The high-end laptop -- the first Chromebook designed by Google rather than its partners -- brings refined hardware to Chrome OS. It's got a sleek and thin body, an excellent touch pad, a backlit keyboard, and reasonable performance. But its multitouch-capable screen, with enough pixels to match Apple's Retina Display, is spectacular.
The 3.3-pound Chromebook Pixel still isn't for everybody, but cloud-computing aficionados now have some hardware they can be proud to show off. It's a pleasure to use -- as you'd hope if you're shelling out $1,299 for the Wi-Fi model or $1,499 for the LTE-equipped model, due to ship in early April.
Google is gearing the Pixel toward power users accustomed to Web apps like Google Docs and developers who'll write more Web software. Because Chrome OS machines still can't run native software, mainstream consumers should look elsewhere -- perhaps at the $249 Samsung Chromebook, which is affordable enough to be a second machine for e-mail, Facebook, homework, and a quick map search, or a MacBook Air, which isn't cheap but which can run Skype, iTunes, and games like Portal 2.
For someone like me, though, the Pixel is terrific. I spend hours a day on the Web, including using Google Docs, Gmail, and Google+, and the bright, high-resolution screen is terrific.
The 12.85-inch, 2,560x1,700-pixel display has a taller-than-usual 3:2 aspect ratio, which offers more vertical screen space than today's typical laptops. It's covered with a layer of Gorilla Glass for protection and has an unusually high 400-nit brightness.
And it's a touch screen. You can scroll with a swipe, stab at a text box when filling out online forms, and pinch to zoom on Google Maps. Plenty of Web sites aren't yet able to handle touch events beyond those that look like mouse clicks, but that'll change -- especially given the gradually advancing state of the art for browsers on smartphones and tablets.
When it comes to responsiveness, the Pixel's touch screen doesn't match my favorite, the one on Apple's iPad. And unlike a tablet or smartphone held flat, the Chromebook's more vertical screen orientation means it's harder to put the pad of your finger on the screen, so touch events don't always register as easily. There's also some lag between when you flick a page upward and when it starts scrolling.
Power users enjoy fast keyboard shortcuts, and the touch pad is closer at hand when it's time to select and scroll, but touch screens are coming to laptops. It's just physically natural, and with today's mobile devices, programmers and consumers are getting trained in the world of touch-screen control.
The speakers, while not up to MacBook Pro standards, are good and can go pretty loud before distortion kicks in. Google Music and YouTube work fine. The speakers are right on the edge of the keyboard so your hand movements usually don't mess up the sound.
The Pixel has a nice and sleek exterior, with no visible screws and no loud logo stickers. The fine-tuned hinge lets you open the lid one-handed. The touch pad is just as good as the screen. In another first for a Chromebook, a backlit keyboard means you can type better at night.
Google clearly paid a lot of attention to the details here.
Inside the Chromebook Pixel are a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, and 4GB of memory. The Wi-Fi model has a 32GB solid-state drive (SSD), and the LTE model gets a 64GB SSD, but both come with 1TB of cloud storage with Google Drive for three years.
On the outside, the Chromebook Pixel has two USB ports, a Mini DisplayPort for external monitors, an SD Card slot, and a combination headphone-microphone jack. Google promises 5 hours of battery life with typical usage. Bluetooth 3.0 and USB 2.0 mean that the Pixel is a version behind the latest standards, though.
Google put two microphones, an HD camera, and a light detector above the screen. The two microphones are for better noise cancellation, but Google also tucked a third below the keyboard to help cut out typing noises.
For cloudophiles such as myself, the Pixel is great, but it's not without shortcomings:
- Even with 4GB of memory, the Chromebook Pixel can run out of RAM if you have a lot of tabs and apps loaded. When that happens, switching tabs is slow because Chrome OS reloads them rather than pull them off of temporary cached storage on the SSD.
- Google picked a Mini DisplayPort so it could drive large external displays without having HDMI power consumption burdens, but let's face it: there are a lot more HDMI TVs and monitors out there.
- What's so bad about a right-side Delete key? For those of us who type a lot of text, they're tremendously useful, and Alt-Delete isn't as fast.
- Screen brightness changes according to ambient light conditions, but it can waver distractingly when, for example, clouds are passing in front of the sun. I'd rather have a manual override.
- You can't fine-tune the keyboard repeat rate, though the built-in setting is reasonable. In fact, with Chrome OS, you can't fine-tune a lot of things.
- The array of icons in the app tray is not very convenient unless you have just a few apps installed. Fortunately, hitting the search key on the keyboard gets you where you want to go pretty fast.
- And the biggest: Web apps still don't match native apps for performance, features, and offline support.