Google Chromebook Pixel (LTE)

Google’s Chromebook Pixel has caused quite a stir ever since being announced, mostly due to the price tag:

Would you pay $1299 for a laptop that only runs Web apps but has a high-quality, touchscreen display? Google sure hopes so…That’s right: $1449. For a Chromebook.

Hardly anyone doubts the usefulness of a $199 or $249 Chromebook. After all, you can call it a cheap machine with a well-done web browser and you’d be spot on. Justifying a $1,299 or $1,449 web browser is a different story.

But is it just a web browser? And even if it is, does the added practicality and functionality justify the price? Those are the core questions, and ones that we’ll make sure to address throughout this review.

However, I’d suggest one thing before we jump in: I’ve seen too many professional and personal technophiles automatically discount it because of the price. As we look at the device itself and the reasons behind the price tag, let’s keep an open, inquisitive, critical mind. I’d also suggest putting price on the backburner so you can at least enjoy the rest of what the Pixel has to offer.

 

External aesthetics and quality

 

The material of the Pixel looks and feels very top-notch. The casing is made of a smooth, silver metal that feels tough yet not too weighty. It has slightly more weight to it than you’d expect from a thin, sub-14″-screen laptop, but not enough that you wonder to yourself, “Why is it so heavy?”

The front contains the top, thin light – blue when open and in use (moves a little), multi-colored when being closed. The back is where the Pixel vents – a nice, innocuous little feature. The left contains the power plug, mini Display Port, USB connections, and headphone/mic jack. The right contains the SD/MMC card reader and the SIM slot.

The Pixel has a 12.85″ display, due to using a 3:2 aspect ratio instead of the typical 16:9 ratio for computer displays. Google chose this ratio as one better suited for web browsing.

It has a 2560×1700 resolution with 239 ppi, stated as “the highest pixel density of any laptop.” This puts the screen in direct competition with Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display, which states that it has “the world’s highest resolution notebook.” Technically both companies are right – the Pixel has the highest pixel density, while the 15-inch MacBook Pro has the highest resolution (2880×1800; however, the 13-inch model, the closest comparison, has a 2560×1600 resolution, less than the Pixel).

But do all those specs translate into real-world image quality and enjoyment?

Absolutely. I can, without hesitation, say that the Pixel has the crispest, most realistic-looking screen I have ever seen on a laptop. The colors and resolution are both as perfect as I’ve ever seen them.

One thing that pleasantly surprised me was the difference between the default and possible resolutions. When I first started using the Pixel I was so impressed by the display that the thought never crossed my mind that I wasn’t using it at full resolution. I went into the display settings and tried just 1920×1275 (not even the full 2560×1700) – everything was so tiny! I could see why the default was instead set at 1280×850 because it’s much more conducive to typical web browsing. However, when you need to zoom in on and edit a high-resolution picture, the Pixel is willing and able.

 

Internal hardware

 

The Pixel features:

  • 1.8 GHz dual-core processor (Intel Core i5 (Ivy Bridge))
  • 4 GB DDR3 RAM
  • 64 GB SSD internal storage (32 GB on Wi-Fi model)
  • 1 TB Google Drive storage for three years
  • 59 Wh Lithium-ion battery (up to 5 hours of use)
  • Intel HD Graphics 4000 (integrated)
  • 4G LTE
  • front-facing 720p HD camera
  • a couple of sensors (ambient light, GPS) and various connections (2 x USB 2.0, mini Display Port, SD/MMC card reader, headphone/mic jack, Bluetooth 3.0, dual-band WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n 2×2), 4G LTE)

There are some important distinctions between the Pixel and other Chromebooks as far as specs are concerned (for this comparison we’ll look at the $249 Samsung Chromebook):

  • 1.7 GHz dual-core Exynos 5 processor vs. 1.8 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor: Intel Core processors (especially 2nd generation and beyond i5’s and i7’s) are known as extremely solid processors for any platform. The only downside is battery life (hence the five hour average), as Ivy Bridge processors aren’t as battery-friendly as the Haswell line.
  • 2 GB DDR3 RAM vs. 4 GB DDR3 RAM: The additional RAM allows the already-slim Chrome OS to focus on deeper processing, creating a smooth experience.
  • 16 GB eMMC vs. 64 GB SSD: As far as I can tell, SSDs are essentially “smarter” (due to their controllers) and more powerful than eMMCs. eMMCs are a certain type of flash chip installed primarily on mobile devices, whereas SSDs are higher-performing and more prevalent in laptops, desktops, and high-end laptop/tablet hybrids. While 64 GB (and even 32 GB) is a bit overkill for a primarily cloud-enabled device, it could be spot-on for graphic designers and photographers who deal with larger, often local, files.

 

Experience

 

OS

If you’ve never used a Chromebook before, experiencing the OS is both surprising and refreshing.

Both reactions come from the simplicity of the OS. For those who already have a Google account, you simply log in and everything syncs – bookmarks, extensions, passwords, etc. It’s that easy. From then on, you interact with your Chromebook as if you were on the Chrome browser.

Since this is a full-fledged computer instead of a browser on a computer, there are a few important places where you can access files, settings, etc.:

  • Click on the Menu icon at the top-right of the browser and choose Settings. You can access your internet connections, wallpaper, touchpad, keyboard, display, users, the default download folder, Google Cloud Print, factory reset, etc.
  • Click on the time/internet/battery area at the bottom-right of the screen. You can access users, internet connections, bluetooth, volume, battery, all settings, help, and you can shut down or lock your Chromebook from here.
  • Click on the Files icon in your taskbar. This will bring up a window showing your Google Drive files and Downloads folder.

You can also right-click on the screen to autohide the taskbar (“shelf”), change its position, and change your wallpaper. To change the resolution or the rotation (although I can’t think of many reasons to rotate a laptop’s display), go into Settings > Device > Display settings. As I mentioned above, it was pretty amazing how a smaller laptop could produce such an impressive resolution. Even 1920×1275, not quite the full resolution of 2560×1700, was incredibly small for a 12.85″ laptop. Graphic designers and photographers would definitely love the capabilities.

One thing that threw me a little bit at the beginning was the touchpad. Initially, Australian scrolling was enabled instead of traditional scrolling. Instead of scrolling down to go down a page, it moved you up a page. While I could get used to it over time, I’d prefer to have the same movement present across all touch-enabled devices, so I changed it. Overall, using the touchpad was great. Very responsive, easy to use, and it has a quality feel to it (made of etched glass).

The keyboard also gave me a great experience. While the backlighting is a nice touch and the keys look and feel well-made, my favorite aspect of the keyboard was the strength of the keys. You don’t have to have Schwarzenegger-strength fingers, but the pressing action feels “non-prissy,” if that makes any sense. Overall I enjoyed my typing experience on the Pixel.

While researching current conceptions of the Pixel, I noticed one comment from The Verge regarding the touchscreen:

Touch responsiveness is a different story — we don’t know if it’s software or hardware, but scrolling on the screen was much chunkier and laggier than we’d expect from what purports to be a high-end machine.

At first I wondered what they meant – I hadn’t experienced any issues with the touchscreen while moving around the Pixel. However, when I started using it for deeper functionality in webpages, that’s when I noticed a couple of issues. I could scroll up and down webpages fine, but if I tried to zoom into a photo in Google Plus Photos (both when you first click on it and in slideshow mode) or into a map in Google Maps, it wasn’t very responsive at all. Sometimes it flat out didn’t work. I could see there being a couple possibilities:

  • The touchscreen itself works fine (after all, I could scroll and click around on the Pixel with my finger all day long), it’s just the sites themselves that aren’t very touch-friendly.
  • The touchscreen can perform scrolling and clicking commands, but it has trouble with pinch-to-zoom-style commands.

Either way, that is slightly disappointing. With all the work put into a device with a lot of great pluses for the picture-quality- and photo-conscious, having either non-touch-friendly websites or a sub-par touchscreen is an issue. I’m not really a touch guy when it comes to desktops and laptops, I much prefer using a mouse. But if you’re buying something with a touchscreen, you do expect a certain level of functionality. Hopefully this can be addressed in future iterations.

Another area that surprised me was audio. The Pixel has some of the loudest speakers I’ve ever heard on a laptop, and the quality was great. To maximize aesthetics, they’re actually built into the keyboard. Go figure. On top of that, there are three microphones built into the Pixel, with one dedicated to noise canceling (“it not only cancels out background noise, but also the noise you make yourself when you type on the keyboard”).

One big selling point of Chromebooks is their ability to start up and restart very, very quickly. I did a few tests, and my results were extremely positive:

  • Shut down/start up test #1:
    • Shut down: 1 second for screen to go blank, 1 1/2 additional seconds for keyboard backlight to turn completely off
    • Start up: 9 seconds to login screen
    • From login to Chrome appearing: 4 seconds
  • Shut down/start up test #2:
    • Shut down: 1 second for screen to go blank, 1 1/2 additional seconds for keyboard backlight to turn completely off
    • Start up: 9 seconds to login screen
    • From login to Chrome appearing: 3 1/2 seconds
  • Shut down/start up test #3:
    • Shut down: 1 second for screen to go blank, 1 1/2 additional seconds for keyboard backlight to turn completely off
    • Start up: 9 seconds to login screen
    • From login to Chrome appearing: 4 seconds

Essentially, the Pixel took 2 1/2 seconds to completely turn off, 9 seconds to get to login (keep in mind, that’s from a completely shut down state), and 4 seconds to become functional. That’s quite impressive by current standards.

Updates

“Don’t Panic.”

That’s my suggestion to you. Don’t worry about updates, because the Pixel takes care of them for you. All new versions of Chrome and Chrome OS have automatic background updates which are applied when restarting, so you can sit back and relax. And since Google is obviously committed to the development of Chrome (recent updates include easier access to apps and recent/closed tabs, as well as the official site stating updates will come every few weeks), you don’t have to worry about being left behind.

Security

The official site states that the Pixel “comes with virus protection built-in,” and the original Chromebook announcement page states “Chromebooks have many layers of security built in so there is no anti-virus software to buy and maintain.” The Chromium OS Security Overview page is very helpful here. One of the main factors in enhancing security is the ability of the Chrome OS to sandbox various processes (including plugins), keeping the processes from having direct interaction with the kernel, etc.

While my time with the Pixel was limited, I did not encounter any security issues. My personal experience deals more with plugins and extensions. I have a pretty good amount of extensions I use (21), but I’ve always made sure I trust the publisher before installation. Whatever electronic device you use, that’s always a good rule of thumb.

Software

Speaking of extensions, let’s talk a little bit about the software that comes on the Pixel and the additional software you can install. My experience with the Pixel’s software will be slightly different than yours because of how many extensions were automatically installed, but I’ll do my best to differentiate:

Built-in apps:

  • Get Started: I’m a big fan of well-done introductory information (especially for an entirely new device), so I love that this app is included. Will anyone use it? I don’t know, but they should.
  • Chrome Store: Your one-stop shop for accessing additional apps and extensions.
  • Chrome: Your portal to the internet.
  • Files: As I mentioned above, this connects you to your Drive files and Downloads folder.Chromebook Pixel Review - OS - Apps
  • Google Search: Your information-finding best friend.
  • Google Drive: Your file-saving best friend.
  • Google+: Your friend-finding/sharing best friend.
  • Google+ Photos: Your photo-saving best friend.
  • Google+ Hangouts: How to connect to your real best friends.
  • YouTube: Your video-finding best friend.
  • Gmail: Your email-sending/receiving best friend.
  • Google Calendar: Your “ooh, I need to do that” best friend.
  • Google Maps: Your directions/location-finding best friend.
  • Games: Your games-finding best friend.
  • Calculator: Your math best friend.
  • Camera: Your “friends can see you” best friend.

Just so I can have quicker access to a few different products, I use these extensions as well:

  • Google Docs
  • Google Sheets
  • Google Slides
  • Google Keep
  • Google Play Music
  • Google Play Books
  • Google Play Movies
  • Chrome Remote Desktop
  • Google News
  • Gmail Offline

Overall, the Pixel has everything you need to immediately start using it like you normally would any web browser.

Wi-Fi and data signal

The Pixel comes with dual-band Wi-Fi, and the signal worked great, no issues whatsoever.

For the on-the-go person with a little extra cash, having the LTE connection was very helpful. I tested it out at Kure Beach, NC (in the beach house, not on the beach – sand’s a killer), and using the LTE came in handy when I wanted to share pictures of my Ecuador trip with my family at the Kure Beach Diner. No issues, the connection worked well.

For those considering the LTE model, you get 100 MB/month for two years from Verizon.

Battery life

Battery life is stated as having an average of five hours, which seemed to be pretty consistent with the test I performed:

  • Used for ~2 hours, shut lid, used for ~30 minutes, shut lid, used for ~30 minutes – 39% battery remaining
  • Then performed all 3 shut down/start up/login tests (required ~10 reboots) – 36% battery remaining

Unfortunately I didn’t perform as many battery tests as I would’ve liked, but my assumption would be that further results would be very similar – especially since most functions of the Pixel involve the browser, allowing for a very consistent use-case scenario.

Price

Alright, we’re down to the big kahuna. Does all of the above – the ease of use and upgrading, virus protection, display, quality of construction, etc. – justify the $1,299 or $1,449 price tag?

I want to be fair and thorough, so let’s break this down into a couple of categories:

Experiential value (i.e. non-measurable value):

  • Feel: feeling the quality of parts, weight
  • Visual pleasure: excitement over a crisp, clear screen
  • Ease of use: sign in and syncing, etc.
  • Ease of upgrading: no interaction needed; automatic
  • Ease of protection: slight interaction needed (discernment in downloading extra software), but not much

Real value (i.e. value of the parts and the whole) – laptops with comparable screen, audio, restart, and software quality:

  • MacBook Pro with 13-inch Retina display ($1499 model): Slightly lower resolution and ppi, but close; faster processor; twice the memory; twice the storage; equal video card; slightly heavier; slightly inferior wireless (not dual-band); slightly better Bluetooth (4.0); slightly inferior microphones (dual); longer average battery life (7 hours); Apple software. Bottom line: Pixel is $50-200 cheaper, but there are some concessions.
  • Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 ($1399 model): Slightly faster processor; lower resolution (1600×900); equal video card; twice the memory; four times the storage; slightly inferior wireless (not dual-band); slightly better Bluetooth (4.0); slightly inferior keyboard (no backlight mentioned); essentially equal weight (3.3 lb.); longer average battery life (8 hours); some Lenovo software (no full Office-style suite). Bottom line: Pixel is $100 cheaper (Wi-Fi) or $50 more expensive, with less concessions than with the MacBook Pro.
  • Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus ($1399.99): Slower processor; better resolution and ppi; equal amount of memory; twice the storage; equal video card; slightly inferior microphone (dual); slightly inferior wireless (not dual-band); slightly better Bluetooth (4.0); longer average battery life (7.5 hours); slightly lighter (3.06 lb.); some Samsung software (no full Office-style suite). Bottom line: Pixel is $100.99 cheaper (Wi-Fi) or $49.01 more expensive (LTE), with less concessions than with the MacBook Pro.

The closest comparison seems to be the MacBook Pro, especially considering the software suites involved. Of course, you have to consider the non-measurable values, because those do translate into real-world pluses – especially the ease of use, upgrading, and protection.

However, the question invariably arises: but how much should those pluses outweigh the fact that it can’t do as much as, say, a Windows laptop? It may have equal specs and hardware, even superior in some respects, but it can’t play Windows games or run Windows-based software. Can the price really combat that? Therein lies the rub: how much does compatibility matter, and how much does the quality of the hardware and software matter?

My personal take on the price, considering all those statements? It’s essentially justified, as long as you include the experiential aspects to weigh out some of the hardware aspects (particularly less storage and memory; yes, it technically doesn’t need as much, but the fact is the others tend to include more). You can’t deny the quality of the hardware, and you can’t deny the quality of Google’s software. Sure it will have issues like any other OS or software, but it honestly seems to have less issues overall (less OS issues by far, a slightly less amount of issues with the individual software).

More on price and personal preference in the Conclusion below.

 

Feel

The feel of the Pixel was that of a smooth, visually-exciting experience. You simply don’t have to worry – start it up, log in, and you’re off! Everything syncs, everything works most of the time, and everything looks great.

The Pixel is definitely for the browser-based, minimalistic, and visual-centric – the person who enjoys those aspects will enjoy the feel of the Pixel.

 

Conclusion

 

Final thoughts

When considering the Pixel, it all comes down to personal preference. For the laptop you’re considering:

  • Will you only need to browse the internet, and are you a power user (especially a visual-centric power user)? Consider a Pixel, it has incredible quality.
  • Will you need to browser the internet, plus are you required to use Office, or desire to use Windows programs and games? See if you can tweak the Pixel to work for you, but you may have to look elsewhere.

Let me give you an example from my own life: I recently bought a Samsung Chromebook (review forthcoming) to replace my ASUS Transformer TF300T. I bought it because all I wanted was a full-blown web browser to write articles on, check email, etc. I didn’t want a Windows laptop, because it was too involved for my simple needs. However, it will take a long time (if ever) for me to replace my Windows desktop at home, because my needs there are different. I need to use Office occasionally (sending Excel and Word documents to others, creating cards with Project, etc.), and I’m heavily ingrained in PC gaming.

But not everyone’s like me. More and more, people are finding web-based solutions for their needs. I partially fall in this group as well – my storage, music, long-term, and short-term notes are all online. For some, everything’s online. The professional or high-end version of that is who the Pixel is targeting.

I’ve read a few opinions of people who wonder if Google was trying to make more of a statement than really try to sell Pixels – aimed more toward pushing manufacturers and developers. However, I’d have to go with Google’s own quote on this one:

There’s a set of users who are really committed to living completely in the cloud…We also wanted to design something very premium for power users – people who spend money on their laptops.

Yes, Google may be trying to push what manufacturers and developers are doing, but their purpose with the Pixel seemed to be centered around a premium cloud device. Of course not everyone’s going to buy a $1299 to $1449 device, but some will. And while it will be a very focused device, the quality is absolutely there.

Summary

The Pixel is a premium, cloud-based laptop, designed to provide a quality web-browsing experience. While there were issues with the touchscreen and the price will create a very focused clientele, the overall experience was extremely pleasant.

Nate Humphries

Nate Humphries

My two personal passions in life are technology and theology. If you sneaked a peek at my life you'd see me hanging out with my wife, our Dachshund Bella, and our snake Phoenix; playing Skyrim/Civ:BE/F3/FNV/BL/Rage/GW2/SRIV; watching movies; reading on my Kindle (sci-fi or theology research); or playing on my Moto 360/Samsung Galaxy Note II.

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