The incredible, unscalable screen of the Chromebook Pixel

Google's rival to the MacBook Pro Retina has a crystal-clear screen. But unlike the Retina, if you're not happy with how much is displayed, you can't adjust it to show more.

Google Chromebook Pixel. Google/CBS

As a MacBook Pro Retina user, I can attest that Google's Chromebook Pixel rivals the quality of Apple's Retina display. But the Chromebook falls short in not allowing you to sacrifice some quality in favor of seeing more on your display.

Based on the tech specs floating out there, you might be forgiven in thinking that both the MacBook Retina and the Chromebook Pixel have similar screens. After all, Apple talks about the 13-inch Retina having "spectacular" 2,560x1,600 resolution, while Google cites the Chromebook Pixel having a 2,560x1,700 screen.

Display resolution versus pixel resolution
Those figures both refer to pixel resolution, a stat that until last year generally didn't differ from display resolution. The difference is important, and I continue to be annoyed that neither Apple nor Google make it easy to understand what display resolutions their screens show.

The difference between the two can be summarized like this:

  • Display Resolution: How much can you see on a screen
  • Pixel Resolution: How clear or sharp the image is that you see

Display resolution: how much you can see
My column from last year, "Forget Retina, look how much the new MacBook Pro displays," explains this difference in more depth. But as they say, a picture is worth a 1,000 words, so here's a key illustration from that previous column showing what display resolution is all about:

Different display resolutions on MacBook Pro Retina

What those three images represent are three (of the five) different display resolutions that the MacBook Pro Retina 15-inch laptop can show on its screen. At the top is the highest display resolution that can be selected, 1,920x1,200. At this resolution, you can put two browser windows side-by-side and see most everything in both of them.

In the middle is the resolution I typically run, 1,680x1,050. You can't see as much as in the resolution mentioned above, but the text isn't as small as at the highest display resolution, so I find it easier to read.

At the bottom is the default resolution, 1,440x900. At this resolution, you see even less information. But that might be fine for those who want the best clarity from the screen, which leads to pixel resolution.

Pixel resolution: how well you can see
Consider this picture, also from my article last year:

Text display with low and high pixel resolution

On the left is how text appeared in a browser (at the time, Chrome) that couldn't make use of extra pixels that the Retina display allowed. On the right, how the text looked in a browser that could use the extra pixels (Safari). The image on the right is clearer, sharper.

This is happening because the Retina screen is actually using four small pixels (at its default setting) to draw each single visible point on the screen. Consider it like this:

One dot to four pixels

On the left is how computer screens have typically worked. Each visible point of light -- each dot -- was made up of one pixel. If you had a 1440x900 resolution screen, that meant there were 1,296,000 pixels in all, one for each point of light on the screen

On the right is how Retina-style screens work. Each visible point of light is actually made up of several pixels, which means that text can be rendered more smoothly, or images can be shown in higher quality.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina, by default, has a 1,440x900 display resolution. It shows an image made of 1,296,000 discrete points. However, it renders that image with a pixel resolution of 2,880x1,800 -- 5,184,000 pixels. That's four pixels for each visible point of light.

Scaling the display on the MacBook Pro
With the MacBook Pro Retina, you can adjust your display resolution, using the display control panel:

MacBook display control panel

If you go higher than the default "Best" setting, you'll see more on your screen, but the quality will drop. Still, the quality always remains better than a non-Retina screen, because you're still using more pixels per dot than on an ordinary display.

(A few programs, by the way, will use the highest 2,880x1,800 display resolution, but the Mac user can't select this using the display control panel. The programs themselves will generally make that shift).

No scaling on the Chromebook Pixel
Want to sacrifice some image quality on a Chromebook Pixel to gain more display workspace? Sorry, no can do. Incredibly, there's no option for changing the display resolution on the machine, as with the Mac. You're stuck with a 1,280x850 display resolution, a stat you won't discover on the Chromebook site itself.

To be fair, Apple doesn't list the display resolution of its 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina either. That's 1,280x800, putting the 13-inch Retina with just slightly less display space than the 13-in Chromebook Pixel. But as with the 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina, the 13-incher offers scaling, allowing the display to go up to 1,440x900 or 1,680x1,050.

For many, a 1,280x800ish display resolution on either machine may be fine. For some, the inability to go to a higher display resolution on the Chromebook may be a non-issue. But if you do want more workspace, the Chromebook currently can't deliver.

Given how expensive the machine is, at $1,300 to start, this feels like a big oversight to me. Indeed, three other Chromebooks listed at Google's Chromebook site offer a higher display resolution of 1,366x768 yet cost around $1,000 less than the Chromebook Pixel.

Is it worth the premium for screen quality?
I paid a premium for the MacBook Pro Retina in part because the better screen quality really was worth it, given the amount of time I spend staring at my computer screen. Even scaling to increase my display workspace, I still had better screen quality than on a traditional display.

I suppose for someone who really loves using Chromebooks, the incredibly high premium the Chromebook Pixel costs might be worth it. The image quality really is great. But existing Chromebook users are likely going to take a step down in display resolution. Heck, it's a step down in display resolution from either the 11-inch or 13-inch MacBook Air or from a Windows 8 touchscreen ultrabook like the Lenovo Yoga.

If display resolution means much to you, think long and hard about making that Chromebook Pixel purchase. Otherwise, be prepared to zoom out (Ctrl-), which remains the best workaround at the moment for the lack of a true scaling option.

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