Chromebook Pixel £1049
7th Mar 2013 | 10:10
Google goes gunning for the premium market
Most companies make products because they want people to buy them, but Google doesn't give a fig if you buy a Chromebook Pixel or not. It wasn't made so that people would buy it, though doubtless some will; it's a learning exercise made flesh. Let us explain.
Google's Chrome OS is a fast, secure, always-updated lightweight operating system whose only job is to give you a computer that has a web browser on it. Almost the only thing you can do on a Chrome OS computer such as the Samsung Series 3 or the Acer C7 is open a web browser.
This sounds like a stupid idea until you realise that these days lots of us do almost everything - email, Facebook, shopping, word processing, iPlayer, Netflix and so on - through a web browser anyway. And also that you can buy a Chromebook for £199/US$199.99 (around AU$191).
Realise the first (and know that for many of us, even those jobs that we don't currently do through a web browser could be done through as web browser if we actually wanted to) and learn the second, and suddenly the whole Chromebook schtick starts to sound more appealing for those of us with traditional computers such as an Acer Aspire V5 or Apple MacBook Pro running apps such as Microsoft Office 2013 and Adobe Photoshop Elements.
Chrome OS doesn't run apps, at least in that traditional sense. Instead, you access websites that work like apps - Google Docs, Office 365 and so on - and those websites can do app-like things such as use local storage.
But Google wants to move Chrome OS forward, both in the sense that it doesn't want it to be necessarily synonymous with low-end, semi-disposable computing (an ironic twist given that this was a central message at the launch of the concept in 2011), and also that it wants to prepare it for coming technologies.
Specifically, it wants to ready the Chrome web browser and Chrome OS for touch-enabled and high-resolution (also known as HiDPI or, as popularised by Apple, Retina) displays.
The Chromebook Pixel, then, with its touch-enabled, high-resolution display is two things. First, it's that learning exercise for Google, for hardware as well as software. Google has put effort into optimising Chrome and Chrome OS for touch and high-res displays, which goes hand-in-hand with understanding the hardware that enables and drives them.
And in designing (though not manufacturing) the Chromebook Pixel itself rather than merely partnering with a company such as Samsung to provide the hardware, it's learning how to design and deliver physical platforms as well as purely software ones.
Second, it's a rallying point for developers, especially those creating websites and services delivered through the web. It's something to galvanise them, to give them a focus, to ensure exciting and excited conversations are happening about touch and high-res.
And it's to plant a flag in the sand to say: hey, folks, cloud-based computing doesn't just have to be about plastic commodity computing; it can be slick and premium and desirable.
And if we're allowed to be a bit self-referential, it's also designed to lure tech reviewers into writing pieces such as this one, which, even if we criticise the price and are baffled by the proposition, inevitably frame Google as an agenda-setting, innovative company capable of producing - let's not be coy about this - Apple-grade hardware.
What the Chromebook Pixel is not, though, is a product that most people will buy, and that's mostly because of the other thing it's not: cheap.
There are two models of the Chromebook Pixel; one with included 4G LTE that's due April 2013, and one that only has Wi-Fi. The only one you can buy in the UK is the Wi-Fi one, and Google hasn't commented about when - or indeed if - you'll be able to buy the LTE model outside the US.
The Wi-Fi model costs £1,049 in the UK and US$1,299 in the US (around AU$1,264), and the LTE model costs US$1,449 (around £962/AU$1,410) - with this you get 100MB a month of bundled 4G bandwidth through Verizon Wireless in the US for two years.
The Google Chromebook Pixel has a 12.85-inch screen, since it's the heart of this computer, and why it exists. Its physical resolution is 2,560 x 1,700 at 239ppi - or, to put it another way, each individual pixel is even slightly smaller than those in the 227ppi screens on Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Of course, the UI is redrawn at double resolution, so that rather than everything being tiny on-screen (which would thwart Google's touch ambitions), it's normal sized, just more detailed.
The effect is stunning. As with any high-resolution display, whether it's on the iPhone 5 or an HTC One, the pleasure of looking at it comes not just from how crisp text is or how detailed photos look, but also how solid and almost physical flat areas of colour look. It's a genuine delight, and though as a glossy display you do see reflections in it, the viewing angles are excellent and the colours beautifully deep and rich.
If that 2,560 x 1,700 resolution sounds a bit odd to you, it's because it's an unusual aspect ratio. It's not the widescreen 16:9 or 16:10 we've got used to on laptops these days, but neither is it the 4:3 aspect of older computers or CRTs; it's 3:2, much squarer than widescreen.
Why? The argument is that it's more 'designed for the web', where, even if sites are being optimised for widescreen displays, most of the content we read is still long, and by using a taller-than-usual aspect ratio for the display, you can fit more on each screen. And though it's a divisive move, on balance after a few weeks of use, we like it.
The touch overlay is good if not spectacular, at least in practice. Currently, even multi-touch gestures that we have come to expect such as pinch-to-zoom aren't fully supported.
Apps can explicitly support pinch to zoom - such as in Google Maps - and you can enable system-wide support by delving into chrome://flags, but at the moment touch is really there as an alternative to clicking interface elements with a trackpad.
That said, we tried it with apps such as Sumo Paint, an online natural media application, and while there's a perceptible delay if you're drawing quickly - with your finger or using a standard capacitive stylus - the Chromebook Pixel isn't sluggish in itself in keeping up.
Of course, training yourself to remember to use touch can be tricky, and while Chrome OS itself has been optimised well enough for touch, with big tap targets for example, you'll still be using a broad range of sites, many of which won't have been. It's not the same as using apps on iOS or Metro-style Windows 8, say, where the apps are specifically designed for touch.
Touch is nice to have, not a must-have, here. The screen resists fingerprints to some degree, but you might still spend more time than is healthy polishing it.
The guts and connectivity of the Chromebook are unexceptional. The 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB DDR3 RAM, 32GB SSD (64GB in the 4G LTE model) and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip might sound a little meagre these days, but the thing flies.
Chrome OS is so lightweight - the original Cr-48 dev machine was powered by a 1.66GHz Intel Atom - that with those specs it feels astonishingly responsive.
For connectivity you've got 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card reader and a combined headphones/mic jack.
You might kvetch about those specs too - if this is such a cutting edge device, where's the 802.11ac, the Bluetooth 4.0, the USB 3.0? - but really there's almost no point in having anything better.
Sure, USB 3.0 is fast, but since Chrome OS is designed to be a thin client for cloud computing, you won't be chucking gouts of data about locally to take advantage of it. The lack of Ethernet, though, does grate, especially for corporate environments.
There's an integrated webcam, of course, breathlessly touted as 'HD', but it's only 720p, and it's frankly a bit rubbish.
The battery is rated at 59Wh, and we'll talk more about what that means in the next section.
The keyboard is backlit, and there's an ambient light sensor that adjusts the brightness of the screen so you don't get dazzled in low light, at least in theory - more on that later.
Everyone has the same reaction when they pick it up: it's heavier than you expect it to be. The 440g (15.5oz) difference between it and the lighter 11-inch MacBook Air might not sound like much, but the Chromebook Pixel really does feel chunky when you pick it up - an impression not helped by its brutal, almost Soviet boxy design.
Finally, you also get 1TB of space on Drive, Google's Dropbox-like cloud storage service, for three years when you buy a Chromebook Pixel. After three years, any data you've stored there can still be read and shared, you just can't add anything new to it without ponying up $50 a month to keep subscribing to that terabyte of space.
And in fact, if you had planned on paying for a terabyte of Google Drive for three years, buy a Chromebook and you'll not only save $499.64 (assuming pricing tiers remain the same for Drive until then) compared to the cost of renting that space anyway, but you'll also get, um, a nice free computer.
But it's important to remember not to be too impressed with that; after all, it's not doing all that much.
It's a thin client to the web and other services, so most of the heavy lifting is being done by servers over the internet; all the laptop has to do is render pages in windows. Not facile, to be sure, but the fact that a computer with an overkill of a CPU - for its light operating system - feels fast ought not to be remarkable.
And this speed has a downside. Intel may have made strides in making its mobile processors efficient, but the Core i5 inside the Chromebook Pixel still sucks a lot of power - as does the GPU and backlight for the screen.
The upshot is that we're getting an average of about five hours use out of the Chromebook on a full charge. That's not terrible, but even if long battery life wasn't explicitly part of the original Chromebook schtick, it does feel wrong that a non-traditional desktop OS gets poor battery life.
You compromise on so much, and the computer itself has to do so relatively little that you feel like you should at least get a full working day out of a single charge. Sure, battery life sounds dull, but if you owned even the first generation iPad, you'll know what a big change it can make when you worry much less about keeping the battery topped up.
It runs warm, too, even when not actually doing very much. Happily, heat dissipation seems good, and the fans don't often kick in unless the vent at the hinge gets blocked - such as if it's on a soft surface - but they can be noisy at full speed, such as when streaming HD video.
But how well does Chrome OS actually work, day-to-day? That depends on what kind of computer user you are. Think about how much of what you do on a computer is done in a web browser anyway; chances are, you don't realise how much time you spend in Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari or whatever.
For those times when you do actually use a traditional desktop app, think about whether those tasks could be done on the web. Google's own Docs system is genuinely excellent - the word processor in which we're writing this review especially, as well as the spreadsheet - and Microsoft's Office 365 system is a credible alternative for some.
And even though it's all done through a browser, you don't have to have a web connection at all times for all apps. Google's word processor, for example, can have its offline mode enabled, and it's wonderfully robust; even if you're writing on a train, say, with the web connection constantly dropping and reconnecting, you won't lose a bit of work.
Web apps have to have this functionality explicitly supported, though, so don't expect it everywhere, but it does mean that whether you're writing a document or want to play a game of Angry Birds (which, incidentally, makes good use of the touchscreen), you can do so without having to be connected to the internet.
Let's not get carried away, though. For some people - maybe even most people - Chrome OS, and by extension any Chromebook including the Chromebook Pixel, won't be suitable, at least not without quite some frustration.
It might be that you do, or could do, 95% of your computing through a web browser, but if there's 5% for which you unequivocally need an app or an accessory or something that doesn't have an online equivalent, you're stuck.
Perhaps a Samsung Series 3 is a good secondary, chuck-it-in-a-bag-and-don't-worry-about-it laptop at £229/US$330/AU$319, but that's a luxury few can afford, especially for the Chromebook Pixel with its nearly-five-times-higher price tag.
Back to the specifics. The keyboard, which many have praised, feels a little dull and unresponsive to us; it has little of the bouncy crispness of Apple's keyboards, though whether or not you like its slight-travel, light-touch, quiet feel is a matter of personal preference.
We do, however, like the row of dedicated function keys at the top for tasks such as forward, back and window management that all Chromebooks have. And they're weighted differently to the rest of the keyboard, so require a definite, stronger press to activate. This is nice, since it means you don't hit them accidentally. The glass trackpad feels great too.
Plus, some unexpected praise for the speakers. It's a bit of a waste, really, since there's no good media management app here, and lots of media streaming systems online are incompatible with it, but they really do sound bigger, fuller and more assured than you'd expect for a laptop this size.
The screen, though beautiful, can suffer from some backlight flicker at low brightnesses, and we'd also prefer that the lowest screen brightness level was just a little dimmer for very dark rooms.
The Google Chromebook Pixel is a £1,049/US$1,299 (around AU$1,264) laptop that enables you to run a web browser and needs a connection to the internet to do much, yet doesn't have a built-in cellular connection. It has poor battery life and, in consequence, probably doesn't appeal to you.
But we say again: Google doesn't care. It doesn't expect you to buy one, and you can't, as a consequence, apply the same criteria for criticising it as you would with almost any other product.
Basically, if you're Google and have done all the work to re-tool Chrome and Chrome OS for touch and high-res displays, why not make a laptop that showcases them and gets people excited about it - a reference design, almost - especially when you're trying to learn how to make hardware as well? Some people will buy it.
And if that showcase product just happens to get people thinking about you as a producer of high-end, luxury products as well as a commoditised search engine and email provider, so much the better.
To be fair, Google has pulled off 'luxury' well here. It's apparent as soon as you pick it up that the Chromebook Pixel is beautifully made, with fine tolerances. The anodised aluminium alloy of the case feels good, and there's no flex in the body. The fine, etched pattern on the trackpad gives it a gloriously silky texture.
There's a blue KITT-like light bar on the lid that, when you close the Pixel, glows in Google colours; pointless, but no less sweet because of that (plus, you can do the Konami code for a light show). The 3:2 screen looks stunning.
And while most laptop manufacturers don't give any thought to the power brick, the one that comes with the Chromebook clearly has been considered; there's a notch along one edge that enables you to neatly wrap the cable around it, and a light-up ring that shows charge level.
The design finesse is about more than just well-executed details, though. There is Apple-like attention to the holistic design as well, and a good example of that is that with the laptop closed on the table in front of you, you can use a single finger to lift the screen back to a working position. Few laptops get that balance right, and it's both welcome here and indicative of a laudable focus on getting the overall experience right.
Chrome OS isn't all about compromise, either. You might think 'well, I can do everything the Chromebook can on my computer just by launching Chrome, yet still do loads of other stuff as well using my Windows, OS X or Linux distro' but one lovely thing about Chrome OS is that it's essentially maintenance-free.
It's secure, it's constantly updated in the background, and it requires less ministering-to to keep it running smoothly. Plus, it's fast. In short, you get a desktop-like experience with an iOS-like mindset.
There's no getting away from the fact, though, that Chrome OS won't be right for many, perhaps most, right now, and making the chassis from aluminium rather than plastic doesn't change that.
The Chromebook Pixel's tagline is 'For what's next', which could be read both as saying Chrome OS is ready for the coming high-res and touch technologies, or as a tacit acknowledgement that the Chome OS cloud computing experience is still ahead of its time.
The Chromebook Pixel itself is also not flawless. The battery life is severely underwhelming, the warmth that comes from the processors is inelegant, and the keyboard feels, to our fingers at least, a little dead.
Then there's the price. Whatever your thoughts on Chrome OS, the hardware is highly desirable, but few people are going to swallow that price tag.
This is the best Chromebook in the world, but even within the context of rating Chromebooks, it's not perfect. When you put it in the wider context of Windows, OS X, iOS, Android and so on, it becomes even less compelling.
However, while it's a little trite, Google is getting good at hardware faster than Apple is getting good at services, and the Chromebook Pixel is the best example of that we've ever seen. Apple, the world's biggest technology company, should be paying attention.
Ultimately, unless you're a technology fetishist who wants some bragging rights, already love Chrome OS or think you might and are looking for better-made hardware for it than the previous, cheaper Chromebooks, or have enough money to dispose of, move on.
Again, though, that's only a concern for Google as the Pixel's manufacturer if it cares about convincing you to buy one (it doesn't) or if you care about buying one (you probably don't).