Chromebook Pixel: A netbook to challenge the notebooks

March 1, 2013

Google unleashed a snarkfest when it introduced the Chromebook Pixel. The reaction was swift and mostly merciless. “Sorry, but there’s no defense for the Chromebook Pixel” claimed BGR. “Bizarre, pointless,”said Bruce Berls. The Wirecutter declared: “The Chromebook Pixel is not for you.” In one of the most positive receptions ZDNet’s Matt Baxter-Reynolds calls it “deliberately bad” — and then goes on to give three reasons why Google was smart to release something that was “entirely illogical and unsellable.”

So, naturally, I had to see for myself. After using it for four days, I’m not convinced this product is ready for mass adoption. That isn’t because the Chromebook Pixel is a joke, or a toy; it’s as solid a performer as any full-featured computer I’ve used. But it’s going to take a few generations to make this netbook a true contender in a notebook world. At $1,300 or more, this Pixel is clearly an early adopter’s plaything with a price point to prove it.

As I wrote when I reviewed the entry-level Samsung Chromebook, there are compromises one has to make when considering a netbook. Chromebooks have a nascent operating system designed to be an all-in cloud-computing platform. You can’t install anything except extensions to Google’s Chrome browser, which serves as the interface to everything. There aren’t a lot of them, and there isn’t necessarily one for anything you might want or need to do. All of these downsides these are easier to swallow when you are paying $250 (the cost of the Samsung) and not $1,300 for Pixel (I reviewed the $1,450 model, which includes 4G LTE connectivity).

That price tag will scare many away, but that doesn’t mean this is an Edsel. The first generation MacBook Air with a 64 MB flash drive cost $2,800 five years ago — nearly three times what you’d pay for a better MacBook Air today. Apple stuck with an revolutionary, overpriced design until subsequent models were met with a collective “Now I get it!.” The MacBook Air is now the dominant ultrathin.

A 13-inch MacBook Pro with retina display will set you back $1,500. But the MacBook Pro doesn’t have a touch screen, and the Pixel’s screen resolution is slightly better — 2560 x 1700 at 239 PPI vs. 2560-by-1600 at 227 PPI. A comparable model of the highly-touted touchscreen PC like the Lenovo Yoga 13 running Windows 8 would cost about $1,150. However, that machine doesn’t have a high-resolution display.

The Pixel has a backlit keyboard, an anodized aluminum case, and a power cord designed to be neat and organized. It boasts an acceptable five hours of battery life and weighs 0.10 kg less than the equivalent MacBook Pro 13-inch and only 0.17 kg more than the equivalent MacBook Air. This is a fast, powerful machine with one of the highest resolution displays on the market and a multi-touch screen — an unusual combo to say the least. Both dramatically enhance the computing experience in ways I did not expect. And they are a big reason why the Pixel’s less-than-perfect score is based on pricing rather than performance.

The touchscreen interface was immediately useful and made point-and click seem antiquated. Yes, we’re familiar with multi-touch screens because of smartphones and tablets. But it’s even more compelling on a laptop; since the screen is independently supported and can be tilted to any angle at any time it’s like having a third hand. I found myself almost instinctively reaching for the screen, touchpad and keyboard in swift succession, speeding up tasks.

The Pixel’s screen is almost too good for web-standard images and video; visuals that look just fine on a typical display often appear mushy on the Pixel. Even the more smoothly rendered fonts were easier on the eye. It was difficult to return to a lower-resolution screen. HD video is nothing short of breathtaking. While most of my caveats about the entry-level Samsung Chromebook remain, some videos are available now via Amazon Instant and streaming from Netflix is now possible.

A Chromebook is still unlikely to be the only computer you can own, and without a more robust software ecosystem you can be sometimes plain out of luck. Now that there are more video options, the biggest shortcomings are the inability to connect to a networked printer that isn’t connected to the Google cloud, and the inability to install third-party VPN software required by many companies.

For everyday use, I was won over by the Pixel. Over several days of constant use I preferred the Pixel to my 13” Macbook Air already in my go bag. I just couldn’t quit it and, frankly, I’m dreading returning my review unit. But would I plunk down my own money for one? $1,300 is too steep at the moment. But a machine like this at $1,000 or less would make me think twice about buying another replacement MacBook Air, or a low-end netbook.

The Chromebook Pixel is powerful and innovative enough to be taken seriously, and suffers mainly from inflated initial pricing. It is far from the white elephant initial reaction would have had us believe. It’s a serious contender in a new class of what will initially be expensive notebooks sporting gesture and ultra-high-resolution displays. Pixel, and its offspring, is well positioned to ride that wave.

One comment

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Thank you for mentioning how expensive the Mac Air was when first released ($2800). People are trashing the Pixel (based on price) as if it actually were $2800 itself! Add to it, the fact that you get the best-resolution screen on the market AND it is a touchscreen-netbook, well, the price actually doesn’t seem all that far off.

Anyway, I have been using an Acer C7 Chromebook for a few months now (it does 99% of what I need, BTW) and I would *love* one of these.

I don’t know why people have to trash the Chromebook concept. Sadly, Chromebooks will only “make sense” to people once Apple releases their own version of one, and then — all of sudden — Apple will get credit for having created the category.

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