August 15, 2013, 4:25 PM — I've been using Google's latest Chrome-OS-powered Chromebook laptop computer, the Pixel, for the past three months. At Google's annual I/O developer conference in May, the company distributed Chromebook Pixels to more than 6,000 attendees, and I walked away with a Pixel review unit. Though I don't feel qualified to write a full, in-depth review--at least not a good one, as I've used the same two laptops for the past four years--I do have a number of noteworthy impressions to share.
The Chromebook Pixel is unique, because it's the first official "high-end" piece of hardware to run Google's Chrome OS. The Pixel is meant to appeal to the MacBook Air sect. And it's made by Google, not one of the company's hardware partners (Samsung, Acer or HP).
After spending a few months with the Chromebook--working with it in the office, using it on planes and trains and toting the machine with me to the beach--I've found a lot to love about the sleek machine. And a lot to, well, not love. At all.
Here's a quick list of four things I love about the Chromebook Pixel, followed by four things I hate.
Why I Love the Chromebook Pixel
1) The Chromebook Pixel is Beautifully Designed
I love the look and feel of the Chromebook Pixel. It's elegant, it's sleek and it just feels good in your hand while you carry it or clack away on its keys.
The machine is skillfully cut from anodized aluminum, and the hinge that connects the display to the keyboard and base is a "finely-tuned piano hinge" that looks really cool. It also works very well; it's extremely responsive to touch and, after three months of regular use, the hinge is just as sturdy as the first time I opened it. You can't see any of the Chromebook's screws, vents, speaker ports or antennae. The backlit keyboard is simple, functional and good looking.
A thin horizontal panel atop the rear side of the display lights up in rainbow of colors when you first turn the Pixel on; in blue when it's awake and in use, and in red when the battery needs a charge. It's kind of like Google's take on the iconic glowing Apple logo on all its laptops, but not so "in your face, look-what-brand-of-computer-I-choose-to-use."
I do have two complaints about the Chromebook Pixels design. The SD card sticks out just enough to be slightly annoying when a memory card is in place. (I've had it pop out on me a couple of times when I was quickly trying to pack up my machine and I accidentally tapped the card, which ejects itself when you push it into the laptop hard enough.) Also, the Pixel is just a bit heavier than I expected or would have liked it to be. (The official weight is 3.35lbs., compared to the similarly-sized, 13" MacBook Air's 2.96 lbs.)
Both of these complaints are admittedly minor. After some regular use, I got used to both the memory-card slot and the weight. They don't bother me much anymore.
2) Chrome OS is Simple, Slick and Speedy
I've used a Chromebox in the past, so the Pixel wasn't my first experience with Google's Chrome OS. The difference between the two experiences was like night and day. The Chromebox was design to work with disparate hardware; as such, that hardware didn't always work quite as well along with the Chrome OS as it did with the software it was designed for.
The Chromebook Pixel is Chrome OS at its best, and it really shows. The machine is lightning-fast and Mack-Truck powerful.
It starts up and shuts down in seconds, with no delay whatsoever. New windows and Chrome apps launch instantaneously. As long as I've had a strong Wi-Fi signal, I've never seen the machine "struggle" at all while running multiple apps or streaming content..
3) Chromebook Pixel and Google Services: A Match Made in Heaven
The Chromebook is designed to work with Google's popular Web services, including Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google's Hangouts chat app and the various Google Play media options. Pixel's integration with these services is seamless and simple. Log in to your Pixel using a Google account and you have access to all of you Google services.
I use Gmail every day, and since I got the Chromebook Pixel, I've started using Google Drive instead of Dropbox and Box, which I used to use frequently. I also use the Chrome browser on all my devices now, and my settings and bookmarks all sync across PCs, tablets and smartphones.
Chrome apps run in your browser. You can access Gmail, Drive and Google's other services in just about any browser, on any machine. But you're already logged in to all of them when you fire up the Pixel. And you can create multiple user accounts; for example, you and your spouse can quickly log in and out of your Google accounts and instantly have access to your individual services and settings.
People who don't use many Google services might not see the same value as I do, but the Chromebook Pixel is built to work along with the company's various offerings, and there's no better way to get the most out of Google than with the Pixel.
4) Chromebook Pixel's Display is a Dream
The Chromebook Pixel's display is its true crown jewel. The 12.85" screen is composed of 4.3 million pixels, giving it "the highest pixel density of any laptop," according to Google. That's 239 pixels per inch. (Google says the displays on "other leading laptops" have just 118 pixels per inch.) A 3:2 photographic format and 178-degree viewing angle help ensure that you can see your content vividly from a variety of angles, the way it was intended to be seen.
That about sums up Google's hype. But the bottom line is that the display really delivers. It's beautiful and crisp, colors are warm and true to life, and you can't see the slightest bit of pixilation, even if you try.
The display is touch-sensitive and extremely responsive. I was new to the touchscreen laptop form factor when I first started using the Pixel, but now I find myself frequently using the screen to scroll through pages when I'm reading or researching stories. In additional to rapid scrolling, you can use the touchscreen to zoom in and out with precision. And you can quickly swipe through pages in a document or an eBook.
The top-of-the-line display comes at a price, though. (More on that in the next section.)
That's a lot to like about the Chromebook Pixel, but on the flip side of the coin.....
Why I Hate the Chromebook Pixel
1) Chromebook Pixel Battery Life is Unfortunate
The Chromebook Pixel is designed for use on the go. Everything about its design is meant to make the machine more portable. Its dependence on cloud services makes it well-suited for people who work in many different environments.
But the Pixel has an Achilles heel that becomes apparent shortly after you try to travel with it: Battery life sucks. Sort of.
I say "sort of" because I've figured out how to maximize Chromebook Pixel life so it lasts a reasonable amount of time: Decrease the screen brightness to its lowest level. That's easy to do, since the Chromebook has built-in keyboard keys for display brightness. But, as mentioned earlier, the best part about the Pixel is its beautiful display. Frankly, the Pixel's display doesn't look all that beautiful when it's so dim you have to squint to see details.
Google's official battery life number is "up to 5 hours of active use." (In comparison, Apple cites the 13" Macbook Air's battery life as "up to 10 hours iTunes movie playback," which roughly translates to "active use.") Google's estimate is accurate...if I bump the screen brightness down to 25% of its full capacity and I don't stream any multimedia content. Yesterday, I bumped down my screen brightness and got almost exactly five hours of continuous Pixel use, but all I did was write in a Google Doc and occasionally surf the Web for links. Not bad.
Last night I recharged the machine. This morning, I bumped up the screen brightness to 75%. I worked on writing this story in a Google Doc and occasionally surfed the Web. I got about 4 hours of battery life, or an hour less than when the screen was at 25% brightness. Again, not terrible.
Then I recharged the machine again, left the display brightness at 75% and turned on the Indians vs. Twins baseball game on MLB.tv. The machine lasted less than three hours before dying. Not good.
The Chromebook Pixel also takes a long time to charge. Using the block charger that came with the Pixel and a standard power outlet in my living room, it takes just over three hours to fully charge the dead Chromebook--more if you use it while it's charging.
To sum that up, in my experience the Chromebook Pixel gets about 5 hours of relatively light use and less than three hours of heavy use. That's disappointing for a machine built for road warriors who don't always have access to power outlets.
2) Chromebook Pixel is HOT--and Not in a Good Way
The Chromebook Pixel gets hot when you stream content. Really, really hot. Like too-hot-to-keep-on-your-lap-while-streaming hot.
It's even worse when the machine is charging. As mentioned earlier, you're not going to get much streaming time if you don't plug it in while in use, so your Chromebook is going to get very hot while streaming. There's no way around it.
It's not uncommon for laptops to warm up when in use or while charging, but the Chromebook Pixel gets hotter than any computer I've ever used. Google touts Pixel's "active cooling with no visible vents" and its "finely tuned piano hinge that's engineered...as a heatsink to help keep the machine cool." Maybe Google should've made those vents just a bit more visible, because the piano hinge doesn't "sink" nearly enough heat.
3) Chromebook Pixel and Chrome OS Lack the Apps I Need
The whole point of the Chrome OS is to be as lightweight as possible, so it runs rapidly and smoothly. Chrome "apps" are Web apps that run in the browser. Many traditional pieces of Windows or Mac software are not compatible with Chrome, though. There are positives and negatives to this approach and many workarounds.
For me, Chrome just doesn't cut it. I can't use it alone to do my job. I need another PC or Mac in addition to the Chromebook Pixel. My IT department doesn't officially support Chrome, so that's a problem. Some IT departments presumably do support Chrome devices, and Chrome does support some VPNs, so it's not fair to say that the OS isn't IT friendly.
IT aside, many desktop and work apps I use every day aren't available on Chrome. Photoshop is one example. It's easy to find browser-based photo editors in the Chrome store, but as far as I know, none are as robust as Photoshop. And I've already wasted too much time tinkering with other apps, trying to figure out how to perform relatively basic editing tasks.
I wrote this post using the Chromebook Pixel, but I had to switch over to my PC to send it off to my editor and then upload the final copy to CIO.com's content management system, which was designed to work with Firefox or Internet Explorer. (For some reason, our CMS hates Chrome.)
The very nature of the Chrome OS means that some popular Windows and Mac apps will not make it over to Google's OS--and even if they do, they'll often be slimmed down versions. That's fine and good, but if your job requires you to use certain apps, or corporate systems are designed to work with a non-Google browser, you're out of luck.
4) The Chromebook Pixel is Way Too Expensive
The Chromebook Pixel I'm using is a review unit from Google, so I didn't pay for it. If Google did not provide a Pixel, I would not be writing this post, because there's no way in Hades that I would pay $1,450 for the machine. (I'm using the 64GB, LTE-equipped model. The 32GB, Wi-Fi only version costs $1,300, but that's still more than I'd pay.)
It's not that I don't like the Pixel. I do. And it's not because I'm a cheap you-know-what. I am, but $1,300 to $1,500 is not an unreasonable price for a top-of-the-line machine with high-end hardware.
As stated above, I personally cannot use the Chromebook for work, because the apps and services I need aren't all available. So I need another machine as a backup. And I just don't have $1,400 to drop on a computer that's great looking and a pleasure to use but that doesn't get the job done--just as I don't have the scratch to drop on a shiny new Porsche in addition to my trusty Toyota.
You can learn more about the Chromebook Pixel on Google's website or purchase one of your own from the Google Play store.