Google Chromebook Pixel review: Chrome OS gets a premium touch
It’s been nearly two years since the first commercially available Chromebook was introduced… prompting many folks to wonder why they’d spend $430 on a laptop designed to run an operating system based on a web browser. Chromebooks have come a long way since then, with the operating system becoming more mature, web apps becoming more useful, and the average price of a Chromebook dropping.
Today you can pick up an Acer Aspire C7 Chromebook for as little as $200 or a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook with an ARM Cortex-A15 processor for $249. Both offer generally speedy performance and acceptable perforbatterymance in a portable package. And they’re priced low enough to consider picking one up as a secondary computer — one that you can use when you don’t need the full functionality of a Windows or OS X computer.
Priced at or below $249, the latest generation of Chromebooks have been selling quite well. They’re typically in the bestseller lists at Amazon and other retailers, and those shops have a hard time keeping the cheapest Chromebooks in stock.
Given the popularity of inexpensive Chromebooks, it can seem a bit baffling that the first Chrome OS laptop designed by Google is priced more like a MacBook than a netbook.
The Chromebook Pixel sells for $1299 and up. And if you look at the hardware, it’s actually probably worth the asking price. Google’s first laptop has a sturdy, well designed case, speedy hardware, and one of the best displays you’ll find on any laptop. It also has excellent speakers and a great touchpad, and a responsive touchscreen.
What confuses many folks is that there are so many things you can’t do on a laptop running Chrome OS that would be simple on another laptop that it’s easy to overlook the benefits of a Chromebook.
After spending a few days with the Google Chromebook Pixel I’m convinced that this laptop isn’t for everyone. But that’s not to say there isn’t an audience for the Pixel. It just may not be the audience you’d expect.
What is Chrome OS?
The first thing to keep in mind about the Chromebook Pixel is that it runs Chrome OS. This may seem like an obvious point, but when most people look at this device they’ll see first and foremost a laptop — and that’s what it is. But it’s a laptop designed first and foremost for the web.
It doesn’t run Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, or iTunes. You can’t download and install any Mac or Windows apps on it… at least not easily. But that’s a feature, not a bug.
Chrome OS is an operating system designed to be fast, light, and web-centric. It’s frequently described as little more than a web browser, but there’s actually a bit more to Chrome OS than a web browser: It wasn’t just designed for web surfing, but also to be fast and secure.
That’s because that early operating system, like today’s Chrome OS, is a light-weight OS that loads itself into RAM to run. RAM is typically much, much faster than a hard drive or even a speedy solid state disk, so an operating system that runs from RAM tends to feel pretty zippy.
You can’t store your movies, documents, or programs in RAM though, since RAM requires a constant flow of power to store anything at all. So Chromebooks also tend to have small solid state drives or hard drives you can use to store music, movies, or other documents.
But the emphasis is on web apps and cloud storage. That makes sense for two reasons: First, Google is essentially a company that makes its money from advertising on web services including search and email, so part of the goal of Chrome OS is to make it as easy as possible to spend most of your time online.
Second, if you don’t install apps, you don’t bog down your system. You know how Windows laptops start to feel slower and slower after months or years of use? That’s at least partly because of all the apps you install over the years which can slow boot times and drain system resources during everyday use.
Chrome OS doesn’t have that problem. You can “install” apps from the Chrome Web Store, but many of these apps are just links to websites. Others tie into the web browser to let you do things like read documents when you’re offline, control music playback from your web browser toolbar, or perform other basic tasks. But you can install dozens of apps without slowing down the amount of time it takes a Chromebook to boot.
Even Chromebooks with relatively slow hardware such as Intel Atom or ARM-based processors tend to boot in less than 20 seconds, resume from sleep nearly instantly, connect to the web quickly, and open web pages and run web apps about as well as a much faster Windows computer with the Chrome web browser.
A Chromebook with even faster hardware (like the Chromebook Pixel) feels even faster.
After using Chromebooks for a while, you start to feel like less is more. Since you can start checking your email, updating your Facebook page, or even playing Angry Birds the moment you open the lid, you end up using a Chromebook the same way you might use a smartphone or tablet around the house. It’s a device you can grab when you just want to look up a quick fact or send a quick message. It takes practically no time at all to start using it and no time to stop.
You might end up using a Chromebook at times when you would never bother grabbing a Windows or Mac laptop since it’s not worth your time to wait for that machine to load up just so you can spend a few seconds online.
Even when you need to perform more substantial tasks, you’d be surprised just how much you can get done with a Chromebook. Sure, you can’t run Photoshop, but you can use Aviary to edit images online. There’s no iTunes, but you can stream music from Google Play or movies from Netflix.
Chrome OS also has a built-in media player that lets you watch videos or listen to music stored on a local drive (or on a USB flash drive or SD card), and an image app that lets you view and perform basic edits on pictures.
There are still a few tasks that are a bit out of a Chromebook’s reach. While there are online video editors, for instance, it doesn’t make sense to me to upload a video to the internet just so you can edit it and then download it again — even with a broadband connection, uploading a file that may be several gigabytes just seems like a waste of time.
But the more time I spend using a Chromebook, the less dependent I find myself on desktop apps. While I’m personally not ready to give up my Windows notebook, the speed of a chromebook like the Pixel almost makes me want to.
But speed isn’t the only thing that makes Chrome OS special. Since virtually nothing is installed to your local disk, it’s about as malware-proof as any operating system can be. Since all of your apps and settings are linked to your account, your preferences are instantly synced across devices. Lose your Chromebook or leave it at home? Just login on your friend or coworker’s device and you can pick up exactly where you left off.
Any bookmarks you add, apps you install, or other changes you make on a Chromebook will also be reflected next time you login to the Chrome Browser on your Windows, Mac, or Linux machine.
Google also pushes out software updates (including security fixes, new features, and more) to Chromebooks automatically, so your machine is virtually always up to date (although you may have to periodically reboot it after an update is installed, but that usually takes about 30 seconds).
In other words, in many ways Chrome OS is a glorified web browser that doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do by installing Chrome on a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer. But because of that it’s fast, secure, and incredibly convenient.
That will appeal to some folks more than others, but if you go buy Amazon sales charts and other figures, a growing number of people are picking up Chromebooks. And they’re also showing up in a growing number of schools and other institutions where inexpensive computers that are hard to infect with malware are an attractive proposition.
Chromebook Pixel overview
So if cheap Chromebooks are doing so well, why is Google introducing a new premium model with a base price of $1299? Well first, because some of the hardware that comes in the Chromebook Pixel doesn’t come cheap. And second (and this is mostly guesswork), because Google may be more interested in showing that Chrome works as well on a premium device as an entry level device as it is in actually getting people to pay money for a premium Chromebook.
The $1299 Chromebook Pixel features an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of RAM, and a 32GB solid state disk. It features WiFi and Bluetooth. Google also sells a $1449 model with 64GB of storage and built-in Verizon 4G LTE and GPS.
Google loaned me the higher-end version for the purposes of this review.
Those aren’t the features that justify the high price tag though. You can find $400 laptops with similar specs.
It’s the extras like the anodized aluminum case, the etched glass touchpad, the backlit keyboard, and the multi-colored LED on the lid.
If you buy the Verizon 4G model you also get 100MB per month of free data each month for 2 years (it’s enough to check your email periodically or surf the web very infrequently).
And whether you get the Chromebook Pixel 4G or the WiFi model, you get 1TB of Google Drive storage for no additional price for 3 years. Google gives away 5GB of Drive space to anyone for free, but normally you’d have to pay $49.99 per month to get 1TB… which adds up to $1800 over the course of 3 years, or more than the full price of a Chromebook Pixel
So in some ways you could see the Pixel as a free laptop you get when you sign up for a long-term Google Drive plan. But I doubt most users will actually take full advantage of the 1TB of online storage.
If I had to place a bet on the main reason the Chromebook Pixel costs 600-percent more than the cheapest chromebook, it would be the Pixel’s display.
The Chromebook Pixel has a 12.85 inch, 2560 x 1700 pixel display with nearly edge-to-edge glass. It’s a touchscreen with support for multi-finger touch input. The screen is bright, has wide 178 degree viewing angles, excellent color representation, and 239 pixels per inch.
Images, text and video look crisp and clear, and if the screen is more than a foot from your face (which it probably will be if you’re using it to read, watch, or type), you’d be hard pressed to make out individual pixels on the screen.
Interestingly, the screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio. Most laptops released over the past few years have had a more cinematic 16:9 widescreen ratio which means that you can watch a typical video formatted for HDTV viewing on a laptop without seeing any black bars on the top, bottom, or sides of the video.
When you pull up a video on the Chromebook Pixel, you’ll see thin bars at the top and bottom of the screen — but the Pixel display is so good that it’s hard to see where the screen bezel ends and the black bars begin.
Google says the 3:2 aspect ratio was chosen because it makes more sense for the web. If you’re reading or scrolling through websites extra vertical space is more important than extra horizontal space.
While that’s true for single-window viewing (which is apparently how most people surf the web), I actually wouldn’t mind a little extra horizontal space for multi-window reading. As a blogger, I like to keep two browser windows open, side-by-side. I can research in one, while writing in the other. That’s a little tougher to do on the Chromebook Pixel than on a computer with a widescreen display, because each window is a bit more narrow than I’d like.
You wouldn’t think that would be the case — after all the Chromebook Pixel has 2560 horizontal lines — that’s a lot more than my 1920 x 1080 pixel monitor. But Google’s Chromebook uses some pixel doubling (or quadrupling, to be more accurate) magic so that you don’t actually get room on your screen for more stuff. Instead, everything that is on your display just looks better — it’s sort of like the move from the original iPhone to an iPhone with a Retina display.
A more accurate comparison might be the move from a MacBook Pro to a MacBook Pro with Retina. In that case, Apple uses a similar trick to show 4 pixels for every one… but it gives users the option of adjusting the pixels-per-inch settings to a degree so you can shrink images, text, and everything else to fit more on the screen if you’d like.
Google doesn’t currently offer that option. I suspect this affects multi-window addicts like me more than it would affect most people, but since I’m the one writing this review I thought I’d mention it.
Fortunately Google is continually adding functionality to Chrome OS. When the operating system was first released there wasn’t a taskbar or an option to resize windows at all — you could only run browser windows as full-screen apps. Now you can resize and rearrange windows any way you like. You can also hook up an external monitor for multi-display views. Maybe a future update will also add support for changing pixel density settings.
While I wouldn’t mind a little extra screen real estate, Google’s choice to sort of emulate a 1280 x 850 pixel screen makes reading the news, checking or responding to email, or performing most other tasks on the web a joy.
When you’re watching videos you’ll want to find 720p or 1080p content whenever possible — it’s a little too easy to spot the distortion in YouTube videos streaming at lower resolutions. But you can’t really blame a good display for making it clear when the source material isn’t exactly up to snuff.
Displays like the one in the Chromebook Pixel don’t come cheap — especially when you’ve got a non-standard size and resolution like a 12.85 inch, 2560 x 1700 pixel screen which was probably manufactured specifically for this device. So it’s likely that the display is a big part of the reason Google charges $1299 and up for the Chromebook Pixel.
Is it worth it? That’s tough to answer. To be honest, while the Pixel probably has the best laptop screen I’ve ever used, unless you hold the screen pretty close to your eyes you may not really notice the difference all that often. Most websites aren’t designed specifically for displays this good, and you spend most of your time looking at text and images that are being upscaled by the Chromebook Pixel software.
The truth is that they look almost as good on a notebook with a lower resolution screen if it’s a foot or two away from your eyes (although I should point out that my primarily laptop has a 13.3 inch, 1600 x 900 pixel screen which is much sharper than the 1366 x 768 pixel displays that have inundated the market in recent years, so that’s largely what I’m using as a point of reference).
The Chromebook Pixel display also has a glossy finish which means that it can reflect glare when used outdoors or near a window or lamp.
In a few years it’s likely that HD displays will be as common in laptops as they’re becoming on smartphones. At that point laptop makers may not charge hundreds of dollars extra to get a machine with a high resolution screen. But for now it’s hard to imagine a laptop like the Chromebook Pixel not carrying a high price tag.
Keyboard, touchpad and touchscreen
Since the Chromebook Pixel is made to run Chrome OS there’s no Windows key on the keyboard. There’s also no Caps Lock key. Instead you get Ctrl, Shift, Alt, and Search keys — although you can go into the settings and convert the search key into a Caps Lock key if you really want to.
Above the number keys is a dedicated row of special function keys for controlling audio and video, refreshing a web page, going back or forward, or performing other functions such as minimizing and maximizing windows.
The keys are backlit, and there must be an automatic light sensor hiding somewhere, because the light only seems to come on when I’m using the laptop in a dimly lit area.
The keys are arranged in an island-style layout, which means you get flat keys with a little space surrounding each, making it easy to pick out individual keys without looking down at your fingers. There is a little bit of flex in the center of the keyboard if you push down hard enough — but overall the Chromebook Pixel has one of the most comfortable laptop keyboards I’ve ever used, and I have no trouble typing at full speed on this laptop.
Google’s chromebook keyboard layout does have a few quirks: for example, there’s no Del key. You can use backspace to delete text that’s line up before the cursor, but if you want to delete characters on the right side of the cursor you’ll need to hold down Alt+backspace. It’s not a problem once you get used to it, but it does take some getting used to.
If the keyboard is above average, the touchpad is one of the best I’ve ever used.
It’s made of etched glass, but it feels more like metal – there’s just a small amount of friction when you drag your fingers across the touch area.
The touchpad sits almost flush with the aluminum palm rest that surrounds it, but there’s a slight line separating the glass from the metal so you can easily find the borders with your fingers without looking down.
You can adjust the pointer speed in the Chrome OS settings panel, but I find the default setting to be just about right. You can also enable or disable tap-to-click. I leave it on and find I almost never end up actually pressing down on the touchpad to click, because tapping works so well.
Want to “right” click? Just put two fingers on the touchpad at once to open a context menu. The only time I end up actually actually pressing down on the clickpad is when I need to select text by clicking and dragging.
Out of the box, the Chromebook Pixel touchpad uses what Google calls “Australian scrolling,” which is to say that placing two fingers on the touchpad and pushing up makes the screen scroll down (as if you were swiping on a touchscreen). You can disable this to reverse the
polarity of the neutron flow scrolling direction so that pulling down on the touchpad pulls the screen down if you prefer.
I can’t tell if the reason I never accidentally move the on-screen cursor by swiping the touchpad with my palm is because Google included excellent palm rejection software or positioned the touchpad perfectly. But I don’t really care — all I know is that the touchpad is responsive, easy to use, and doesn’t cause more problems than it solves.
In fact, here’s a little secret: while I test the touchpad on every single laptop I review, unless I’m using a notebook on my lap I almost always plug in a mouse because I prefer using one to using a touchpad. The Chromebook Pixel is the first laptop where I haven’t felt the need.
I did test the Pixel with a mouse, and it worked as soon as I plugged it in (Windows notebooks usually take a few moments to install and appropriate driver), but I’ve written more than 3200 words of this review so far using nothing but the keyboard and touchpad.
That’s at least partly because up until now I’ve been sitting at a coffee shop with the Chromebook sitting on a table. Reaching up to the touchscreen takes more effort than it’s worth, because there’s nothing I can do on the touchscreen that I couldn’t do just as easily with the touchpad.
But when the chromebook is resting on my lap, I find myself reaching up to the touchscreen at least as often as down to the touchpad. The amount of effort it takes to move my arm about the same either way, and instead of dragging a cursor to a spot on the screen I can just tap on that spot to open a link, close a window, launch a web app, or perform other actions.
I also find I use the touchscreen more when the notebook is propped up on my standing desk, where I don’t have to lean forward as much to reach the screen as I do when I’m sitting in a chair.
There aren’t a lot of web apps optimized for touch yet, so using a touchscreen on a Chromebook doesn’t feel quite as natural as using one on a tablet or even a Windows 8 notebook where there are apps designed for touch. But it’s easier than I would have expected to surf the web and perform basic tasks using touch on the Pixel. Writing this review in WordPress, for instance, I found that most buttons and menus were so easy to tap with my fingers that you’d never know WordPress wasn’t originally designed for touch input.
As touchscreen laptops become more common, I suspect we’ll start to see more web apps including games, social media tools, and more which are designed to be used with your fingers rather than a touchpad or mouse. For now a touchscreen feels like a nice addition to the Chromebook Pixel, but not a must-have feature.
There’s another reason I don’t use the touchscreen all that much though — it wobbles. I’m not surprised when an inexpensive notebook like the $500 VivoBook X202e has a display that shakes a bit when you tap it.
But on a premium notebook I expect a sturdier hinge which keeps the screen from wobbling. The Acer Aspire S7, for instance, has an excellent hinge and doesn’t shake at all when you use the touchscreen. That ultrabook sells for more than $1500, which makes it a bit more expensive than a ChromeBook Pixel, but not by much.
Google’s laptop has an aluminum unibody case. There are no visible screws or accessible compartments you can open to upgrade storage or memory, and the battery is hidden away inside the case, so swapping out batteries would also take minor surgery.
While the Pixel might not be the most upgradeable laptop, it feels sturdy and looks great. The corners are slightly rounded, but overall the chromebook has a boxy design with flat edges that remind me a bit of the sides of an iPhone.
The laptop measures about 11.7″ x 8.8″ x 0.64″ and weighs less than 3.4 pounds.
Around the sides you’ll find 2 USB 2.0 ports, a mini display port, an SD card slot, and a SIM card slot (on the 4G model).
Google says the Pixel has an active cooling system, but no visible vents. As far as I can tell, that means there are fans, but they blow hot air out through the holes in the sides of the laptop where there are already ports. The fans also aren’t particularly loud. I haven’t really noticed them much at all while using the Chromebook Pixel.
There are small Chrome logos just above the keyboard and on the lid, but that’s the only branding you’ll find on the Pixel. There’s not a Google logo to be found, and no logo emblazoned across the lid, as you find on most laptops these days.
What you will find near the top of the lid is a thin strip of LED lights which glow when the notebook is in use and which change colors when you’re booting up, powering down, or making some other changes. You can also treat yourself to a little light show by entering the Konami code on the keyboard.
Above the screen is an HD webcam which you can use to snap photos or make video calls. It’s built into the slim black bezel which surrounds the display. Around the edges of the bezel is a thin strip of rubbery material which keeps the screen from hitting the keyboard when you close the laptop lid.
The Chromebook Pixel has some of the best laptop speakers I’ve ever heard. They’re hidden below the keyboard so that they’re never facing a tablet, desk, or lap. You can always hear sound loud and clear — with an emphasis on loud.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a laptop that can blast music at the level of the Pixel. But while the speakers are loud, they’re still tiny laptop speakers which don’t offer a lot of bass. If you plan to watch a movie or listen to some music on the go and don’t want to plug in headphones, they’ll do the trick. But you’ll get fuller sound with headphones or external speakers.
Google’s Chromebook Pixel boots in a few seconds, resumes from sleep almost as quickly as you can open the lid, and goes to sleep nearly as quickly when you close the lid. But more importantly, the Pixel feels incredibly fast when you’re using the laptop.
Web pages load quickly, you can open and adjust settings, drag and drop windows, and perform other basic tasks with ease.
While that’s kind of true for every Chromebook release to date, it’s even more true for the Pixel — and some web-based benchmarks help show just how much faster the Pixel is.
Keep in mind that Google rolls out software updates for Chrome OS on a regular basis and my latest scores for the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook and Acer C7 are a few months old… but the Pixel runs circles around them in PeaceKeeper, Octane, and SunSpider.
It’s as fast (and in many cases faster) than most Windows laptops I’ve tested, which isn’t surprising since the Chromebook Pixel has a Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor much like most of the recent Windows ultrabooks I’ve reviewed.
Of course, a fast computer that runs web apps is only as useful as the web apps that are available. If you absolutely need Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop, the Pixel isn’t going to meet your needs. If you can get by with Google Docs or iPiccy then maybe it will.
But here’s another little secret: You aren’t stuck with Chrome OS. If you switch the Pixel to developer mode you can install Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Android or other operating systems alongside Chrome OS and run full desktop-style apps.
It’s even possible to use a tool called crouton which lets you install Ubuntu in a way that shares the Chrome OS kernel. This lets you switch between the Chrome OS and Ubuntu environments without even rebooting. The process is as simple as entering developer mode and downloading and running the Crouton script (One thing to keep in mind is that the Crouton instructions are missing a step: After you press Ctrl + Alt + T to open a terminal, you have to type “shell” before you can use the “sh” command).
In other words, if you want to buy a premium laptop and install your own OS, you can do that. But the Pixel was clearly designed first and foremost as a Chrome OS device — it has a Chrome-centric keyboard and a relatively small solid state disk.
But a funny thing happens the more you use Chrome OS: You don’t really miss the things it can’t do. Google is constantly adding new features including offline support for certain apps:
- Want to download and install Angry Birds so you can play without an internet connection?
- Want to watch movies, read books, or listen to music offline? No problem.
- You can stream your music collection from Google Play (Or Amazon, or any other web-based service).
- You can stream movies from Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, or other sites.
- Need to login to a remote computer? Chrome has a remote desktop tool built in, or you can use third-party software such as LogeMeIn.
- With 1TB of online storage space, you can also upload all your documents, photos, and other important files and access them on any device with internet access
Google also plans to roll out an offline office suite for Chrome OS soon. The company acquired QuickOffice last year and within the next few weeks the Chromebook Pixel should get an update that brings support for creating and editing text, spreadsheet, and presentation-style documents whether you’re connected to the internet or not.
Google says you should be able to get up to 5 hours of battery life from the Chromebook Pixel, and that seems about right. That’s how much run time I got while leaving the screen set to 50 percent brightness while streaming music.
When I took the Chromebook to a coffee shop to do a little blogging and write the first 2/3rds of this review, the battery ran down a little more quickly. That’s not surprising, since I was constantly opening and closing web pages, switching browser tabs, and editing photos.
Under those circumstances you’re more likely to get 4 to 4.5 hours of battery life.
Since the Chromebook Pixel has a unibody case there’s no easy way to remove or replace the battery. But if you’re wondering what the notebook would look like if you could open it up, Google has provided a peek at the insides, as well as instructions for opening up the Pixel.
In other words, battery life is the one area where the Chromebook Pixel doesn’t feel like a premium alternative to existing Chrome OS laptops. You can get up to 6.5 hours of run time from the $249 Samsung Chromebook. If you’re paying 500-percent more for the Pixel it’d be nice to get at least that much battery life.
If you’ve never used a Chrome OS laptop before, the Pixel is not the model you should start with. It’s the best Chrome OS device released to date. It’s the fastest, features the best build quality, has a better display than you’re likely to find on virtually any laptop, and has great speakers an an excellent touchpad.
But with a starting price of $1299, the Chrome OS is not a laptop for everyone. Instead it’s kind of a show piece that shows Google can make a laptop that’s just as elegant and powerful as anything you’d find from Apple, Lenovo, or Samsung — and it’s at least as pleasant to use as a top-of-the-line machine from those companies… if you can live with the limitations of Chrome OS.
I doubt Google expects to sell a lot of Chromebook Pixel units… but that’s not the same as saying the company doesn’t expect to sell any.
Because the more I use the Chromebook Pixel, the more I’m convinced there is a market for it. That market is people who are already Chrome OS users.
If you’re like 99-percent of the population, odds are you’re looking at a device like the Chromebook Pixel and thinking “it’s a laptop that doesn’t run all the software I’m used to.” But there’s a tiny (but growing) group of folks who have already spent $200 or more on a Chrome OS laptop and enjoyed the experience.
There are expensive Windows laptops and there are cheap models. Apple offers high-end MacBook Pro laptops and (somewhat) cheaper MacBook Air models.
Now there’s a range of Chrome OS laptops. If you want a cheap model you can get one… but if you’ve already done that and want to upgrade to the best possible Chrome OS experience, there’s the Chromebook Pixel.
Personally I don’t think I’ve ever spent $1299 on a computer, and I don’t expect to start anytime soon. But I’m hopeful that while early adopters will have to pay a premium price for a laptop like the Pixel with a 2560 x 1700 pixel touchscreen display, eventually we could see the prices of these features fall… and Google, Apple, and other companies can look for other premium items to add to their high-end laptops while high-def screens trickle down to more affordable models.
Hopefully they’ll also have screens that don’t wobble when you touch them.