Perception is a funny thing: Nearly every Google Chromebook Pixel review says the device is great, but it’s not for you. So is it not great or is it only great for certain people? Starting at $1,299, it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s not priced that differently from similar hardware; in fact its less expensive than laptops with comparable displays. The real issue seems to be that people aren’t ready for the web as a primary interface. I am – I have been for some time, actually — and after using a loaner Chromebook Pixel full-time for several weeks, I ordered my own.
The hardware is outstanding
The hardware is on par with, if not better than, the MacBook Air I owned prior. The design is industrial and pleasing with no extras to take away from the look and feel; no cooling vents are visible, for example. Just a few ports adorn the sides: a pair of USBs, a mini DisplayPort and a microSD card slot. The speakers are hidden under the keyboard and are among they best I’ve heard on a laptop. At 3.35 pounds, the Pixel is near the top end of weight that I’d want to carry around, but I don’t find it too heavy.
Google did a great job with the keyboard and, in particular, the trackpad. The island keys are well laid out and this device is a joy to type on. The top row of special keys — Refresh, Full Screen, volume and brightness, for example — are harder to press, making them more like buttons, but that helps mitigate accidental key strikes. The etched glass trackpad is superb and supports multitouch gestures, such as two-fingered scrolling.
Then there’s the bright, pixel-packed screen that I can’t take my eyes off. Yes, the 2560 x 1700 resolution is similar to the Retina Displays found on Apple’s latest MacBook Pro laptops, but it just looks better to my eyes. I can’t be sure if it’s the default fonts, the way Chrome OS handles resolution doubling or what. I’ve made several side by side comparisons to my wife’s 15-inch MacBook Pro laptop with Retina Display and in every test, the Pixel simply looks better to me.
The Pixel’s display is also a touch screen although I don’t find myself using touch for interaction all that much. On occasional, I’ll dab at the screen to tap a button or a link, or to scroll a web page, but not often. I wish Google had introduced a non-touchscreen version for maybe $200 less as there’s little need for the feature at this time. That could change if Google brings support for touch-optimized Android apps, however.
Performance-wise, the device offers the fastest experience on the web I’ve seen yet. The 1.8 GHz Intel Core i5 processor paired with 4 GB of memory easily keep up with my all day usage requirements. The device boots in seconds and wakes instantaneously: You simply open it and get to work. The HD camera is outstanding for video chats. I do wish the 59 wHr battery lasted longer than 5 hours, however.
Let’s talk software and limitations
First, some clarification on the Chromebook Pixel can and can’t do since the most common misconception is that “it’s just a browser.” Yes, the Pixel runs Chrome OS, which uses the Chrome browser as its main interface. But that browser runs on a Linux kernel and that gives Google some opportunity to flesh out the experience a little more.
There’s a full-fledged File Manager that integrates local and cloud storage for example, as well as a standalone music player and video player; these all work offline. A basic photo editor is included. There’s support for Google Docs, which also works offline. There’s a Camera app for taking pictures, although I haven’t seen much use for it. Essentially, the basics of an operating system are here and sometimes, that’s all you need.
In fact, I’d argue that less is more in this case: I’m far more focused when using the Pixel then when using a device with various third-party applications. It’s the same reason we opted not to get a navigation system in our Chevy Volt when we bought it in November: It was adding more buttons and complications that we simply didn’t want or need on our drive.
It’s true you can’t install native software apps on the Pixel. Is that a problem? For two reasons it isn’t, at least not for me. First, all of my work is done in a browser: Research, blog posts, online classes, social networking, email, and general content consumption. I’ve had no problems doing what I want on the Pixel, which includes watching online video from Amazon and Netflix, enjoying live out-of-market NHL games, writing dozens of articles, etc….
For the few times I’ve wanted to play a game that wasn’t web-based, I simply turned to a device I already have (and one you likely do too): a smartphone or a tablet. I’m getting my app fix from those devices now and using the Pixel for everything else.
Second, it’s easy to install another operating system on the Pixel. Using a simple set of instructions made available by David Schneider at Google, I run Linux as needed on the Pixel; at the same time I’m running Chrome OS!
From an end-user perspective, this is little different than running Windows in a virtual machine on a Mac; and it’s actually faster to set up. This allows me to install third-party apps as needed: Skype, Audacity, Gimp or whatever else that can’t be done on the web.
Can you live a web-based life?
Chances are that most of you already live in a browser too but there are still a few activities where you prefer a third-party app. But living the web life isn’t as bad as it sounds; in fact, it’s a far better experience than it was in the past. Back in 2008, I took a 60-day web challenge, bypassing all third-party apps (save the browser) and living to tell about it. In fact, I found it actually fun to find web-based solutions for my various needs and still do.
That’s where Chrome web extensions come in today. I routinely use several on a daily basis as these mini-apps help overcome some browser limitations. The Any.DO extension manages and syncs my active tasks, a Pocket extension fires links to my offline reading list and Evernote’s Clearly extension removes the crap from a web page to let the content shine through. Extensions are only the beginning, however. Google is working on Native Client, an effort that will allow native code to run in the browser, as well as Packaged Apps, which it describes as:
It’s true that a future filled with apps using either of technologies is just that for now: A possible future. So the best way to see if you can live with just the web is simply to try it. Use your existing computer with just the browser for a week and find out. I think one needs to give it at least that much time because this isn’t a transition most can make in just a day. If it doesn’t work out, you’re no worse for wear, but if it does, maybe a Chromebook could meet your needs.
So: Wi-Fi or LTE?
After test driving the LTE model of the Chromebook Pixel, I opted to spend the extra $150 for that model. Instead of paying $1,299 for the Wi-Fi edition then, I ordered the $1,449 Pixel. The premium nets the integrated LTE radio, 100 MB of included LTE service each month with the option for pay-as-you-go broadband as needed, and 64 GB of local storage, which is double that of the cheaper model. Both devices benefit from 1 terabyte of Google Drive storage for three years and 12 free GoGo in-flight sessions.
The LTE radio can sometimes take a good 15 seconds to grab a Verizon signal — particularly when waking the device — but overall, having integrated connectivity for the times when Wi-Fi can’t be found is worth it to me. My LTE smartphone uses AT&T’s network and can be a hotspot, so I essentially have three ways to keep the Pixel connected: Wi-Fi hotspots, AT&T’s LTE network from my phone (which is already paid for each month) and Verizon’s LTE network as a last resort add-on.
Without a doubt, $1,449 is a seemingly high price to pay. I’ve been using a $450 Chromebook for nearly a year so the question in my mind is: Does the Pixel represent a 3x boost in experience over my lower priced Chromebook? For me it does: It’s at least 3x as fast, includes mobile broadband connectivity, comes with 10 times the cloud storage and has a screen that looks magnitudes better.
It’s all about the future and change
When I think about the Pixel, I can’t help but be reminded of a key GigaOM mantra. “Broadband is the processor,” is one of the big themes my colleague Om Malik had when starting the blog back in 2006. Indeed, if it weren’t for broadband — first wired and later wireless — we wouldn’t have the portable computing products that are so popular and in widespread use today.
No platform I can think of exemplifies this thought any better: Using web technologies as a front-end interface is the heart and soul of Google’s Chromebook Pixel. And because I’ve embraced this thought, and the experience it brings, the Chromebook Pixel with LTE is the best device for how I work. It’s not for everyone – I’d never say otherwise — but it just might surprise you if you take one for a test drive.