Chromebook Pixel review: A luxury laptop for life in the cloud

We take a deep-dive look into Google's new Chromebook, which has high-quality hardware and an amazing touch-based display. But at $1,300, is it the laptop for you?

If you're considering Google's new Chromebook Pixel computer, there's something you should know: It isn't your typical laptop. And depending on your perspective, that could feel like a revelation or a travesty.

The Chromebook Pixel, introduced on February 21st, is the latest hardware to run Google's Chrome OS operating system. It's also the first laptop designed by Google itself as opposed to a third-party partner. The Pixel is available now in Wi-Fi-only form for $1,299; an LTE-enabled edition is expected to ship in April for $1,449. (The LTE version will also include 100MB of data per month from Verizon for two years with the option to purchase additional monthly or day-based passes).

Google's Chromebook Pixel offers a clean, lightweight design, a touch screen and Google's Chrome OS.

Compared to other Chrome OS devices, like the popular $249 Samsung Chromebook, the Pixel's price is eye-catchingly high. And that's a large part of what's inspiring some impassioned debates over the laptop's true value.

So what's the Chromebook Pixel actually like to use -- and is it worth the cost? I've been using the device in place of my own personal computer for the past several days. Here's what I've found.

Beautiful, high-quality hardware

It's hard to find much to complain about with the Chromebook Pixel's body. It's a beautifully designed laptop; the level of thought put into its construction is immediately apparent the moment you pick it up.

The Pixel feels substantial in your hands, and it's no surprise: The laptop is made from anodized aluminum, giving it a high-end, luxurious vibe. The Pixel is 11.7 x 8.8 x 0.64 in. and weighs 3.4 lb. It's noticeably heavier than the aforementioned Samsung Chromebook, which weighs 2.5 lb., but that's what happens when you trade a plasticky construction for a more metal-based build. The Pixel doesn't feel bulky or uncomfortable to hold; it just feels solid and well-constructed.

The computer has a sleek and minimalist design, with no visible vents or screws anywhere on its surface. Even the printing is kept to a minimum, with a simple text "Chrome" logo on the spine being the only marking on the entire exterior.

There is one design-related indulgence: a multicolored light bar that sits on the device's outer lid. The bar lights up with Google colors when the system powers up and when you close the lid; during regular use, it glows a blueish color, with an occasional lighter-colored flare passing through. Functional? Nah. But it's a distinctive visual touch that adds to the system's appeal.

The left side of the laptop has a charging port, a Mini DisplayPort, two USB ports (USB 2.0, unfortunately -- a minor chink in the Pixel's armor), and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side, meanwhile, houses an SD/MMC memory card slot and a SIM card slot for the LTE-enabled model. Curiously absent is a dedicated HDMI port; if you need that functionality, you'll have to pick up a generic Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter -- available for about $5 to $10 -- to fill the void.

So where are the speakers? They're artfully hidden beneath the keyboard, so you never actually see them -- but boy, do you hear them. The Chromebook Pixel has some of the best-sounding speakers I've experienced on a laptop, with loud, crisp and relatively full-sounding audio. The speaker placement propels the sound right up at you, too: Music played at full volume actually borders on being uncomfortably loud when you're sitting close to the computer.

The Chromebook Pixel has a 720 HD webcam above its screen for video chatting. It has an unusual triple-microphone setup -- two near the camera and one below the keyboard -- which is supposed to help cancel out ambient noise and typing sounds during video and audio calls. It's a nice idea in theory, though I found it difficult to tell how much of a difference it really made.

A best-in-class keyboard and trackpad

Chromebooks have always had terrific keyboards, and the Chromebook Pixel is no exception. The laptop manages to improve upon previous models with a re-engineered bedding that results in the keys feeling stronger and more resistant beneath your fingers. The keyboard is also backlit, with an intelligent system that adjusts the lighting based on both the ambient lighting and what you're doing; when you watch a full-screen video, for instance, the keyboard lights slowly fade down and then remain off until you're finished.

The keyboard follows the typical Chrome OS layout, which replaces the caps-lock key with a universal search key and the top row of function keys with platform-specific commands -- Web-centric things like moving back a page, moving forward, and refreshing, along with system-based functions like maximizing a window and adjusting the display brightness.

The top row of keys breaks from the previous chiclet style and instead has a bar-like appearance, with short horizontal keys that butt directly against each other. The setup creates a nice visual effect, framing the top of the keyboard, though it does make those keys a bit harder to identify by touch alone.

Last, but not least, is the trackpad, which represents an enormous improvement over past Chromebook devices. The Pixel's trackpad is made from etched glass, and the effort put into its design does not go to waste. The trackpad feels fantastic under your fingers -- soft and smooth -- and it's accurate and responsive. The pad supports both tapping and clicking; it has support for a limited range of gestures, too, such as a two-fingered movement to scroll horizontally or vertically in a page.

A screen that'll spoil your eyes

No two ways about it: The 2560 x 1700 display is the star of the Chromebook Pixel show. The 12.85-in. LCD packs a whopping 239 pixels per inch -- 4.3 million pixels total -- which Google proudly proclaims to be the highest pixel density of any laptop available today. (Yes, even higher than Apple's Retina-display MacBook Pro -- though at these levels, most people probably couldn't detect much of a visible difference between the two.)

Numbers are numbers, but what matters is how things look in the real world -- and let me tell you, this screen is positively stunning. If you don't plan on buying a Chromebook Pixel, you probably shouldn't spend too much time staring at it; once your eyes get used to this caliber of display, you'll resent looking at anything else.

A preloaded HD video demo called TimeScapes shows off the screen's full potential; the clip's brilliant colors and surreal clarity provide eye candy that'd delight even the most demanding screen aficionado. The Pixel's display quality isn't lost on more mundane types of day-to-day use: Text looks magnificently crisp and smooth, and images pop with gorgeous detail. Regardless of what type of content you're viewing, it's virtually impossible to make out any individual pixels with the naked eye.

The Chromebook Pixel uses a 3:2 aspect ratio, which results in a screen with a more vertical feel than is typical with the widescreen 16:9 format that's become common in laptops today. Google says it opted for the 3:2 setup because it makes more sense for the Web, where pages tend to be vertical rather than horizontal.

In practice, I didn't find myself even thinking about it: Browsing the Web just felt natural, with far more space to see the vertically oriented content. I actually found myself preferring the 3:2 setup all around, though users who spend a lot of time watching full-screen videos may resent the non-widescreen approach.

The touch factor

Quality aside, the standout feature of the Pixel's display is its touch-sensitive nature: You can use your finger to tap icons and links, scroll through Web pages and documents, and manipulate images in editing utilities. At first, I questioned the need for such functionality in the Chrome OS universe; by and large, after all, it isn't an environment that's really optimized for touch-based interactions.

The more time I've spent living with the Chromebook Pixel, though, the more I've come to appreciate having the touch option. Once you get over the initial awkwardness of reaching up and pressing your finger to the screen, it's strangely satisfying to move back and forth between mousing around on the trackpad and swiping around on the display.

When looking through a social network stream or reading a long article, for instance, using your finger to swipe through the page seems like a perfectly natural thing to do. Even more useful is the ability to pinch-to-zoom into a page -- an action that isn't yet activated by default but can be turned on in the chrome://flags settings. (By default, the Chromebook Pixel has pinch-to-zoom enabled only for certain apps, such as Google Maps.)

As someone who's used to interacting with smartphones and tablets, I found being able to use my fingers to zoom into a particular area of a page to be a welcome addition to the laptop experience. Several other gestures can be enabled, too, including a four-finger pinch to minimize a window; you can also enable an option to request tablet versions of websites if you want a more touch-friendly experience across the Web.

The Gorilla Glass-protected touchscreen has proven itself to be accurate and responsive in my time with the device. That said, there is a downside to all the touch-based interaction: You tend to get oily smudges on your screen, which can be rather distracting on a laptop computer. If you're going to reach out and touch the Pixel, you'll want to carry around a small cloth to wipe down the display from time to time.

All considered, touch support certainly isn't something you need in a laptop at this point, but it's one of those things you quickly grow to value, even if just for occasional use. It's also a natural progression in our increasingly touch-oriented world, and I suspect Chrome OS -- along with the Web itself -- will become even more suited to touch interactions in the months to come.

Good performance -- with a couple of caveats

Google describes the Chromebook Pixel as a high-end laptop for "power users living in the cloud." As such, the system boasts a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000) and 4GB of RAM, giving it significantly more horsepower than any other Chromebook model.

To Google's credit, the Pixel feels fast. The system boots in about seven seconds; once you've typed in your account credentials, it's just another second or two until you're online, in a browser window and ready to roll. The Pixel is snappy when opening new tabs and toggling among your various apps and windows. It's also very quiet; most of the time, you can barely even hear that it's running.

When it comes to more extreme computing, though, the Pixel -- much to my surprise -- sometimes shows signs of struggling. When I have 15 or more tabs open, the system frequently starts doing what's known as discarding tabs: taking background tabs out of active memory. The process is designed to manage memory and avoid having tabs crash or freeze up.

It's a sensible-enough concept in theory, but the result is that when you switch to a tab you haven't had open recently, the page immediately refreshes. The constant page refreshing can be time-consuming and distracting, and it also runs the risk of losing data -- if, say, you'd started typing an update into Google+ or Twitter but hadn't yet clicked the "post" button.

To be fair, I'm far from a normal user; most people don't regularly keep 15 to 20 tabs open at a time, and with as many as a dozen tabs open, the system purrs along admirably. There are also other factors involved, such as the number and types of extensions you have installed. But given the Pixel's horsepower -- not to mention its branding as a power-user device -- you'd think it would be able to handle a higher-level workload without having to resort to refreshing.

The weak point likely to affect more users is battery life: The laptop is listed for five hours of active use, a drop from the 6.5-hour level of the $249 Samsung Chromebook. I found that five-hour estimate to be pretty accurate: The system typically gave me between 4.5 and five hours of active use, depending on what I was doing, with another 45 minutes or so of standby time. That's not terrible, but it's also not great; if you're going to be out and about all day with this laptop, you'll definitely want to bring a charging cable and make sure you have access to an outlet.

Limited local storage but lots of cloud-based space

The Chromebook Pixel has a 32GB solid state drive (SSD) -- 64GB, if you opt for the LTE model. That's more internal space than other Chromebooks but notably less than other comparably priced laptops. The reason: Chrome OS, as I'll discuss in a moment, is focused primarily on the cloud; the local storage is designed to be more of a giant scratch drive than anything.

Google does include an entire terabyte of cloud-based Google Drive storage for three years with all Pixel purchases. If you were to pay outright for that amount of Drive storage, it'd cost you $50 a month or $1,800 over the course of three years -- more than the cost of the computer itself.

(After the three-year period has elapsed, any files you've stored will remain in your account and accessible to you, but your available free space will drop back down to the standard 5GB mark.)

If you really need more local space, Chrome OS has plug-and-play support for external hard drives and USB flash drives; there's also the integrated memory card reader for a more permanent sort of attachment.

A cloud-centric software experience

What most sets the Chromebook Pixel apart from traditional laptops is its cloud-centric Chrome OS software experience. Rather than utilizing local programs, Chrome OS revolves around the concept of Web-based applications -- so instead of using Microsoft Office, for instance, you use Google Docs. Instead of Photoshop, you use a cloud-based image editor like Pixlr.

Despite its cloud-centric nature, the vast majority of Chrome OS functionality does work fine with or without an active Internet connection. It's not a locked-down or nonfunctional type of computing environment; it's just a very different approach to computing than what most of us are used to.

The benefit of the cloud-centric system is that everything -- your data, applications, and entire environment -- is always synced and consistent from one device to the next. Chrome OS also eliminates many of the hassles of traditional computing, such as cumbersome setups and installation procedures, annoying and time-consuming software upgrades, the need to mess with complicated drivers and the need to worry about virus infections and protection.

The platform is constantly updated, too, with fresh updates arriving on your system seamlessly and indefinitely -- without any interaction on your behalf -- every few weeks. That, combined with the cloud-centric nature of the system, means a Chromebook generally gets faster over time instead of becoming bogged down and poky like traditional computers tend to do.

At a Glance

Chromebook Pixel

GooglePrice: $1,299Pros: Beautiful, high-quality hardware; stunning touchscreen display; outstanding keyboard and trackpad; excellent speakers; includes 1TB of Google Drive storageCons: Relatively short battery life; no native HDMI port; "discards" background tabs with heavy multitasking; no USB 3.0; limited local storage

I've covered Chrome OS in great depth elsewhere, so I'll refer you to my previous coverage for a more thorough look at what the software's actually like to use. In short, I'll say this: Chrome OS isn't for everyone. If you need specific local programs for your work or aren't comfortable with the concept of cloud storage, it probably isn't the right fit for you.

If you find yourself spending most of your time on the Web and in Web-based apps, though -- as a growing number of users do -- you may find Chrome OS to be a refreshing change that gives you the parts of computing you like without the annoyances that usually accompany them.

(It's also possible, by the way, to configure a dual-boot setup with Linux and Chrome OS on the Chromebook Pixel -- though it's something only advanced users should attempt.)

Bottom line

With the Chromebook Pixel, Google set out to build a premium laptop experience -- and in most respects, it succeeded. The Chromebook Pixel is a beautifully designed laptop with outstanding hardware, a phenomenal display and an interesting form of touch support that promises to open new possibilities for the way you use a laptop.

That experience, however, doesn't come cheap. The Pixel's starting price of $1,300 puts it in the same league as systems like the $1,500 MacBook Pro with Retina display, which are far more versatile in the types of programs they can run and functions they can perform.

Of course, more functionality doesn't necessarily mean a better experience. Chrome OS is designed for people who don't need local applications or a traditional PC environment -- and eliminating those elements allows some attractive benefits to be added in. Ultimately, it all comes down to what works for you.

If you're interested in a cloud-centric computing experience, the $249 Samsung Chromebook remains the most advisable starting point to consider. By its nature, a premium product like the Chromebook Pixel isn't designed for mainstream appeal -- and the lower-priced alternative offers many of the same basic benefits at a fraction of the cost.

If you're sold on the Chrome OS concept and want the best of the best, though -- and can justify dropping $1,300 on a device -- the Chromebook Pixel will give you a cloud computing experience like no other. It's life in the cloud at its most luxurious, and any Chrome OS convert will be thrilled with the comfort it provides.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Google-focused insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.

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