I can’t believe it, but I’ve been a proud Chromebook Pixel owner for about four whole months. And to be honest, I was hoping to write a a full review a lot earlier than this, but simply never got around to it.
This is partly because I was so enamoured with the device, I just wanted to use it and enjoy it instead of write about it. But on the other hand, writing a review after so many months of use is almost more valuable than writing one based only on first impressions: I’ve lived with this device for so long that I know all of its strengths and weaknesses in and out; I know how it holds up after heavy usage; I can explain what it’s like to almost completely shun Windows for a third of a year. In other words, in this review, you can expect an honest opinion about where the Chromebook Pixel shines and where it still needs some work, from the perspective of someone who has used almost nothing else for months. That’s something those reviews published months ago can’t give you.
So, without further ado, here’s my four-month-in review of Google’s computing masterpiece, the Chromebook Pixel.
Let’s start with where the Chromebook Pixel shines the most: the screen. It features a 12.85-inch multi-touch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio, 2560 x 1700 resolution at an ultra-high 239 ppi (the highest ppi when it was released), up to 400 nit brightness, and an extra-wide 178-degree viewing angle. In addition to navigating through touch, this is the only Chromebook with a backlit keyboard and a fully clickable, etched-glass trackpad.
The Pixel also features a 720p HD webcam, 2 USB 2.0 ports, a mini display port, a 2-in-1 card reader that supports SD and MMC, and a dual microphone/headphone jack. This is all powered by a dual core Intel CORE i5 Ivy Bridge processor with Panther Point PCH clocked at 1.8GHz, integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, and 4GB DDR3 RAM. The integrated 59Wh battery provides an estimated use time of five hours, and it’s Energy Star certified if you care about that.
All of this is in an industrial unibody design machined from anodized aluminum that includes active cooling with no visible vents. Its precise dimensions are 297.7 x 224.6 x 16.2mm, with a total weight of 3.35 pounds (1.52kg).
There are two versions of the Pixel: a WiFi-only model with a 32GB SSD for $1299 and a 64GB Verizon LTE model for $1449, both available through the Google Play Store. In the US, Best Buy also sells the 32GB version. Both versions come with 1TB of Google Drive storage for three years and 12 free Gogo Inflight Internet passes. The 64GB version also comes with 100MB/month of LTE data on Verizon for free for two years, and very reasonable plans if you want more.
I already did a full unboxing shortly after I received the Chromebook Pixel, which you can view above. Suffice it to say that the packaging looks and feels premium, and it’s a total joy to open and discover for yourself. The all-white box, while very simplistic, is absolutely beautiful in its own right. You won’t be disappointed with the full unboxing experience.
To be completely honest, this is the best piece of hardware I’ve ever had the privilege to own. From the piano hinge that doubles as a heatsink, to the ability to open the laptop with one hand; from the brilliant screen, to the speakers cleverly hidden under the keyboard; from the backlit keys, to the multiple microphones that work to minimize background noise – this thing just screams quality.
I’ll get into specifics about the screen, keyboard, and trackpad below, but suffice it to say that they are all best-in-class. The speakers get surprisingly loud, although at higher volumes they can cause the keys to rattle ever so slightly. Still, that’s a small price to pay for their smart placement under the keyboard where they don’t get in the way, and they sound very premium.
I’m a little peeved that there’s no HDMI port, although that can be easily and inexpensively solved, and I’m also a little disappointed that the USB ports aren’t 3.0-compatible (although I actually don’t have any USB 3.0 devices, so it’s not a big deal to me, but at this price point I think it should have been included).
The light bar on the back of the Pixel glows a pretty blue while in use, and it turns red when the battery is about to die. It also flashes all of the Google colors when putting the Pixel in standby mode, and sometimes when plugging in the charger. Speaking of the charger, the connector glows yellow when charging, and turns green once the battery is full. It’s a great way to tell if the Pixel is fully charged with only a quick glance, even without actually turning it on – a nice touch that I’m glad Google included.
The official charger has the traditional brick that comes with most laptops, but it’s actually possible to plug that brick directly into the wall, without the extra grounding plug. That’s nice if you need to plug into an older outlet that’s not compatible with three prongs, or if it’s only a short distance to the outlet. Alternately, a three-pronged cord can be used to extend the distance from the brick from the outlet. That’s a level of flexibility not found with most laptops, and it’s much appreciated here. I am a little disappointed that the charging port on the Pixel does seem a little loose, and it’s an unconventional size, making it near impossible to use any charger except the official one. I can still live with it, though.
When Google set out to design what it considered to be the perfect laptop, its goal was to make the hardware so good it would actually disappear, bringing content to the forefront. Hence the name, Pixel: the screen is so good, that the individual pixels have disappeared, and web content just shines through. Colors are brilliant and accurate, and this is by far the best screen I’ve ever used. It’s actually painful to use other computers after adjusting to the Pixel.
With a resolution of 2560 x 1700 and a ppi of 239, it’s hard to argue with the awesomeness of the screen. And since it can get up to 400 nits, it’s bright enough to use outside in direct sunlight. The viewing angles are superb, with little to no color distortion even at the most extreme angles. I’ve also come to really appreciate the 3:2 aspect ratio, which is perfect for consuming web content. Yes, there are those pesky black bars when watching most videos, but those don’t bother me. I like the fact that, since the web is designed for vertical scrolling, more of the sites I visit are displayed on the screen, and I have to scroll less. This aspect ratio just makes sense for a laptop, and I hope it starts to become a bit more standard in competing machines.
Touch screen responsiveness is what I expect it to be, although there aren’t a lot of touch-optimized Chrome apps yet. This is slowly changing, as Google incorporates more touch-centric features in Chrome OS, and as the possibility of a Chrome OS tablet gets more real. But as of now, I don’t find myself reaching up to use the touchscreen very often, although I’m glad it’s there for the very rare Angry Birds game.
It’s worth noting that images can burn into the screen after extended periods of time. This happens to the app launcher across the bottom of the screen, and is really only noticeable in very rare circumstances. It also goes away fairly quickly, but just to be safe, I wouldn’t keep the screen static for too long. Luckily, Chrome OS goes to sleep relatively quickly if you’re not using it, so this shouldn’t be too much of an issue for most people.
The Chromebook Pixel runs the latest version of Chrome OS. This is an operating system that people will either get right away, or not. To be clear, I’m not referring to usability: Chrome OS is actually one of the easiest OSes to learn and use, and if you’ve already used the Chrome browser in Windows, OS X, or Linux, then Chrome OS will feel very familiar. I’m actually referring to the entire concept behind a cloud-based system. I’m hoping that if you’ve read this far already, you know that Chrome OS isn’t “just a browser.”
That being said, basically the only native apps that come with the Pixel are a file explorer, a media player, a very basic photo editor, a calculator, and a camera app. The Quickoffice app (for better Microsoft Office compatibility) is slowly filtering down through the developer and beta channels, and you can also download the Google+ Photos app to the Pixel. But realistically, most “apps” in the Chrome Web Store act simply as links to websites or online web-based apps, although an increasing number of them do offer true offline functionality.
Since I first got the Pixel, Google has also rolled out packaged apps, which are apps in the truest sense of the word, running entirely locally and offline, with the ability to access different parts of the Pixel hardware, even though they are written in web languages. The current selection of packaged apps is limited but expanding everyday, and Google’s eventual goal is to run packaged apps on any systems that run Chrome, including iOS and Android. In other words, Google wants Chrome OS to truly be the future of app development. Google is also still perfecting Native Client, which will make it easier to port over apps written in other languages, as well.
So even though the current app selection might seem limited to some, it’s getting better quickly, and I really have never felt limited myself. I’ve already made the transition from Microsoft Office to Google Docs, Spreadsheets, and Slides, with very little headache, and Google Drive offers full offline functionality. Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Books also include offline accessibility, and the Chrome OS media player can handle everything I’ve thrown at it that’s stored locally on my SSD. With each new update to Chrome OS, the Pixel becomes more and more functional offline, and it’s actually really exciting to watch a relatively new desktop OS blossom and grow.
Since I already lived most of my computing life in the browser before getting the Pixel, I never felt like I had to compromise much of anything at all. And there’s usually an online or packaged app equivalent to anything I’d normally use a traditional desktop program for. Even gaming is starting to get really interesting.
I also can’t neglect to mention that Chrome OS is always up to date, since updates are downloaded transparently in the background directly from Google. You won’t be nagged with an annoying reminder to update almost everyday, like you are on Windows, and you don’t need to worry about viruses or malware – Google takes care of all of that for you. I should also mention that Chrome OS is much more mature than it was a year ago, or even six months ago. It is really starting to feel more and more like a more traditional desktop OS, while still maintaining its main focus on the cloud. That’s not to say Chrome OS is perfect: there are still quite a few things I’d like to see added. But in all honesty, for all intents and purposes, I’ve permanently left Windows and haven’t looked back.
And of course, for hackers and tinkerers, this is one of the easiest laptops to install Linux on – whether you boot a full Linux distro from within Chrome OS using crouton, dual boot with Chrome OS, or completely wipe Chrome OS from the SSD, it’s incredibly easy to unlock the full potential of this device.
The Chromebook Pixel is a beast when it comes to web browsing. And shouldn’t it be, considering that’s what Google designed it for?
The Pixel is by far the best way to experience the web, and it’s the most premium Chrome OS experience you can get. I haven’t experienced any of the issues I have had with other Chrome OS devices, such as slowdowns and tab reloads. The Intel i5 processor certainly can’t hurt, and the 4GB RAM has proven more than sufficient for my uses. HD video on Netflix and YouTube plays beautifully without any stutters, although I have noticed that sometimes, on very rare occasions, Google Play Music will skip when I open multiple tab and start browsing the web. It doesn’t always happen, and I can’t seem to pinpoint the issue in all cases, but it’s worth noting. (I’ve experienced similar occurrences on other computers, as well, so it might be a Google Play Music problem, rather than a Chromebook Pixel problem.)
I am, however, extremely dissatisfied by the amount of heat this thing produces after extended periods of use. It heats up fast when using it on a cushion or lap, rather than on a tabletop or lapdesk, even though it was designed with no visible vents. It doesn’t seem as effective as it could be at allowing heat to escape, and I’ve also noticed that the fans run constantly when it’s plugged in and charging. Since the battery life isn’t the best, I do have to use this while charging quite frequently. In these cases, it can get so hot that it’s actually uncomfortable to hold in my lap.
The heat seems to come from the top left hand side, right above the escape key, next to the charging port. After a while, it spreads to other areas of the machine, as well. This probably won’t be as much of an issue in the winter, when I can use this as a miniature space heater, but it’s been a major annoyance most of the summer.
I’ve always been a firm believer that benchmarks don’t tell the whole story, and you really need to talk about real-world experience to get a good idea of how a device will ultimately perform. For example, on paper the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity was great, but I experienced nothing but lag. On paper the Moto X is only mid-range, but it’s been marketed as a high end phone because of the amazing performance. You get the idea.
That being said, here are a couple common benchmarks that can be performed on Chrome OS.
RESULTS (means and 95% confidence intervals)
Total: 254.9ms +/- 3.1%
3d: 44.5ms +/- 7.4%
cube: 19.7ms +/- 13.3%
morph: 8.9ms +/- 14.9%
raytrace: 15.9ms +/- 12.6%
access: 19.8ms +/- 7.4%
binary-trees: 2.6ms +/- 23.2%
fannkuch: 8.4ms +/- 7.2%
nbody: 3.9ms +/- 20.2%
nsieve: 4.9ms +/- 20.0%
bitops: 16.9ms +/- 15.0%
3bit-bits-in-byte: 1.8ms +/- 25.1%
bits-in-byte: 5.3ms +/- 21.1%
bitwise-and: 4.6ms +/- 24.5%
nsieve-bits: 5.2ms +/- 25.8%
controlflow: 2.6ms +/- 19.2%
recursive: 2.6ms +/- 19.2%
crypto: 23.7ms +/- 13.2%
aes: 10.4ms +/- 18.1%
md5: 5.9ms +/- 16.6%
sha1: 7.4ms +/- 24.6%
date: 31.8ms +/- 19.7%
format-tofte: 14.4ms +/- 26.0%
format-xparb: 17.4ms +/- 20.1%
math: 20.8ms +/- 12.7%
cordic: 5.3ms +/- 15.6%
partial-sums: 11.5ms +/- 15.6%
spectral-norm: 4.0ms +/- 22.3%
regexp: 9.1ms +/- 10.8%
dna: 9.1ms +/- 10.8%
string: 85.7ms +/- 5.5%
base64: 7.5ms +/- 23.4%
fasta: 8.9ms +/- 14.4%
tagcloud: 28.1ms +/- 8.8%
unpack-code: 31.0ms +/- 17.0%
validate-input: 10.2ms +/- 15.8%
Keyboard and Trackpad
Many previous reviewers have compared the keyboard and trackpad on the Chromebook Pixel to those on Apple’s premium Macbook Pro lineup. While I have never been a regular Mac user myself, I do have to agree with the assessment that both the keyboard and trackpad are among the most premium I’ve ever used.
In four months of extensive use, during which I’ve written quite a bit, I have to say that the keyboard is simply a joy to type on. I like the added touch of a backlit keyboard, and I like being able to turn it off when I don’t need it. The fact that it knows it should dim itself when, for example, I watch a video in full screen mode is a nice added touch that demonstrates Google went the extra mile when considering the smallest of details.
The keys have just the right amount of give, and while there’s a nice and satisfying click, it’s not too loud – I can easily adjust the volume of my typing down when someone else is trying to work in the same room as me, for example. Sometimes the spacebar makes a barely discernible squeaking noise when I hit it just the right way, but this hardly ever happens.
The trackpad is equally enjoyable to use. Its smoothness makes scrolling through webpages a delight, and its accuracy is amazing. It’s fairly easy to adjust the scrolling direction, if you’d like, but overall I haven’t found that I needed to adjust any of the trackpad settings out of the box. It just works, and I now find it almost painful to use other trackpads after getting so used to this one – it’s that good.
The 32GB version of the Chromebook Pixel comes with just WiFi. For $150 more, you can get a version with double the on-board storage capacity (64GB) and Verizon LTE, too.
While some aluminum unibody devices have suffered from poor WiFi reception due to the difficulty faced by WiFi signals trying to pass through an all-metal construction, I haven’t noticed a similar issue in the Pixel. In fact, it seems to pick up all of the same neighboring WiFi networks that my Windows machine does, too, and I haven’t noticed much signal degradation or decrease in download speeds when using my Pixel throughout my home.
While I still haven’t activated the free Verizon LTE (I’m waiting until I actually need it), most reports indicate that the Pixel gets between 10-20Mb/s down and 3-5Mb/s up. That’s comparable to my cable internet connection at home, so that’s fine by me. The dual antennas can’t hurt download speeds, either.
It is, however, worth noting that the Pixel is officially only compatible with Verizon LTE – not CDMA, or any other flavors of 3G or 4G. It’s one of the only LTE-only machines currently in existence, so don’t depend on being able to fall back onto 3G when LTE isn’t available. Verizon, of course, says that its LTE network is almost complete, and most of its 3G footprint has LTE, but there are still areas that still don’t have it yet.
Technically, it seems possible that the Pixel might be compatible with almost any CDMA and HSPA+ network, based on the network card it uses. Some users also reports being able to connect to AT&T LTE, but with limited success. Because there are so many variables at play here, and not everyone is successful at jumping networks, don’t buy this with intentions to do so.
Bluetooth also works as expected, both with headsets and speakers. I haven’t tested this with any other Bluetooth accessories.
The front-facing camera is capable of recording video up to 720p, and while there’s no native software you can use to record video directly to the SSD (yet), it works great for Hangouts or recording through YouTube. You can take pictures and add a few special effects with the camera app, and while it’s nothing to write home about, it’s great for a laptop.
As a side note, I appreciate the multiple microphones that help reduce background noise (including typing) while in Hangouts. That’s another nice touch that shows Google’s commitment to sweating the small stuff.
Perhaps my biggest complaint about the Chromebook Pixel is the lackluster battery life provided by the 59Wh integrated battery. Officially clocked at only five hours under moderate use, and potentially much shorter depending on what you’re doing, the battery on the Pixel simply cannot hold its own against Apple’s latest line of Macbooks, or even the Samsung Chromebook on ARM.
Part of the problem is that the Pixel is so thin – it is impossible to pack much more battery in this thing, without making it thicker and heavier. Part of the problem is also the Pixel’s gorgeous and bright touchscreen – its magnificent pixel density, along with the fact that it’s touch-enabled, both draw a lot of power. Finally, that powerful i5 processor doesn’t really help out much, either.
In my own use, I usually get between 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 hours of use. That’s actually OK when I’m at home or in the office, where there’s always an outlet nearby. But this is problematic when traveling by plane, train, or automobile, where outlets are often nonexistent or very hard to come by. The fact that the battery isn’t removable doesn’t help, either – although that’s admittedly one of the trade offs of such a thin and sleek design.
There are, of course, ways to extend the battery life if you aren’t near an outlet: You can turn the screen brightness down as low as it can go, while still being useful; turn off the backlit keyboard; turn off WiFi, LTE, or Bluetooth when not in use; and shut down the computer when finished, rather than keep it in standby. These are all compromises, though, that detract from the premium user experience that Google intended to build here. If a second generation Pixel is in the works, I hope Google finds a way to fix this particular issue.
This is ultimately the best laptop I’ve owned. It’s also the most expensive (I sprung for the 64GB LTE version). However, even though I spent over $1,500 after shipping and tax, this is one item that I have yet to experience any buyer’s remorse. Unfortunately, it’s also an item that you really have to see and use in person to fully appreciate, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t already know someone who has one.
It comes with some nice perks: for example, if you already were planning on buying 1TB of Google Drive storage for the next three years, the Pixel is basically free. Or, if 1TB is the kick in the butt you needed to fully embrace the cloud … you get the picture. Free WiFi in the air is also nice, as is free Verizon LTE, even if it’s just enough to help you in a pinch.
It’s clear that this is one laptop Google didn’t build for everyone – the price alone should tell you that. This is for Google enthusiasts, Chrome OS devotees who have been craving better hardware, developers who want to see what Chrome OS is capable of, and Googlers who just wanted to build a really cool machine. For most people, a lower cost Chromebook from HP, Samsung, or Acer should do the trick. But if you’ve got the cash to blow, and you want truly the best web experience that money can buy, look no further.
Would I buy this today? Probably – there’s no guarantee that Google will refresh this with newer Haswell processors, and you can also snag a good deal on eBay if you don’t mind giving up some or all of the Google-included goodies, like free Drive storage. Four months later, this thing is still going strong, I still love it just as much, and I don’t see myself using anything else as my daily driver for a very, very long time. Isn’t that what most people want in a laptop?