In an attempt to satisfy cloud-computing power users, Google today launched its Chromebook Pixel, a $1,299 laptop with a high-resolution touch screen that's now the flagship of the Chrome OS fleet.
"The goal was to push the boundary and build something premium," Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president of engineering in charge of Chrome and the Google Apps online services, said in an interview. Google engineers set out on the "labor of love" project two years ago, asking themselves, "What could we do if we really wanted to design the best computer possible at the best price possible?"
The answer is a 3.3-pound computer that brings a lot more polish to a product family that's been much more about low cost. Chrome OS runs Web apps in the browser rather than native apps written for traditional operating systems such as iOS or Windows, and the focus so far has been on consumer machines with a low sticker price and business machines that are cheap to manage.
Google is pushing pricing much higher than the previously top-endat $550. There are two Chromebook Pixel models in the United States, a $1,299 Wi-Fi-only model with a 32GB SSD and a $1,499 model that adds 4G mobile networking using Verizon's LTE service. The price includes three years' access to 1 terabyte of cloud-based storage space on Google Drive and 12 sessions of GoGo Inflight Internet access.
The Wi-Fi model is available immediately on Google Play, and the LTE version will be available at the beginning of April, Google said. Outside the U.S., where LTE is relatively scarce, only Wi-Fi models will be sold. Bestbuy.com and a few Best Buy stores also will sell the laptop.
Google, having caught the religion of design and no doubt inspired by Apple's successes, was deeply involved in aesthetic choices and mechanical engineering. The company designed not just the software but also the feel of the hinge, the layout of the electronics board, the placement of the speakers, the third microphone for canceling out keyboard typing noises, a chassis with no visible screws, and the surface of the trackpad.
"These aren't economies-of-scale volume parts," Pichai said. "In many cases they are custom one-off components, precision engineered."
For Google, a touch-enabled Chromebook paves the way for more dramatic departures -- for example, a Chrome OS tablet.
"We're pushing computing forward. It'll definitely make the ecosystem rethink touch," Pichai said. "I think people will take the first step toward building tablets with this."
Of course, a Chrome OS tablet would mean the browser-based operating system competes directly with Android. It's possible to build Android's Java-like programming foundation into Chrome OS so Android apps could run, but Pichai said it's "premature" to talk about that possibility at this stage. Chrome and Android sharing already is going the other direction: with Chrome now available for newer Android devices, Google can work on improving how well Web apps run on mobile devices.
The most notable feature on the Chromebook Pixel is its screen.
It's a very high-resolution 12.85-inch, 2560x1700 display whose aspect ratio is a taller-than-usual 3:2 size for more vertical screen space. It's covered with a layer of Gorilla Glass for protection and has an unusually high 400-nit brightness.
The linear resolution of 239 pixels per inch means it exceeds the 13-inch MacBook Pro's Retina 227ppi screen by a smidgen, making fonts smooth and graphics sharp. As with Retina devices, though, a lot of software and Web pages must be updated before graphics will look their best.
And of course it's a touch screen, something Microsoft has strongly advocated with Windows 8 but Apple has yet to embrace for its Macs. People can touch icons to load Chrome apps, touch tabs to switch among them, swipe to scroll around Web pages, and -- when Web apps have been adapted suitably -- pinch to zoom.
"Touch is a game changer over time. Over time I ended up using it more and more. I'm an old dog to which new tricks can be taught," Pichai said. For his daughter, "touch became the primary mode of input" for operations that ordinarily would use a mouse or trackpad.
Under the covers, the Pixel uses a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor with integrated HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of DDR3 memory, and a fan that can switch on to keep the electronics cool. It's got two USB 2.0 ports, a combination headphone-microphone jack, an SD Card slot, and a Mini DisplayPort for hooking up a TV or external monitor. The battery lasts five hours with typical usage.
Google steadily improves the software with new Chrome OS releases every six weeks. One change that's coming in the next three months: the QuickOffice viewer software used to open Microsoft Word and Excel files also will let people edit those documents, Pichai said.
"We want to make it a nonissue if you run into Office files," Pichai said. "Yes, you can upconvert to Google Docs, but if my daughter's teacher sends me a form, I just open it up in Chrome, fill it out, save it, and send it back to her."
The name Chrome is a bit perverse, since it's a stock term for a program's user-interface elements and a Google objective with the browser was to make that UI get out of the way as much as possible. The Chromebook Pixel recapitulates the idea: each pixel on the screen is effectively invisible. Indeed, Google hopes the notebook itself will fade into the background so people will pay attention instead to what they're doing with it.
"We wanted to immerse users in what they were doing," Pichai said.
That's why the hardware, while intended to be refined, is also spartan and utilitarian. There's no multicolored Chrome logo, just the name Chrome above the keyboard and on the back of the hinge as on other Chrome OS devices.
Competing with partners
Like the Nexus line of Android phones and tablets, the Pixel raises the specter that Google's partners will have to compete with Google itself. Samsung and Acer built the first generations of Chromebooks and their desktop companions, Chromeboxes. Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard joined the fray this year.
Google argues that it's avoiding stepping on those partners' toes with the Chromebook Pixel, though -- even though that limits the potential success of the device.
"We put it at a price point where they aren't today," Pichai said. "Our goal wasn't to be too commercial with this. Our goal is to get it in the hands of developers so they can build amazing applications. We wanted to give power users a way they can live on Chromebooks."
Developers can package up these apps to be given away or sold through Google's Chrome Web Store. As with Google Play and Apple's App Store, Google keeps a percentage of the resulting revenue.
But hardware sales and app store proceeds aren't where Google makes its real money on Chromebooks, at least today. Rather, it's online services.
When people search Google and click on search ads, Google makes money, but when they're using another company's browser, Google has to share some of that revenue, a portion that's called traffic acquisition costs. Google doesn't have to make TAC payments when searches are through Chrome or Chrome OS, though, making its search operation more profitable.
In addition, Chrome OS dovetails well with Google Apps, Google's suite of online services for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, calendar scheduling, and e-mail. Google charges $50 per user per year for Google Apps, and for businesses deploying Chromebooks, it charges an extra $30 per user per year for use of centralized management software.
"The Google Apps customer base turns out to be a lead generator for Chromebooks," Pichai said.