Is Chromebook Pixel worth spending $1,299? [first-impressions review]

First in a series. Chromebook Pixel is an enigma. A misfit. Some critics call it a miscalculation -- that Google created a pretty kit that offers too little value for the high price. For sure, $1,299, or $1,449 for the model with LTE, is more than most people pay. According to NPD, the average selling price of laptops at US retail was $640 in January.

But some people do pay more. Apple laptops start at $999 and, according to NPD, the ASP was $1,419 last month. Unquestionably, I see Chromebook Pixel as priced against Macs, and after using Google's laptop see it targeted at the same professionals who value Apple notebooks. The question any potential buyer should ask: Is Pixel worth spending as much as Google asks? I will answer that question in several parts -- this initial review is first.

Part one focuses on price and basics -- what you get for what you pay for and is it a good investment. Part two will address usage scenarios. What is Chromebook Pixel good for and can it really replace a computer running OS X or Windows 8. For the price, Google's portable had better, right?

What is Pixel Like

Chromebook Pixel is the first computer ever designed and sold by Google. Few newcomers get so much right, with respect to the overall package. The Chrome OS laptop is, from a hardware and operating system perspective, finely balanced. Performance is generally smooth and the ergonomics excellent.

Chromebook Pixel differs from other Chrome OS laptops in a key aspect: It is meant to be used as a primary computer. Design, processor, touchscreen and price say Pixel is the machine used everyday, all day long.

To that end, Chromebok Pixel must be able to replace something else. As a hardware and OS kit, the laptop is easily agile and competitive. However, apps are more uncertain, such a big topic, and one many people will struggle to understand, that they necessitate the aforementioned second-part review. I may not post for another week. I've only had Chromebook Pixel for six days, which isn't enough time to to adequately address usage scenarios.

Specs. The configuration is impressive for Chromebooks, although some components comparatively less than some lower-cost laptops: 12.85-inch touchscreen, 2560 x 1700 resolution, 239 pixels per inch; 1.8GHz Core i5 processor; Intel HD graphics 4000; 4GB DDR3 RAM; 32GB or 64GB of storage; HD WebCam; backlit keyboard; dual-band WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n 2x2; 4G LTE (on one model); Bluetooth 3.0; mini-display port; two USB ports; Chrome OS. Measures: 297.7 x 224.6 x 16.2 mm. Weighs: 1.52 kg (3.35 pounds). Cost: $1,299 (32GB WiFi); $1,449 (64GB WiFi/4G LTE). 1TB Google Drive storage is included free, for three years.

The key advantages are resolution and touchscreen -- and LTE when spending more. No Mac comes with a touchscreen, although some Windows machines do. But no Windows laptop in this size or price class offers nearly as much resolution, which exceeds MacBook Pro 13 inch. The closest competitor for touch and resolution is Microsoft Surface Pro.

Design. By overall appearance and features, Chromebook Pixel clearly looks like a MacBook Pro competitor, and everything about the computer is premium. There's no sense of cheapness or skimping anywhere. The smoky grey anodized aluminum shell is solid, making Pixel feel rugged -- tank-like -- in the hands.

The design is a bit industrial for my tastes, and I've expressed similar sentiments in the past about other devices Google sells, such as Nexus One and Galaxy Nexus. Chromebook Pixel is beautiful but boxy, an impression the screen dimensions contribute to.

The screen. The display dominates the device landscape and feels larger than others of similar horizontal measure. That's because Google chose a 3:2 ratio rather than 16:9. So the screen is higher, rather than wider, which is better for viewing webpages (hey, they do scroll down). Pixel's display is more squarish than rectangular. I expected to be put off by the 3:2 ratio, but now rather like it.

Anyone with enough cash to spring for MacBook Pro with Retina Display knows: High resolution matters. Once you go there, you can't easily go back. Pixel's 2560 x 1700 is an indescribable delight -- a real feast for the eyes. Seeing is the only way to appreciate the screen. My productivity is way up if for no other reason. Reading and writing are a joy now.

Text is crisp and digital content vibrant, with rich contrast. Viewing angles are superb, and the screen isn't overly reflective. The display is bright, 400 nit, same as Surface Pro, and makes the $249 Samsung ARM Chromebook's 200-nit seem like a candle to light bulb.

Touch. Pixel's touchscreen sets it apart from other portables in this size, price and screen-resolution class. The surface is more than reasonably responsive to touch, even when tapping smaller objects like browser tabs. But scrolling is nowhere near as smooth as a tablet. There's some jerkiness, too, in some apps. Google can resolve this problem by way of software updates, as the hardware looks plenty solid to me.

That said, I am not yet convinced a laptop needs a touchscreen. I experienced small bouts of Gorilla arm using Pixel -- and also Surface Pro. Basically the arm aches from reaching up to touch the screen. It's all about physics and the angles involved.

The touchscreen's big value lives up to the laptop name. I find touch most useful when Chromebook Pixel is in my lap. Also, I am less likely to develop Gorilla arm. There's a big difference reaching down to touch rather than up.

Overall, the value is hard to argue, say, over MacBook Pro, which costs $200 more without touch. As I'll explain in part two, touch done right is game-changer. Apple has nothing, while Microsoft is further along with user interface on Surface Pro.

Keyboard and trackpad. The chiclet keys are a bit noisy for my tastes, as is the touchpad, but typing is smooth with great tactile response.

The backlit keyboard is much, much more subdued than MacBook Air or Pro. I find the illumination to be just enough, rather than overly-glaring (granted Apple lets users turn down the intensity).

The trackpad is superb. The first Chrome OS tester, the Cr-48, had one of the worst trackpads I have ever used. The Pixel's is one of the best, and I like it way better than the glassy ones Apple ships. For my tastes, Mac laptop trackpads have too much friction. Chromebook Pixel's is smooth to touch and highly responsive.

Battery life. I have only done one real test, today, and barely got four hours, simply while writing and researching, with about one-dozen tabs open. I expected at least 30 minutes more. I will update this section within a few days, conducting tests again. I also haven't yet done a good 4G LTE test, so more to come there, too.

Setup. If you can use Chrome, Chromebook is easy. Connect to the WiFi of your choice and log into your Google Account. That's it. Everything syncs, including web apps, and you're ready to go.

Performance. As expressed above, overall performance is smooth, much more so than either the Samsung Series 3 or Series 5 550 Chromebooks. Pixel feels like a traditional computer in most every way that matters. "Oh, I'm doing everything in the cloud? Who would have guessed?"

Late last night, I used Peacekeper running in guest mode; the laptop runs Chrome OS 25.0.1364.87 from the stable channel. There are lots of people who value benchmarks. I'm not really among them. But I posted numbers for the Samsung Series 3 and 550 Chromebooks last year, and I know some potential buyers will want to compare. Chromebook Pixel scored 3847, which compares to 2245 for the Series 5 550 (also run last night).

Something annoys me and might other people, and it's about software. To prevent out-of-memory crashes, Chrome OS basically shuts down browser tabs perceived to be idle. This behavior is a real usability problem on the ARM model, which only has 2GB RAM. I didn't expect this behavior with 4 gigs.

That said, tab refreshing isn't as disruptive as on the ARM Chromebook. There, with Google Music set to stream via HTML5 rather than use Flash, song play often just stops because Chrome OS essentially flushes the tab. I have yet to see this happen on Chromebook Pixel, even with lots of other tabs open.

I find that sites using, or perhaps abusing, Flash affect memory management the most. Just a few of the bad ones open, Chrome OS swaps around tab activity. You will lose work if this happens, as it has for me sometimes writing Google+ posts -- once so far on Pixel, which isn't bad, compared to the problems I had with the $249 model.

The fan runs too much, and I'm convinced out-of-control Flash is major reason. The whole fan thing is a bit jarring having used the fanless ARM Chromebook for so long.

Audio and video. Chromebook Pixel produces great sound, whether from the speakers (which I believe are under the keyboard), or through those externally attached (mine are Bose Companion 5). Even streamed music tickles the eardrums.

Video playback is excellent and largely freeze-frame-free. But services giving video worthy of the screen are too scarce. Netflix offers no controls for setting or seeing the video quality, but it doesn't look like 1080p to me, although pretty good. Hulu streams in HD, whatever that means. That's 480p, right? Amazon makes a HD connection, and the stream looks 1080p enough to me.

I really had hoped to test video from Google Play, but the service won't play my purchased content. I instead get preview windows with options to purchase or rent. Frak you, too, Google DRM.

Measuring Success

Now comes the harder topic for most people. Price.

Google's marketing tagline for Chromebooks is "For everyone". Pixel is not, for the price. But Ian Betteridge has the right idea, by taking a category perspective: "Up until now, Chromebook wasn't 'for everyone'", he comments to one of my Google+ posts. Betteridge also has Chromebook Pixel. "For people like me, who value high-end, well designed hardware with great screens, there was no Chromebook that fitted the bill. Now there is. 'Everyone' doesn't just mean 'only people who want cheap plastic machines'".

The category is for everyone, when including Pixel. Looked at that way, if only Googlers, developers and a handful of others buy Chromebook Pixel, it can be called a success. Because most people won't spend that much money anyway. That's the point I keep coming to in my evaluation. What Google presents is a great computer for people who are willing to spend 1,300 or 1,500 bucks -- and who might otherwise choose an Apple or Sony instead. Chromebook as a category is "for everyone", but Pixel is just for a few. Any evaluation of price and performance should be for them, which might not be you.

Googlers, many of whom until now carried MacBook Airs or Pros, really have another option -- and running an operating system their company develops. Anyone considering a "premium" laptop, or what NPD calls those selling for $1,000 or more, is a potential customer. Then there are coders.

Developer Calvin Prewitt received his computer yesterday and says that "Chromebook Pixel meets expectations, which were high" He calls it an "incredible device" and say that "Chrome OS will improve in the near term, but easy to love right now. The price is easy to overcome if you will use the 1TB of Google Drive storage. Otherwise, it is logical to have reservations".

I've thought long and hard about that 1TB of free storage during my evaluation. Critics call the offer nothing more than a Pixel price-justifying maneuver that costs Google nothing. I don't buy that explanation.

What if "For what's next" is all about giving Chromebook Pixel owners storage they will use -- for creating digital content, photos and videos? I explain the reasoning and offer proof points in my post earlier today about the release of the 500px Chrome app. Suffice to say, that Google has big plans for high resolution and touch. More on this in the next, unexpectedly-written subhead.

Seeing Pixel for what it is

While writing this post, a link to the New York Times review popped up in my Google+ feed. I generally make a point of not reading others' reviews before writing mine. But being nearly finished anyway, I peaked, expecting to read David Pogue panning the laptop -- oh, and he does. Pogue doesn't get it, like many other people considering Pixel's merits.

"The screamingly obvious argument against the Chromebook Pixel boils down to two words: MacBook Air", he writes. "The Air costs $100 less. It weighs 12 percent less and has four times as much built-in storage, 128 gigabytes vs. the Chromebook’s 32...Above all, the Air, or a similar ultralight Windows laptop, runs real desktop software -- Photoshop, Quicken, iTunes, games -- that the Chromebook can only dream about".

That's the problem with reviewers who don't see past features and ignore benefits. I can't emphasize enough about Chromebook Pixel: The laptop embodies a design philosophy that captures Google's culture DNA and vision for the digital lifestyle of the contextual cloud computing era.

True innovation isn't improving what you have but releasing what you don't know you need. That's the vision driving Chromebook Pixel, like iPad, which also received cool, early reception (me among the fools). Comparisons to the existing way are meaningless in this context. People like Pogue have to think differently.

If you look at Chromebook Pixel from the viewpoint of existing applications like Photoshop you will never buy one. Because the value proposition is different and one that changes -- in part because Google's business is all about continually improving products rather than releasing big platform upgrades every few years. Chrome OS improves with age. It's a fine wine. For example, the Series 5 550 Peacekeeper benchmark on Chrome OS 21 was 1848 but 2245 on stable channel 25.

Chromebook Pixel promises to change the computing paradigm -- all those cheap Chrome OS models are but Trojan Horses. The primary cost is hardware, up front, that is used for years, while software is minimal investment, or free. That's reverse the commodity model that exists right now, where, particularly for businesses, PC hardware investment is less (well, except for Macs), and software and cost maintaining it is so much more.

Some key benefits I see that Pogue and others should:

  • The glossy display is not overly-reflective.
  • Keyboard is responsive and makes typing easy.
  • Pixel is well-designed -- looks good and is rugged.
  • Screen is bright and crisp with excellent viewing angles.
  • Pixel sells for $200 less than MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display.
  • The 3:2 aspect ratio is excellent for webpages and for photography.
  • 4G LTE is a rarity in laptops and ensures constant Internet connection.
  • 1TB of storage for three years essentially pays the cost of the computer.
  • High-resolution display is joy to look at and to use and improves productivity.
  • Audio is excellent, above average, producing rich bass and fidelity, even streaming.
  • Pixel can be used as primary PC, which isn't typical scenario seen with lower-cost Chromebooks.
  • Touchscreen is exceptional value-add for price. No Mac has one and no Windows laptop in this price range with high-resolution.
  • Touch accuracy is excellent, which is especially important considering the browser motif was not designed with the finger in mind.

Anyone considering spending $1,499 or $1,699 on MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina Display should consider Chromebook Pixel -- not for what it does but for what it will do. Google's laptop isn't for everyone, not even most anyone, because most people will never spend more than $1,000 on a laptop. But for those who will...

I'll make a stronger cause for and against Pixel when writing about usage scenarios.

Editor's Note: Key benefits list was added after several people on Google+ complained benefits weren't clear enough. Original text sought to not overly-emphasize benefits, in attempt to keep more neutral tone.

Photo Credits: Joe Wilcox

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