things about Chrome OS I hope Apple and Microsoft are paying attention to. Google Docs' ability to save things automatically and seamlessly, even while offline; the resizing tool that gives you a bunch of different places to quickly snap a window; the super-simple file browser that offers deep and powerful search. I even love that Google calls it "Australian scrolling" instead of "natural scrolling," though I turned that off as fast as humanly possible. Chrome OS offers a simple, intuitive UI that I really enjoy using, and I bet I could teach my Grandma to use a Chromebook faster than any Windows or OS X machine. But it's ultimately limited, and there are just too many apps it can't run and too few things you can do outside of absolutely ideal situations. That's why Chromebooks are usually thought of as secondary machines for power users, and though Google's slowly shedding the reputation it's a long way from finished.
Can I borrow $1,299?
I love the Chromebook Pixel. I can't remember the last time I so unequivocally enjoyed using a device. Its display, keyboard, trackpad, and overall fit and finish are as good as any laptop I've ever used, and in some cases is my new standard-bearer for laptop reviews going forward. Battery life is a bummer but not a deal-breaker — it's not terrible, just not as good as I hoped — and I actually sort of liked the limitations of having to use browser-based tools, because it meant I could recreate my entire workspace on any device that runs Chrome.
And yet, when it came time to write this review, edit and upload pictures, and do real research, I opened up my MacBook Air again. I needed Photoshop. I needed Evernote to work offline, because I needed a tool that worked better than Google Docs's Scratchpad tool (which is handy, just not particularly powerful). I needed to easily jump back and forth between three windows at once. I'd rather use the Chromebook Pixel, but I wind up having to use the MacBook all the time.
That's the problem. If you have $2,600 to spend on a computer, buy a MacBook Air and a Chromebook Pixel, and live the rest of your life a happy shopper knowing I'm deeply jealous. But for the rest of us, even $1,299 is a lot to spend on a laptop, and I don't know who of the rest of us I'd recommend a Pixel to. If you want a secondary computer with long battery life, get a $200 Samsung Chromebook – it's a darn good second laptop. If you want a high-end laptop, get a MacBook Pro with Retina display and enjoy most of the Pixel's benefits with few of its limitations.
Everyone should want a Chromebook Pixel — I certainly do. But almost no one should buy one.
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