Chromebook Pixel

Meet the Pixel. It's beautiful, powerful, filled with the tools the next-generation of the web will need, but it "just" runs Chrome OS. That's the general consensus of everyone with a platform to speak their mind about Google's newest Chromebook, and for the most part it rings true.

It's a beautiful machine. Quite frankly, it's surprising to see Google deliver something this well built and designed, because we're used to more budget-friendly gear from our Mountain View friends. But you need to understand -- this isn't your typical laptop. It's something completely different for most of us. For some, it's going to be the perfect portable computer, but for others it's going to leave you wanting more than Chrome OS can deliver.

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It also checks in at $1,300 ($1,450 for the LTE version), so it's something you're not likely to buy on an impulse. That's what tech-reviews are for.

Read on and see the good, the bad, and the ugly that goes with owning a Chromebook Pixel.

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The video walkthrough

Hopefully, this gives you a good look at how well built and designed this thing is. If you like what you see here, visit a Best Buy or other retailer that has one in stock to demo. It's $1,300 dollars -- do more than watch a short video.

The hardware

Chromebook Pixel

The Pixel's one of the nicest laptops you'll ever see or use. The body and back of the LCD are made from a block of machined anodized aluminum, and every detail was addressed. The screws are hidden under the rubber feet, the vent is designed into the hinge where you'll never notice it, the ports are precision cut. Even the speakers are tucked away, hidden underneath an excellent chiclet keyboard with backlit-characters. There are no logos save for the word Chrome above the keyboard and etched into one of the hinges, and the lid is adorned with a multicolored LED bar near the slot where you open the laptop. The trackpad is covered in glass, and even seasoned laptop veterans used to the trackpad that Apple offers will tell you it's incredibly responsive and a pleasure to use. From the minute you pick the Pixel up you can see and feel the work that went into building each unit. 

Weighing in at 3.35 pounds, the pixel is not the lightest ultra-portable you'll find. In fact, even the cheaper (and more realistically priced) Samsung Chromebook weighs in about a full pound lighter. That sleek aluminum body is also made of material that's heavy, and there's a big heat sink to factor in. A similarly outfitted MacBook Air weighs in at 2.96 pounds. If you need to cut every ounce, this matters. The 6.4 extra ounces are well used though, as the slightly thicker (than the MacBook) screen is no normal LCD.

Pixel specs

Tech specs direct from Google Play

The high-end build of the Pixel is fitting for the screen. Checking in at 12.85-inches, with a resolution of 2560 x 1700 (239 ppi), a viewing angle of 178 degrees, and a 400 nit extra bright backlight make it the best laptop display (on paper) you've ever used. Our unit renders color beautifully, and is crystal clear. I can't say how much better it is than the retina MacBook display, because unless you start talking specs you won't notice any difference in the quality. Yes, it's that good.

It's more than a pretty face though, The screen also has a full multi-touch digitizer under the Gorilla Glass panel front. Like the trackpad, the touchscreen hardware performs wonderfully -- even if the software doesn't. You'll have it smudged and covered with fingerprints before you know it. Do you need a touchscreen on a device like the Pixel? Not right now. But as the web converges the tablet and "desktop" experience you will soon. All those touchscreen Windows 8 laptops will force it, and as software like Chrome for Android and Safari on iOS get more powerful, we'll eventually reach a point where a touchscreen is a must-have for web apps.

Pixels on the Pixel

If that weren't enough, Google also screwed around with the tried and true 16:9 laptop display aspect ratio that we're all used to. The Pixel has a 3:2 aspect ratio that Google calls it "designed for the web." After a week with the Pixel I have to agree. The extra vertical space of the screen makes a huge difference when surfing the web. Many pages are designed to scale horizontally, but scrolling down to see the rest of the page is something we all know about. With the Pixel, you're doing a lot less of it. Pictures can take better advantage of the screen by filling the available area more. Google got this right, and it really is perfect for the web.

All in all, the screen spoils you. You can't unsee the effect the resolution has on text and pictures, the 3:2 aspect ratio works so well, and the added bonus of a full multi-touch display means you'll hate the screen on every other laptop after using the Pixel. When you factor just how nice the keyboard and touchpad is, and the excellent way it's all put together, you see why it costs $1,300.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS

To the uninitiated, Chrome OS looks and acts just like Chrome on our Windows, Mac OS, or Linux desktop. To the folks who use it every day, it still looks and acts just like Chrome on the desktop. Google has turned the Chrome browser into a platform, has created APIs for developers, and is providing a simple client that uses it all to connect to the web where all the hard data is stored, and the magic happens. You want there to be some sort of special secret to Chrome OS that makes it different from the Chrome browser, but there isn't one. For all intents and purposes, Chrome is Chrome. And that's a good thing.

The same extensions and apps that run on the desktop browser also run on Chrome OS. There is a rudimentary desktop and Launcher bar, but other than a place to show a pretty wallpaper, there is nothing there that doesn't appear on the new tab screen you're used to in your browser. 

Chrome OS Launcher

The launcher tray holds shortcuts to Google's Gmail, search, Youtube, and the browser itself. When you select any of them, or any of the web apps you're installed, they open in the current browser session or in a new one if you don't have one running. An exception to this is Google Talk, which uses its own container window. This is not a good thing. When a new IM comes in, it either minimizes what you're currently doing and the small Google Talk window steals focus, or it opens in the background and you have no idea a message came in at all. Hopefully, this will be addressed with the unified message panel we've seen in developer builds of Chromium.

Google Talk on the Chromebook Pixel
This is not effective use of screen real estate.

I mentioned before that Chrome OS was limited to the web. That doesn't mean you can't be productive with it though. There are many "light" apps in the Chrome store that can handle a lot of your day to day workflow. And with a little adjustment, plenty of folks will find they really can be productive. I'm a freelance developer, and a blogger. I make my money with a keyboard, a camera, and a calculator. If I were still sitting in an office working with CAD files and engineering tools, the Pixel would not be able to handle it. Even today, if I want to compile any code, or plug something in and work on it or with it, I have to move away from the Pixel by either using remote desktop software or actually getting out my other laptop. Here's an example of some of the tools I found in the Chrome store to help me along.

  • imo Messenger seems to be the best way to use Skype in Chrome OS. Yes, Google has voice "chat" and it works very well on the Pixel. My colleagues use Skype, so I either use it as well or stay out of the loop on everything.
  • Scratchpad is a great cloud based note app that comes installed on the Pixel. After using it to paste all those snippets of text or links you need just once, I installed it on my other laptop and my desktop.
  • Extreme Image Converter is a quick way to resize an image. We do that a lot here, so a dedicated app that does it fast with no fuss is handy. Extreme Image Converter does just that, despite the promise of something extreme.
  • Pixlr Editor is a surprisingly nice Gimp or Photoshop stand-in. It's nowhere near as powerful with the hardcore stuff, but for the image editing most of us do, it works great.
  • Fieldrunners is a fun tower defense game that also available for Android. It fits the bill when I need to just chill for a few minutes during the day. 
  • Finally, Chrome Remote Desktop is an easy, cross-platform way to control a desktop computer from your Pixel via the Chrome browser. Do what you need to do, just like you were working at your desktop, then put the finished product in your Google Drive.

Chrome Remote Desktop

Of course, you also have a full set of Google services at your disposal. If you're "all-in" with Google, you'll appreciate the way everything syncs up with a single sign-in -- just like your Android phone or tablet.

Now that you know what Chrome OS is, and how it works, you might ask "why bother? You can just install Chrome browser and get the exact same experience." That's mostly true, but Chrome OS does offer one thing that's pretty unique -- everything is in the cloud, stored in your Google account. If you pick up my Pixel, sign in with your Google account, everything is set up just the way you like it. When you sign out and I sign back in, it's all me again. That makes it perfect for a shared computer.

It's also pretty secure. You don't have to worry about malware from the web automagically installing itself, and it keeps itself secure and up to date on it's own, checking for updates every time you turn it on. 

Even if you have no intentions of every buying a Chromebook, if you're just a little nerdy and curious it's worthwhile to install it in a VM and see how it works. There's something to be said for this much simplicity.

Using the Pixel

Chromebook Pixel

We've talked about how well built the Pixel is, and why it costs so much to make it. And we've seen the limitations of Chrome OS. Here's where the thinking part comes into play. How does it handle the day-to-day routine that the laptop you're using now does? That's the real question, after all. 

I have used the Pixel exclusively for about 10 days. I had to turn on my "other" laptop once to do some work in Lightroom, because I was in a hurry and my camera was set to shoot RAW pictures. There's no way to handle those on Chrome OS. There are plenty of online image editors, and the built-in editor from the file manager can handle small tasks like cropping, renaming, and rotating, but if you need something like Lightroom or Photoshop, you're out of luck.

The same goes for things like writing and compiling code, 3D modeling, or anything "complicated". Online IDEs and Google Drive work, and so do online image editors, though they are far from ideal in their current state. For many things, that many of us will need to do, the Pixel is not the best choice to do them with.

A few other niggles I have with the Pixel:

  • There is no delete key. You're stuck using the directional arrow keys and the backspace button. This is a big enough issue that it gets its own line in my list.
  • There are no home, end, and insert keys. If you use these when writing documents like I do, you'll soon realize how much you miss them.
  • Google Talk is a mess on Chrome OS. I use Google Talk/chat every day, and the way notifications are handled is terrible. If you've tried to chat with me the past week or so, I probably missed it. Hopefully, the talk of a unified Google notification system is true and comes soon.
  • There is no good way to use Skype. The online services you see in the Chrome app store are a decent enough substitute, but they are all limited in one way or another. 
  • Using Dropbox via the web page sucks. It sucks a lot.
  • I wish the battery life were better. The 5-hour estimate is pretty damn close to the mark. 

If you used a Pixel for 10 days, you would have your own list of things you want or need changed. I've worked around these issues, made some compromises, and tried to live in Chrome OS for a bit. I think it was a success, because a majority of the time the Pixel works perfectly for me.

The hack factor

Linux on the Pixel

No discussion of the Pixel is complete without considering installing Linux on it. There are several ways you can do this, ranging from wiping out Chrome OS completely and replacing it with Debian 7, to using a small utility to install an Ubuntu environment beside Chrome OS. Both are excellent choices, and give you a really nice Linux ultrabook with limited storage. There's not a lot to say, partly because it's so easy (it was purposely designed to allow this sort of thing), and it just works when you're done. Chrome OS is Linux, and the Pixel uses a standard 64 bit X86 architecture, so the heavy stuff has already been done.

But if you're like me, and already have a nice laptop that runs Linux, you have to think about that $1300 price tag. I've tried both the above methods, and they each work really well. All your hardware works, and after a little adjustment to work the the ultra-high resolution you have a very nice machine, with only 25GB of storage. It's a difficult decision.

As for myself, I'm keeping Chrome OS on the Pixel. I'll probably end up installing a full Linux command line environment via crouton for monkeying with my Android devices, but I can handle using Chrome OS the majority of the time. If Google had skipped the touchscreen and added 128 or 256GB of storage, I'd retire my other laptop. They didn't, so I can't.

Working with Android

Wifi File Explorer

If you have a device that still acts like a standard USB storage device when plugged in, it works great to copy files back and forth from your Android device to the Pixel. If you have a newer device that uses the MTP protocol, you're out of luck and there is nothing you can do about it. The solution is to use apps that act as network file servers and browse your device from a Chrome tab. It's a bit clunky compared to drag and drop, but it works for transferring music, pictures and movies. I'm OK with this, because this is how I do it on my "normal" computer -- I hate looking for cables.

You also have no adb (or fastboot) access from the Pixel. You also can't download and use one-click root apps, or vendor utilities like Kies or ODIN unless you want to install a full Linux distro on it. If you want to use the Pixel to hack away at your phone, you're going to need to rethink all that. If you do install Linux on the Pixel, it works just like any other laptop. I was able to install the Android SDK just fine, as well as Eclipse and the tools needed to build AOSP. 

Things like Google music and Movies and TV work just fine, using the same Google account as your phone or tablet. You can also browse Google Play on the web and push installs to your Android device, and many popular Android apps like Pocket or Evernote have very nice Chrome extensions, which work well.

Is it for me?

Chromebook Pixel

The Pixel was designed for someone who does everything on the web and in the cloud. Today, the hardware inside the Pixel is a ton of overkill, and nobody is sure exactly why Google built the thing. It may be a "halo" device to push partners into building higher quality devices, or it may be designed for the next wave of web developers. Or maybe future versions of Chrome OS will have a need for a machine this powerful. Buying one with an eye on the future isn't advised.

I could use the Pixel, and Chrome OS for my work and play laptop. I have done just that for a week. I wrote this review, even edited the photos and video (I cheated a bit and used Chrome Remote Desktop for the video rendering) on it. As I mentioned, some things in my normal workflow need adjusted, and I have to migrate from Dropbox to Google Drive (which isn't a bad thing, just a tedious thing), but I quickly found my groove.

For playing on the Internet, this thing rocks. All the videos work, Flash, HTML 5, even the oddball adult sites who use their own container. Games are great -- you need to check out Field Runners from the Chrome store -- as long as they were designed for a "web" platform, and general web surfing is awesome on the Pixel's great screen. You just have to worry about the work factor.

Some of you will be able to do your thing on the Pixel, some won't. Chrome OS is clearly not for everyone. The big question for everyone who can live in Chrome OS is the price tag of the Pixel. The Samsung model is $249, and the Acer model is just $199. They both do everything the Pixel does -- everything. In their current iteration, Chrome OS doesn't need the Pixel's hardware and the web doesn't need a touchscreen.

I'm hesitant to recommend the Pixel to most folks. You need to realize the limitations of the machine, of Chrome OS, and if you want to hack it, what using Linux with just a tiny bit of internal storage is going to be like. $1300 goes a long way at Amazon. I love this machine, but it's easy to love something that "work" bought for you. Consider everything you see above, and be sure to look long and hard at both the MacBook Air and some of the great Windows 8 ultrabooks that are out there before you buy.