Google Chromebook Pixel review: Promisingly Web-centric, but can't justify its price tag

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The Good The Google Chromebook Pixel packs a brilliant high-res touchscreen, dual USB-C ports and a speedy Intel processor into a slick shell. It's also a few hundred dollars less than its predecessor.

The Bad The Pixel is three to four times the cost of other capable Chromebooks. Chrome OS requires online connectivity for most tasks, and available apps are limited in number and potential when compared to the wide breadth of software you'll find on Windows and Mac.

The Bottom Line The updated Chromebook Pixel sets the bar for high-end for Chrome OS hardware, but its browser-based operating system imposes far too many limitations to justify its lofty price point.

6.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 4
  • Performance 7
  • Battery 7

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.


The Pixel's lightbar doubles as a battery-life indicator. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

The touchscreen is fast and responsive, but Chrome OS isn't very finger-friendly. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

There are two USB-C ports, one on each side of the machine. Josh Miller/CNET

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.


You'll have no trouble gettings things done -- provided there's Wi-Fi. Josh Miller/CNET

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.