The Pixel Chromebook: Google’s answer to the MacBook

If you did not know already, a Chromebook is in most cases a less expensive type of laptop. In fact, some can be had for as little as $249 at places like Best Buy. There are several different manufacturers…the $249 example is made by Samsung.

Of course, you would be correct if you assumed that there was a catch. Well, it’s called a Chromebook because it features Google’s Chrome browser. And, there is no operating system.

Let me say that again: there is no operating system. At least, not in the traditional sense–no Windows, no OS X, no Linux. No iOS or Android. No Windows Mobile, even.

So what does that mean, exactly? Simple. Google has built all it thinks you would need in computer apps, on its own site. Need email? There’s Gmail. Need a calendar? There’s Google’s Calendar app. Need Word? There’s Google Docs. And, when you need a browser…well, there’s Chrome. So, it uses online apps, there aren’t very many built into the machine.

So you can’t add any software to it…at least–again–not in the traditional sense. It’s a “walled garden” app closed system, you get your apps from the Chrome Web Store. This really isn’t that much different than what Apple has done with its iOS Store for iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches…or Windows, with its Windows Store.

One of the things that has gotten a lot of press has been its amazing boot time: it starts up from a cold boot in around eight seconds. Yes, that’s correct. And waking from sleep is instantaneous.

Many of these devices have not gotten great reviews…obviously, to manufacture them so inexpensively, corners have had to be cut, and the quality of the different models is all over the board.

However, recently Google introduced a top-of-the-line Chromebook, the Pixel. It reportedly has a sharper display that even the MacBook Pro Retina, and is only $1300. Its fit and finish is reported to be as good as Apple’s laptops. In fact, there’s even rumors that Google is seeking to open its own retail outlets to better market the devices, like the famous Apple Stores and the more recently-opened Microsoft Stores.

Sounds like it could be a bargain, right? “Not so fast, my friend!” For another couple hundred dollars, you could own a MacBook that you could install Apple’s OS X apps on, and even run Windows with it. And for a lot less, you could have a Windows laptop.

Jared Newman of PCWorld.com has a review of the Pixel Chromebook. He likes it, but with reservations:

Anyone who thinks the Chromebook Pixel is a ludicrous idea hasn’t actually tried one—or at least that’s my theory after using the high-end Chrome OS laptop over the past few days.

In fairness, the $1300 Chromebook Pixel does seem pretty crazy on the surface. You can get many of the same specs in a Windows PC for a lot less money, and without sacrificing the ability to install desktop software. You can also spend $200 more and get a Macbook Pro with Retina display. And for the same money as the Pixel, you could buy no fewer than five Series 3 Chromebooks from Samsung and still have $50 left over.

But none of those options would give you quite the same experience as the Chromebook Pixel, with its 12.85-inch touchscreen and Retina display-esque 2560-by-1700 resolution. You’d also have a hard time finding anything with this build quality. The Pixel is one of very few laptops that stands toe-to-toe with a MacBook in fit and finish.

Now, I’m not entirely sold on the Chromebook Pixel. Despite its many alluring qualities, it’s still a bit too pricey for what it does, and its battery life—discussed below—is a deal-breaker for me. But after living with a Pixel on loan from Google, the idea of a luxury Chromebook doesn’t seem so misguided.

Performance: It’s all about the screen

JARED NEWMAN
A buttery-smooth display with nary a pixel in sight.

The Pixel’s display is gorgeous, with a 239-pixels-per-inch density that’s higher than that of any other laptop. The screen is glossy, but not obnoxiously reflective. You can tilt the screen or view it at off-angles without washing it out. Blacks are so deep that they almost—but not quite—blend into the laptop’s black bezel.

As with any device with this fine a screen resolution, you won’t see individual pixels at normal viewing distances. And with a screen ratio of 3:2, you can see a bit more of Web pages than you would on a laptop with a 16:9 or 16:10 display.

I suspect that Google spec’d the Pixel with a Core i5 processor because it wanted Intel’s integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU to drive the machine’s display. In actual performance, Google’s machine doesn’t feel like a huge leap over Samsung’s Series 5 550 Chromebook, which combines a Celeron processor with the same 4GB of RAM as the Pixel. In my ordinary work-related use, which requires some dozen open browser tabs for writing and researching stories, the Pixel never skipped a beat. But then again, neither did the Series 5 550.

It was possible to find the Pixel’s limits. In 3D games like From Dust, the action got pretty choppy, and the browser-based MMORPG Realm of the Mad God wasn’t nearly as smooth as it is on my desktop PC. Also, the newfangled touch response on the Pixel could be a lot better. There’s a noticeable lag between swiping your finger and seeing the result—more so than just using the trackpad.

(Newman has also written an analysis on what reasons Google might have had for creating the Pixel Chromebook.)

He goes on to discuss the design features of the Pixel and what he considers a deal-breaker: the subpar battery life. However, on making a decision on purchasing the machine, he advises:

The common argument against all Chromebooks is that other laptops—whether they run Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux—can do more. But “more” isn’t the same as “better,” and the truth is that the vast majority of laptops don’t provide a better Web browsing experience than the Chromebook Pixel. You may laugh at that statement, but a Web browser can be pretty useful. You just need to eschew Word, iTunes, and Photoshop, and embrace Google Docs, Google Play music, and Pixlr instead.

There’s the real question: Is that something you could do? Give up apps you’ve been using for years, for a different experience with a different machine?

“Different” is also not the same as “better”…but, nor is it necessarily the same as “worse.”

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