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Google Chromebook Pixel review: Brilliant touch screen, hefty price

Even the $250 Samsung Chromebook Series 3 comes with one USB 3.0 port.

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.

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The Chromebook Pixel (left) next to the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Screen. Josh Miller/CNET

Despite this being the best hardware design for a Chromebook yet, small blemishes keep it from truly shining. Video-out options are limited. 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, and nearly every other laptop in this price range (with the notable exception of non-Retina Macbook Pros) has HDMI outputs.

The Chromebook Pixel, like all other Chromebooks, has a dedicated search key. It replaces a caps-lock key, though users can change its behavior to caps lock if desired.
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The Chromebook Pixel, like all other Chromebooks, has a dedicated search key. It replaces a caps-lock key, though users can change its behavior to caps lock if desired. Stephen Shankland/CNET

There's also the keyboard oddity. Google's intent on making this a thing, but heavy typists familiar with traditional keyboards still will miss the Caps Lock key and right-Delete key. Alt-Delete just isn't as fast, and overall the keyboard feels a bit mushy, especially compared to the snappy laptop keyboards of a Lenovo or newer MacBook Pro.

Normally at CNET, we test laptops by running specific software benchmarks on Photoshop, iTunes, Quicktime, as well as games like Far Cry, Metro 2033, and Crysis. Of course, none -- absolutely none -- of those programs can run on a Chromebook's Web-based operating system. As a result, we did some more anecdotal testing instead.

For video playback, we tested streaming HTML5, streaming Flash, and locally-saved video files on the Pixel and on a Samsung Chromebook Series 3 for comparison. There was virtually no difference between the two streaming video formats that couldn't be chalked up to buffering issues. Local playback was identical on both, even though the Pixel is currently running a more recent version of Chrome OS -- version 25 versus the Series 3's version 23.

However, when using more processor-intensive Web apps, the Pixel's superior hardware came to the fore. Whether running the Flash-based Pixlr, WeVideo, or the HTML5 deviantArt Muro app, the Pixel was provided an invariably smoother rendering, editing, and saving experience.

There are problems with the operating system, too, although Google generally has made good its promise to improve Chromebooks by issuing regular update to Chrome OS, which updates every six weeks.

One of the most memorable Chromebook fixes that came from an OS update was when the Cr-48's trackpad suddenly started working much better than it had previously, thanks to an update about six months after the Cr-48's release. So we know that Google can make substantial improvements through OS fixes.

With that caveat in mind, there are still some big hang-ups with the Pixel. Its 4GB of RAM isn't enough to save it from the same multiple-tab managing problems of Chrome-the-browser. Since Chrome OS's Web apps are essentially glorified browser tabs, this can quickly slow down your zippy Pixel experience.

The Chromebook Pixel's high-resolution display make text and graphics crisp.
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The Chromebook Pixel's high-resolution display make text and graphics crisp. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Fine-tuning things like the keyboard refresh rate or battery use is impossible. That's a noticeable limitation when compared to Windows, Mac, or Linux-driven laptops.

And Web apps still don't match native apps for performance, features, and offline support. The fact that Google Drive will soon automatically sync 1,000 of your most recently used documents, up from 100 of them, is less important than the overall offline experience.

QuickOffice integration is coming to Chrome OS, a clever boon to businesses, and it'll arrive first on the Pixel -- but not for at least two to three months.

Should you buy the Pixel?
In a word, no.

While the Pixel makes manifest our subconscious expectations of the Chromebook when it first launched two years ago, the expensive, high-end, touch screen laptop still falls short in some key areas. Yes, there's a lot to like about the hardware, but the Web-based Chrome OS just has far too many caveats and compromises to justify its exorbitant price tag.

At $1,300 to $1,500, every other PC -- Mac or Windows -- will give the vast majority of users far more options for the money, though right now they'll have to choose between a high-res Retina screen (MacBook Pro, starting at $1,349) or a touch screen (many, many Windows models).

The Chromebook Pixel is an interesting "halo product," and the design chops Google has shown bode well for future models. But for now, this is laptop is targeted at a niche of a niche. The vast majority of people who use Google services would be better served by sticking with the Samsung Chromebook Series 3. It lacks the high-res touch screen and zippy Intel processor, but at $249, it's a lot easier to overlook its flaws.

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