The Chromebook Pixel sits in a category all of its own, which some might say is the ultimate expression of form over function. Every inch of this premium Chromebook has been scrutinised, honed and perfected. That’s exactly what Google intended when they envisioned this sumptuous laptop.
The problem, however, is obvious. It runs on Chrome OS, that lightweight, browser-based platform that’s great for online web tasks, but some way removed from the full operating experience of Windows or Mac OS. Therein lies something of an obstacle. Who is going to pay Chromebook Pixel money, when you could be getting so much more elsewhere?
But conversely, why should Chrome OS users be resigned to buying something "affordable"? If you can afford to spend Pixel money - that’s £1,049 for the Wi-Fi version - why should you settle for the plastic-bodied Chromebooks for a third of the price?
The design of the Chromebook Pixel won us over as soon as we saw it. In the same way that the 2008 unveiling of the first unibody MacBook caused us to inhale sharply, the Pixel does the same thing. It’s dripping in a quality that pictures don’t quite do justice to. Spread your fingers across the keyboard and no matter what you’ve typed on before, you’ll appreciate what Google has done with the keyboard.
Forged in an anodised aluminium unibody, the Chromebook Pixel feels of the highest quality wherever you touch it. There are no hollow patches beneath the keyboard, no flex to the body, no unsightly joins or rough case edges. There are no exposed screwheads, no extraneous markings. It’s the purest manifestation of the notebook computer.
It’s nice to touch too and resting your palms astride the glass trackpad to get on with the serious business of typing, it all feels right, comfortable, perfect. It measures 297.7 x 224.6 x 16.2mm and weighs 1.52kg, so it’s portable enough.
The trackpad, Google told us, was especially designed to be strokably smooth, and that it is. Trackpads universally have come on leaps and bounds over the past few years and we love the feeling on the Pixel. It’s just a shame that such a glorious trackpad isn’t better supported by Chrome OS. Apart from the multifinger scrolling and two finger tap for right click, there's no sign of gestures, with zooming only rarely supported in things like Google Maps.
The 3:2 aspect of the display, Google says, is to give you more vertical space. That’s supposed to reduce scrolling on webpages and documents. Google’s VP of Chrome, Sundar Pichai, referred to cost saving being behind the trend towards 16:9 displays. Perhaps that’s the case. A 16:9 display, in this Catch-22 argument, comes with the added advantage of less vertical height, just the sort of trait you want when working on a train or aircraft.
But it leaves us with the feeling that the Chromebook Pixel was designed to be used on a desk, or live a life of luxury on a coffee table. We spent a good deal of time using the Pixel on the lap, as is typical of anyone who works on the move, and the silent running soon becomes a warm purring, as the Chromebook heats up and starts trying to cool down.
The ventilation is hidden behind that beautiful hinge on the rear and it doesn’t take much to get it going. Writing this review, on lap, we’ve only got seven tabs open and it's radiating warmth.
If we’ve one criticism of the design, it would be the power supply. The plug is a little loose in the Pixel and we knocked it out a couple of times. Perhaps that is intentional to stop you wrenching the thing off a table and on to the floor when someone walks into the cable, but we did find it disconnected just a little too easily. A nice touch, however, is that there’s an illuminated ring around the end lead which is yellow when charging, green when charged.
With a name like Pixel, the display is always going to be in the spotlight. It’s not unfair to equate it to Apple’s Retina display, because in both cases, Google and Apple are talking about the same result: making sure you don’t see the pixels in front of you. In a world where we’re all going high-resolution, from the Nexus 10 to the Sony Xperia Z (both Android devices), here we have the arrival of a 239ppi laptop to the same effect.
Everything looks crisp and sharp with fine lines and perfectly smooth curves on fonts. The panel has a 2560 x 1700 pixel resolution and it is stunning. The colours have punch, there’s plenty of brightness and the viewing angles are great. It’s also touch-enabled, but once again, there’s little in Chrome OS that really feels designed for touch.
Just as Windows had some touch devices long before Windows 8 arrived, on the Pixel the touch capabilities seem rather lost. There’s nothing that really showcases why touch should be here. Sure, you can swipe the taskbar away, but that’s about all. Otherwise, you’re just poking at icons on screen.
That still means you’re reaching up to prod the Gorilla Glass-topped display, leaving prints and smears that are easily avoided by using that excellent trackpad. It suggests to us that Google has designs on touch in Chrome in the future, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve reached that moment yet.
Hardware and performance
Sitting at the heart of the Chromebook Pixel is a 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 dual-core processor. Graphics come courtesy of Intel HD Graphics 4000, Intel’s on-board solution. There’s 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD for storage, with the intention that as much as possible sits in the cloud, that being one of the core principles of Chromebooks.
To help you on your way to a future in the cloud, the Chromebook Pixel comes with 1TB of free Google Drive storage for three years, which Google sees as the life of this device. In real terms that would cost you $1,800 if you chose to pay for that amount of storage from Google, more than the cost of the Pixel itself.
There are two models of the Chromebook Pixel. In the UK the Wi-Fi edition (reviewed here) is the one that will be on offer; in the US, there will also be a 4G LTE version, which sees the internal storage upped to 64GB, but otherwise the offerings are the same.
If Google were competing on the specs sheet then beyond that things start to drift off. There are two USB 2.0 connections and Mini-Display Port along with a 3.5mm headphone socket on left, with an SD card slot on the right. That’s it and like some other notable slim notebooks, there’s no Ethernet connection, so if you want to be hard wired, you’ll need a USB adapter. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are in place.
With a lightweight operating system, things fly on the Chromebook PIxel. Everything is smooth and fast, but then that’s half the point of the Chrome OS. We found that it outperformed many devices we put it alongside when it came to straight web usage and sitting alongside various Ultrabooks and devices like the MacBook Air the web experience is very strong.
There’s also an HD webcam sitting above the display, which gives reasonable performance, and Google has included three mics in the Pixel. That’s a slightly novel feature, as one is placed beneath the keyboard, designed to eliminate the sound of typing then you’re in a video chat, for example.
In our tests, people on the other end could still hear us typing, so we guess there’s some tweaking to be done to make it really effective, but that’s easily solved with software. The speaker performance, however, is incredibly good. We can’t quite fathom why, but the volume the Pixel can deliver is remarkable, and it sounds great.
Firing up Netflix for a little Breaking Bad, the speaker performance is adequate enough for us to not want to reach for the headphones. In terms of battery life, Google says you’ll get around five hours from the battery. Our own experience in mixed use was that it’s close to that figure, but commonly we’d be getting more like four hours from it. In those terms, it isn’t the greatest notebook out there, but it’s not the worst either.
The great Chrome OS conundrum
Of course snappy performance and outstanding quality only go so far. The raison d’être for the Pixel is to be the best laptop it can be for people who have taken to Google’s cloud experience. "Living in the cloud" is the expression that Google used when announcing the Pixel, it’s also critical to whether a device like this will work for you.
Chrome is a great browser and there are some aspects of Chrome OS that are of huge benefit, such as the speed of shutdown and start-up. Background saving and the speed at which web apps load and go to work means that there’s little that drags its heels on the Chromebook Pixel. Chrome OS continues to evolve and for day-to-day tasks, there’s a lot that we’re completely happy with. Within the Google ecosystem, Chrome OS sets about its tasks with aplomb.
Of course the downside of Chrome OS is that there’s a lot you can’t do, in the conventional sense, that you can do on Windows or Mac OS. Sure, there are web apps that will let you edit video or tweak photos, but if it’s Photoshop you want, then that’s what you’ll miss. In the same sense, while Google’s video chat options all work, if you’re in a community that uses Skype, you’ll find yourself left in the dark.
But that’s a given for Chrome OS. It is designed to be lightweight, free of the bulk of other operating systems and in many ways that’s refreshing, as long as it does everything you need it to do. If you’re not familiar with Chrome OS, then we’d suggest that buying a Pixel to try it wouldn’t be sound advice when you can get a Chromebook for so much less.
However, if you’re already a Chrome OS fan, which is who Google is targeting, then the Chromebook Pixel is rather sublime.
There’s no avoiding the fact that the Chromebook Pixel is expensive. But it’s also very well made and an absolute pleasure to use. Lay your fingers on the keyboard and view the world through the Pixel’s high-resolution display and some of the anguish you might have in parting with over £1,000 will be abated.
But you can’t help but consider the range of excellent Ultrabooks and MacBooks that you could also get. We’re not saying they’re directly comparable. No. Both Windows and OS X will do much more. In hardware terms the touchpad on the Pixel doesn’t offer you the control flexibility of the Mac. The touch panel doesn’t give you a neat way around the OS like you can have with Windows 8.
The real point to the Pixel all hangs on Chrome OS. If you’re living in the cloud, if you’re a Google user, if you’re always connected to the internet, then this may do everything you want with a simplicity and panache that conventional operating systems lack.
There are two ways to judge the Chromebook Pixel. As a Chromebook, it’s fantastic and there’s little to fault. It’s dripping in quality, it delivers performance. The display is beautifully sharp, it’s wonderful to type on, watch movies on, carry around and use as a daily machine.
However, judged as a notebook alongside those more fully-featured rivals and the Chromebook Pixel is an expensive indulgence. For many, that’s all the Pixel will ever be. It will always be divisive. We've loved using it, but we understand exactly why you wouldn't want one.
Google’s description of the Chromebook Pixel says that it’s designed to “inspire future innovation”. We can’t help feeling that there is something inspiring here, and maybe now it’s a little more difficult to dismiss Chrome OS as a Google whim. Whether others agree is key to whether that future innovation will come or not.