Google Chromebook Pixel review: Promisingly Web-centric, but can't justify its price tag
Chromebooks are weird. As lean, cloud-surfing machines, they're supposed to serve up all the Internet has to offer (and little else), at bargain-bin prices. This philosophy puts the new Chromebook Pixel in an odd predicament, as it delivers on the promise -- and pitfalls -- of Google's Web-centric Chrome OS, but does so at a cost that completely obviates the platform's greatest asset: value.
To be fair, Chrome OS has come a long way in the past few years, as Google continues to refine it. And if you live in a browser-based world of Google apps -- Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive -- the entry-level Chromebooks like the $330-ish Toshiba Chromebook 2 are definitely worth consideration.
The Pixel, meanwhile, is anything but an entry-level machine. It's a well-built, speedy laptop, armed with Intel's latest Broadwell processors, USB Type-C connectivity, and a gorgeous high-resolution touchscreen. And all of those top-notch features come at a premium: the Pixel will set you back $999 (that converts to about £664, or AU$1,311). That's three times the price of that Toshiba (and other equivalent bargain Chromebooks), or about the same price as a good MacBook Air or Dell XPS 13.
And that's the rub: Chrome OS, and by extension the Chromebook Pixel, is not worth a thousand bucks.
You're probably thinking that the Chromebook Pixel looks a little familiar. And you're right: this is pretty much the same chassis we saw back in 2013 on the original Chromebook Pixel , right down to the snazzy lightbar running along the top of the lid. It's colored to match the Google Chrome Logo, but on the new Pixel it packs some utility: double-tap it while the laptop's lid is closed, and you'll get a colored estimate of the remaining battery life.
The Pixel's display is largely unchanged: it offers a 2,560-by-1,700-pixel resolution, with 3:2 aspect ratio. The square-ish, taller-than-average screen feels just right for scrolling through reams of text on the Web, and that text looks smooth and sharp, thanks to the screen density of 239 pixels per inch.
It really is a fine display. The 400-nit brightness is rather high but keeps things readily visible. Images look great, and colors remain true, without shifting when the laptop is held at odd angles or viewed off axis. The touchscreen is accurate and responsive, and Google have made some progress on improving the touch experience in the Chrome browser. Gmail, for example, offers a "touch-enabled" mode for touchscreen devices, that makes messages and webpage elements easier to navigate with your finger.
But Chrome OS' interface is still designed with a mouse and keyboard in mind, which leaves touch support as a largely superfluous option, suitable for little more than scrolling through webpages when you want to give your trackpad a rest. Not that you'd need to. The glass trackpad is slick and responsive, though Chrome OS lacks most of the more complex gestures that might help you get around a Mac or Windows PC.
The keyboard's keys are spacious and comfortable, with a suitable amount of travel to every press. The Pixel replaces the caps lock key with a dedicated search button -- if you feel the need to yell at people over the Internet, press the Alt key and the search button instead. The search button lets you hunt for files you've got stored in Google Drive, or search the Internet at large. And if you've enable voice search, you can just say "OK, Google" and speak your mind. As expected, the search functionality behaves much like Chrome's address bar. It's far more capable than what we've seen of Microsoft's virtual assistant Cortana in the latest Windows 10 Technical Preview builds , but Microsoft has demonstrated future iterations of Cortana that can draft the emails you dictate and arrange your schedule -- and she already tells jokes.
The new Pixel is one of the first PCs to support USB-C. Unlike Apple's new MacBook , you'll actually find more than one USB-C port -- one on each side of the machine. The USB-C port can charge the laptop, as well as interface with peripherals and the like. That means you can charge your laptop from either side, or charge the laptop while it's connected to another USB-C friendly device. Of course there aren't too many of those just yet: for more traditional expansion, you'll find a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the left side, and an SD card slot on the right.
USB-C seems limited for now, and early adopters will be saddled with a slew of adapters. But there's an exciting amount of potential down the road: each of the Pixel's USB-C ports can transfer at a rate of up to 5Gbps, and can output to 4K displays. Right now that means picking up an HDMI or DisplayPort adapter, but display manufacturers might eventually be equipping new displays with the port, which would do wonders for eliminating cable clutter.
I reviewed the base model of the Chromebook Pixel, which packs a 2.2GHz Core i5-5200U processor, 8GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. That's twice as much RAM and a slightly faster CPU than its predecessor, for $300 less than the machine it's replacing. There is no cellular connectivity this time around, however. Pony up $1,299 (roughly £863, or AU$1,704) and you'll get a Core i7 processor with 16GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. That's a quite a step up from 2013's base model, for the same price. The tiny storage capacities are onerous, but there are workarounds: an SD card will slide in and be flush with the side of the chassis, offering up cheap expandable storage without getting in the way. Proper laptops offer an order of magnitude more storage, with solid state drives starting at 128GB, and slower hard drives generally hovering around the 500GB or 1TB mark.
Performance testing a Chromebook remains a tricky proposition, as none of our typical testing apps run on this Web-based OS. But we do have a few options, in the form of Web-based benchmarks that are designed to test browser performance. We've pitted the Pixel's performance against a slew of other Chromebooks, and it performed favorably -- check out our charts below.
The hardware had no trouble keeping up with everything I threw at it. Granted, that isn't very much: there aren't too many corners of the Web that are especially hardware intensive, and the fast CPU, generous amount of RAM, and lightweight Chrome operating system made short work of all of the video-streaming and online image-editing tasks I threw at it. Gaming is admittedly largely limited to stuff on the Web and things in Chrome's Web store, but the gorgeous and skillfully narrated Bastion is also available in Chrome (here's our review of the iOS version ), and it runs flawlessly.
Google reports that you'll see up to 12 hours of battery life from the Pixel, up from five in the last model. For our tests, I set the screen brightness and volume to 50 percent and streaming video over the Web, to simulate the typical usage scenario of someone who watches far too much television: the Pixel lasted for an average of about seven and a half hours. My own usage revolves around streaming audio via Spotify, streaming the occasional YouTube clip, plenty of reading, and lots of writing. The Pixel easily made it through the average day and beyond, without complaint.
Better still, I never once worried about running out of power because getting more power is so easy, thanks to USB-C: you can charge the laptop from anything that accepts a USB cable. I generally always have a battery pack or two at the ready, and being able to keep a laptop topped up with the pack I keep in my bag is surprisingly liberating. I also sapped power from the other laptops and PCs around me, which came in handy on the occasions when I forgot to tote the Pixel's charger. You'll still want to keep the charger handy, though. With it, the Pixel will soak up enough juice to run for about two hours in just 15 minutes, and the battery will hit maximum capacity in about an hour and a half.
Software and features
The Pixel remains a case study in compromise. The new model offers better battery life and better performance than its predecessor, and Chrome OS has also picked up a few tricks, including the ability to open and edit Microsoft Office documents without being forced to convert files into a different format. A few Android apps have made their way onto Chrome OS, too. The initial showing is a little sparse, but blurring the lines between Android and Chrome OS paints an interesting picture for the future of Google's mobile and PC operating systems. Microsoft has taken a similar approach with Windows 10 , with the operating system and some apps appearing on desktops and mobile phones.
Support from for Chrome OS other major players is coming: Google and Adobe have partnered on a project that promises to bring a streaming version of Photoshop to Chrome. The high-resolution display and capable hardware offered here would be a perfect fit for editing my photos, and while there are some apps available on the Chrome Web store -- and even some that'll run offline -- none of those really hold a candle to Adobe's wares.
And therein lies the rub: the Chromebook ethos -- cheap, and always online -- feels at odds with the Pixel's expensive, high-end hardware. And the strides Chrome OS has made still simply evaporate once your Internet connection dries up. Granted, you can still work within Google's ecosystem, creating and editing documents and viewing any media you may have left stored on the machine. But I'm looking for robust software that runs offline. Of course the apps I want already exist -- on Windows and Mac.
The Chromebook Pixel doesn't fail to impress. But it also doesn't need to exist. Not yet, anyway. The Pixel's world is one in which high-speed, wireless broadband is ubiquitous and cheap. A world where most of us are fully invested in the cloud, subsisting entirely on Web-connected apps and generally unconcerned with local storage.
We aren't quite there yet. Today's Chromebook will best serve someone who wants an inexpensive way to surf the Web. Consider something like the Toshiba Chromebook 2 or Acer Chromebook 15 , which start at around $250 and offer just enough machine to stay out of the way. If you need more performance or require more robust apps to get things done, you'll be better off with a PC or even a Mac. Both options will be similarly priced and work anywhere you do.
As it stands, $1,000 is quite a bit of cash to pay for a machine that loses a lot of functionality once you're off Wi-Fi: Chrome OS just isn't ready for a high-end Chromebook.
Google Chromebook Pixel
Chrome OS, 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB RAM, 32GB SSD
Acer Chromebook 15 CB5-571-C09S
Chrome OS; 1.6GHz Intel Celeron 3205U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM ; 32GB SSD
Toshiba CB35-B3340 Chromebook 2
Chrome OS; 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2840; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM; 16GB SSD
Dell Chromebook 11
Chrome OS; 1.7GHz Intel Core i3 4005U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM; 16GB SSD