Why Google built the pricey, powerful Chromebook Pixel

With Chrome OS foundering, the company needed to take a bold step to kick-start its cloud vision.

Casey Newton Former Senior Writer
Casey Newton writes about Google for CNET, which he joined in 2012 after covering technology for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is really quite tall.
Casey Newton
5 min read
Chrome OS needed a push. Is the Chromebook Pixel it?
Chrome OS needed a push. Is the Chromebook Pixel it? Josh Miller/CNET

It's been a week now since Google unveiled the Chromebook Pixel, and the reactions have settled into a rough consensus: nice laptop, but not for you.

"The Chromebook Pixel is just too much machine for the software," the Wirecutter's Nathan Edwards writes in a representative take. At CNET, Seth Rosenblatt's review makes a similar point: "the Chromebook Pixel's high price and cloud OS limitations make it impossible to recommend for the vast majority of users."

All of which raises the question -- why release it? Surely Google knew that by introducing a high-end laptop for the bare-bones Chrome operating system, it would court incredulity even from enthusiastic early adopters. When you're charging $1,300+ for a Web browser, "Just look at that screen!" only goes so far.

But while we were scratching our heads over Google's intentions with the Pixel, company executives laid out a reasonably persuasive case for bringing it to market. J.R. Raphael, in a sharp piece at Computerworld, has the relevant quote from Google's vice president of engineering, Linus Upson. Emphasis Raphael's:

The Chromebook Pixel ... brings together the best in hardware, software and design to inspire the next generation of Chromebooks. With the Pixel, we set out to rethink all elements of a computer in order to design the best laptop possible, especially for power users who have fully embraced the cloud.

There are two big ideas there. Let's take them in turn.

The Pixel is meant to inspire. No one denies that this Chromebook turns heads. Much of the Pixel's unveiling last week was given over to discussion of the laptop's design and construction -- the etched glass used in the trackpad, the subtle placement of the microphones, the playful light bar on the exterior that changes color to reflect battery life. And that's to say nothing of that screen, the 4.3 million-pixel showstopper from which the laptop gets its name.

Compare that to the bargain-basement laptops that have carried Chrome OS until now. The operating system began life on the CR-48, a rubbery brick of a prototype that appeared to take its design cues from the Brutalists. The first consumer models, from Samsung and Acer, offered only modest improvements in style and performance. What the early Chromebooks lacked in style they made up in value -- starting at $349, they offered a bargain to workers and students who lived primarily in the Web browser and wanted more power than they could get from a tablet.

The problem is that Chromebooks have yet to escape the perception that they are inferior, meant for consumers who simply can't afford better. Google's vision of the cloud extends to the entire market -- the low end, the high end, and everything in between. Until now, there hasn't been a high-end Chromebook. As a result, you're unlikely to ever step into a meeting and see an executive carrying one under her arm.

Google hopes the Pixel's power pushes Chrome OS forward.
Google hopes the Pixel's power pushes Chrome OS forward. Josh Miller/CNET

Walk around the Google campus in Mountain View and you're struck by how many Googlers are working on MacBooks. But of course they are: Apple laptops are built with style, sophistication, and power -- adjectives few would ascribe to the Samsung Series 5. The Pixel marks an attempt to meet style with style and power with power -- to show Web developers, manufacturing partners, and its own employees that Chrome is a serious operating system deserving of a first-class computer.

The Pixel could inspire developers to build fast, full-featured Web apps that take advantage of touch -- a feature rapidly becoming standard on laptops. It could inspire manufacturing partners to launch sleeker, more powerful Chromebooks themselves, at prices above the $250 and $350 they have been able to charge to date. And it could inspire Googlers to ditch their MacBooks in favor of a homegrown solution that has its own advantages. That's a best-case scenario, sure -- but if you're Google, it's one worth pursuing.

Which leads us to the second big reason Google says it developed the Pixel:

The Pixel is a tool for power users. When Google isn't selling the design of the Chromebook, it's selling features meant for people who spend all day on their laptops. The hardware boots up in seconds, connects to Verizon's 4G LTE network, and comes with 1 terabyte of Google Drive storage for three years -- which ordinarily costs $1,800.

At the same time, to say the Pixel is for "power users" feels like a case of marketing materials getting ahead of reality. Power users like laptops that are light; the Pixel weighs 3.3 pounds, or a third of a pound heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air. Power users need battery life; the Pixel tops out around five hours, the MacBook gets closer to seven.

And while workers whose companies use Google Apps will feel at home on the Pixel, enough is missing from Chrome OS to make it difficult to use as a primary computer. Having used it for a week now, I find myself constantly missing the native apps that help me work: Evernote, OmniFocus, Tweetbot, 1Password, Rdio. In most cases I can make do with a combination of Web apps and Chrome extensions, but the experience is inferior -- and belies the notion that this is a computer for needy, greedy "power users."

It turns out that the Pixel is more of a computer for what you might call cloud zealots -- users determined to store almost of all of their data online, in exchange for the added convenience and security. It's easy to see why Google would want to cultivate cloud zealots -- more Web surfing equals more advertising revenue. But Chrome OS makes average users -- to say nothing of power users -- constantly aware of the trade-offs they are making. (For a good list, see David Pogue.)

Still, improvements to Chrome OS over the past four years mean that users are making fewer trade-offs than they used to. HTML5 is improving, and Web apps along with it, and the result is that it's now unfair to dismiss Chromebooks as mere Web browsers. Browsing is still the thing they do best, but you can do real work on a Chromebook (I wrote this piece on a Pixel, not all that much more slowly than I might have on my MacBook Air). In time, you might be able to work as fast on a Chromebook as you can on a more traditional laptop.

Ultimately, the Pixel is a case of a company putting its money where its mouth is. If Chrome OS was ever to be anything more than a curiosity -- and let's face it, it's almost four years old and hasn't exactly set the computing world on fire -- Google had to do something dramatic. Some of that can be done on the software side, but a world-class operating system needs great hardware. Great hardware pushes operating systems forward.

And so the reviews that say the Pixel isn't for most people are right -- Google itself all but admits it. That doesn't mean it's a failure, though. If a year from now Samsung and Acer are releasing higher-end Chromebooks of their own, and Web apps have come closer to reaching parity with native software, and more Googlers are using Pixels as their main machines, Google can call its expensive laptop a success. Chrome OS finally has the concept car to advance its vision of pure cloud computing. Now the company can only watch and wait as it sees what the world makes of the concept.