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Google Chromebook Pixel hands-on preview

For many, Google's new Chromebook Pixel will be summed up in just four words: "A Chromebook. For £1,049."

If anything, I'm probably biased in favour of Google's small constellation of Chrome devices: I've played with virtually all of them, and I use the £230 Samsung Chromebook Google launched last year, plus the associated Google deskbound Chromebox as my daily driver. And I can tell you: For all of the amazing hardware that Google has packaged inside of the Pixel, the price would still give me pause for thought.

Yes, the hardware is amazing: A 12.85in display with a gorgeous 2,560 x 1,700 resolution, shining brightly at 400 nits, complete with a multi-touch screen. That's 239 ppi versus 227 ppi for Apple's 13in Macbook with a Retina display. Inside, there's the guts of a "true" notebook: A 1.8GHz, dual-core Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of flash storage, depending on whether you opt for the “basic” £1,049 Wi-Fi model, or the dearer LTE version (the exact UK price and availability of which is still to be confirmed). In either case, Google will gift you with a full terabyte of Google Drive cloud storage – which, on the face of it, appears far more than most people will ever need, even for the three years for which the offer is active. All told, the Pixel weighs a comfortable 1.52kg.

All of that horsepower comes at a slight cost. Battery life, for example, seems to slightly decrease in each subsequent Chromebook model. The original Cr-48 test device offered true all-day computing of at least eight hours or more – besting the MacBook Air in certain cases. Sundar Pichai, the vice president of Chrome at Google, said that Pixel should last over five hours. In practice, that sounds slightly ambitious; I'm writing this hands-on using the Pixel, and the internal battery is estimating the time remaining at 2 hours and 46 minutes, with the battery life at 60 per cent. Not bad, but not quite the performance I was hoping for.

A Nexus Chromebook

The Pixel is the first Chromebook that Google commissioned itself, although it used a small, undisclosed ODM partner to manufacture it. Pichai himself admitted that it was fair to consider the Pixel the equivalent of Google's Nexus tablets and phones – the premiere Chromebook experience.

"We want to give [the customers] the best possible Chromebook experience," Pichai said, and it shows.

With the Pixel, the lines between touch-enabled phones and tablets, powered by Android, and touch-enabled computers like the Pixel or Windows 8 machines are blurring, Pichai admitted. But, he added, there's room for both. With Chrome, Google hasn't forced touch upon the user, like Microsoft pretty much has. On the other hand, you have to wonder: Why do I need this device again?

While other Chromebooks feel plasticky and perhaps a trifle flimsy (which, given their price, one can forgive), the Chromebook Pixel simply exudes fine engineering. The solid aluminium body feels sturdy without any clunkiness, and the piano hinge connecting the screen and the body traverses the width of the Pixel, apparently boosting Wi-Fi performance in the process.

When shut, a thin colour bar on the back of the display shines blue (see above) – when the device is running low on power, it turns red. The bar will be exposed via API so developers can take advantage of it, Google executives said. Unlike other Chromebooks, the Pixel comes with a backlit keyboard, although you'll notice a bit of light leakage from the keys, including the top row. Even the touchpad is apparently made of laser-etched glass.

Pichai said that the keyboard has been improved over earlier models, with upgrades made to the mechanical "dome" underneath each key. I can confirm this; the keyboard feels less mushy than the £230 Chromebook, which I brought along for comparison's sake. Google buried a microphone under the keyboard to eliminate the noise the keys create when you're talking with others via a Hangout. Two other mics are built into the lid, as is a 720p webcam.

The touchscreen feels as responsive as any tablet; Pichai said that Google has "touch-enabled" Chrome OS and the Chrome browser. In reality, that means you'll be able to shift tabs around with a finger, and swipe away the shortcut bar at the bottom of the screen. Unfortunately (or not, in my view) switching between browser windows is still easily accomplished via Alt-Tab, a capability that Google leaves out of its Apple Macintosh implementation of Chrome. Still, there's nothing that really screams: "Wow! Touch!"

Don't worry about playing high-definition videos with the Pixel. Pichai said that more than one can be played simultaneously, and that's true – although why you'd ever want to, I don't know. On the one hand, the Pixel will begin venting a lot of heat if it's asked to run CPU or graphics-intensive apps, such as Google's 100,000 Stars app, which provides a 3D model of the Milky Way. On the other, the heat appears to be vented via the sides of the Pixel, somewhat similar to the way Microsoft's Surface operates – not directly down onto your lap or desktop.

But what do you do with it?

Like the Cr-48, Pichai said that it was important that the Pixel is distributed to its early adopters, those users who have traditionally "lived in the cloud" to use Pichai's words. The problem, unfortunately, comes down to the question that users are asking regarding new devices again and again: What apps do you offer?

Within Android's Google Play environment, that question is rather easily answered, with most developers releasing Android versions at or about the same time as the iOS versions. But the "popular" apps within the Chrome Web Store, which drives Chrome OS devices, are mostly Google's own apps; games like Angry Birds, Bejeweled, and Cut the Rope, along with a few knockoffs. Personally, the most compelling Chrome OS app I've found is the indie game Bastion – besides that, there's just not that much.

Most of Google's own Office aps provide nearly all the functionality of Microsoft Office. In a few months, Pichai said, Google will bring its QuickOffice acquisition to Chrome OS, allegedly adding full compatibility with Microsoft's own Office suite.

Still, at this point, there simply aren't the high performance apps to justify a Core i5, let alone the stunning "Retina Plus" display that Google offers. It looks fantastic, and purchasing a Pixel may be an investment in the future, as Google adds more functionality. But just remember that the Nexus Q received an early beating, and vanished overnight. For now, my recommendation would be to try out the Pixel, if possible, and see if the hardware justifies the purchase in your eyes. But if you're interested in a Chromebook, my advice would be to buy one of the older, cheaper models first, and then see how the Pixel evolves.