Google is a company that will never let you forget that it is built upon experimentation. In that light, the firm has released the Google Chromebook Pixel LTE (with 64GB of storage) to a world of believers and doubters. Well, it's out in the US now, anyway. In the UK, Google Play has this model listed, but it isn’t on sale yet – only the cheaper (ahem) £1,049 Wi-Fi (32GB) model is available. Look out for our review of that soon, but first off, we’ve managed to get the low-down on the more expensive LTE model which is $1,449 – that converts to £960, but looking at the pricing of the range, when the LTE version goes on sale in the UK it’s more likely to be pitched around a hefty £1,150.
Okay, so in a nutshell, the Chromebook Pixel is essentially a thin client notebook with a brilliant screen. Like all thin clients, it works well when connected to the Internet, where it can take advantage of the massive infrastructure that Google has built up over the past fifteen years. Away from the Internet, the Chromebook Pixel’s value is somewhat diminished.
So, take it at face value – as a halo product for a category that Google wants to flesh out over the next few years – and you'll be okay. In early 2013, the Chromebook Pixel is a luxurious experiment that shows potential, but it’s definitely first-generation hardware that is dependent on omnipresent Internet access.
Design and display
The Chromebook Pixel feels as solidly built as a bank vault door. It measures 298 x 225 x 16mm (WxDxH), and weighs about 1.5kg, so it's squarely in the ultraportable and Ultrabook chassis category. The dark silver-coloured anodised aluminium case is sharply rectangular, evoking the image of high-end laptops from the early-mid 2000s rather than the tapered and rounded shapes you see today.
If you were presented with this in a design meeting, you'd think of it as squarely retro, with no visible screws and that vaunted piano hinge with the Chrome name etched in a Sans Serif font. The 1.5kg weight makes the Chromebook Pixel feel heavy for its size, even though it is balanced well. This also gives you that solid feeling of quality that Steve Jobs used to crow about when talking about the first all-metal Apple PowerBooks in the early 2000s.
The 12.85in IPS (In-Plane Switching) screen is the thing that gives the Chromebook Pixel its name. It has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which again is a throwback to the mid-2000s before everything was 16:9 widescreen. A 3:2 aspect ratio is taller overall compared to a 16:9 widescreen, which makes the Chromebook Pixel well-suited to the web apps that it is designed to run.
The screen resolution is 2,560 x 1,700 at 239 pixels per inch (ppi), which is imperceptibly denser than the 220 ppi on the Apple MacBook Pro 15in (Retina Display) and the 227 ppi on the Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Retina). On all three screens, video and photos look amazing, with the ability to zoom in and view multi-megapixel images clearly without any distortion or blockiness.
Streaming video from the likes of Netflix looked spectacular on the Pixel's display, as did the pre-loaded demo video. Older standard definition videos were a little blockier, of course, but still looked nice on the Pixel's screen. The screen has a wide viewing angle, so you can share videos with a few close friends.
The Chromebook Pixel comes with a backlit chiclet style keyboard, which is moderately comfortable to use. The keys are a bit slick, but the key feel is similar to other keyboards like the one on the MacBook Pros, and the Asus Zenbook Prime Touch UX31A. The Chromebook Pixel's multi-touch glass trackpad is very responsive, so much so that you're likely to use that instead of the system's built-in touchscreen.
The touchscreen is responsive, but the system doesn't come with pinch-to-zoom active by default. You have to go into some hidden settings (Google them) to enable pinch-to-zoom in the Chrome environment. There's also the fact that the Google Chrome OS interface uses traditional UI elements like the launch bar at the bottom of the screen, and menu bars at the top of browser windows, so for most users, the trackpad will be the way to go.
Speaking of the Chrome browser, Chrome is really the main interface for using this laptop. We've seen it before on Chrome OS systems like the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 and Acer C7 Chromebook. After you log into any Chromebook, it brings you to a screen where the options are to launch the Chrome browser or web apps that run in the Chrome browser. It's really useful if you have bought into Google's suite of services (Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Maps, etc).
If you want to run web apps in Chrome, there's a link to the Chrome Web Store with thousands of games and apps that work fine, or at least as well or better than those on Windows RT, Android, and iOS devices. All of these apps and websites load very quickly and run well on the system's Intel Core i5-3427U processor with Intel HD Graphics 4000. Wake and boot times were measured in seconds, and web apps loaded just as quickly on our corporate Internet connection.
One plus for the Chrome OS model is that it is self-updating. As long as Google stays on the game, it will be a very secure haven against malware and viruses. Chrome OS won't be affected by the majority of Windows or Mac OS malware, though you will still have to guard against identity theft and phishing attacks. Since you're mainly working in the cloud with Google Drive, your documents, emails, and other work are saved automatically and are accessible from other PCs and Macs.
Basically, the Chromebook Pixel is a thin client, and while thin clients work great in corporate environments where network access is assured, network access cannot be guaranteed for consumer products. The real issue is that, at this point in time, Internet access outside of the home or work doesn't really support a product like this. 4G LTE is still in its infancy in the UK anyway, and data allowances are expensive and easily chewed through. And Wi-Fi on trains, planes, and automobiles is spotty at best. Also, those who live in rural areas where broadband speeds are poor all round will obviously have a pretty bad experience with cloud computing.
Fast and hot
So how does the Pixel run? Most of the time the system is quiet, but when there is a lot of processing happening in the web browser, for example when playing back videos or when you're loading multiple tabs with lots of Flash or HTML5, the fans make themselves heard. Essentially the fans will spool up on the same sorts of sites that spin up the fans on your PC or Mac laptop.
The problem is that on a Mac or PC, you can switch to local apps that let the processor cool and let the fans spool down. On the Chromebook Pixel, you're using Flash and HTML5 all the time; thus, active web apps and rich websites will make the fan run loud more often. When the system is working hard, the keyboard deck near the Escape key starts to get quite warm. It's not an area that most touch typists rest fingers on, but it's a point worth noting.
Other noise concerns involve the internal speakers. They're mounted under the keyboard so that there aren't any unsightly external openings, but that also means that the keys reverberate when you listen to videos and music at high volume levels. Playing test tracks like The Knife's Silent Shout and Daft Punk's Tron Legacy soundtrack made the keyboard buzz with the beat at high volume levels. On the one hand, the Chromebook Pixel pumps out enough sound so that you won't need external speakers. On the other, they're not good sounds when the volume is turned up all the way. Audio using the headset jack was fine.
The LTE-equipped Chromebook Pixel is a good model in terms of connectivity. The laptop comes with two USB 2.0 ports for peripherals, but it’s a shame that these aren’t of the USB 3.0 variety when it comes to plugging in USB sticks and external hard drives.
There's also an SD card slot for additional storage, and a mini-DisplayPort for external monitors.
There's Wi-Fi on board, and it can connect via both 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11a/b/g/n, along with a 4G LTE modem. Bluetooth 3.0 is included so you can tether to your phone if you have service for that.
In terms of battery life, the news isn’t good. The Chromebook Pixel packs a 59 WHr battery which only lasted 4 hours and 11 minutes on our rundown test. That’s several hours less than systems like the MacBook Pro 13in (74WHr, 7 hours and 10 minutes) and the Asus Zenbook Prime Touch UX31A (50 WHr, 6 hours and 38 minutes). You'll need to keep the Chromebook Pixel near a power plug if you want to use it continuously all day.
The Chromebook Pixel comes with 64GB of storage, which seems small compared to the 128GB in the MacBook Pro 13in and other portables like the Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Pro. However, the Chromebook Pixel also comes with 1TB of Google Drive service free for three years. Professionals and Chrome users alike have pointed out that 1TB of Google Drive storage would cost $1,800 (£1,200) over three years, and that you can use Google Drive on your other PCs and Macs, too. Even so, there is a 10GB file size limit on Google Drive, and it's less useful to you if you're away from stable Internet service.
You can use the SD card reader or external USB drives to supplement the 64GB internal SSD. We were able to copy an MP4 video file to the on-board storage and play it without a connection to the Internet, but other files like spreadsheets are read-only without Google Docs on an Internet connection. Sure, you can set up Google Docs to work offline, but it's not set up that way by default. And even if you set it up, you can only edit word documents and presentations, other documents like spreadsheets and drawings can't be edited offline.
A premium product like the Chromebook Pixel really should be set up to use all of the basic functions like Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Drive offline by default. That initial setup should automatically be part of the extra services you're paying for. You'll also need to manually download and install your Chrome browser apps which are capable of being used offline. We realise that most of the time you will be connected to Wi-Fi or mobile Internet, but if you regularly find yourself travelling where your Internet access is spotty or slow, then you’re obviously going to have a tougher time of it.
So, taking everything into account, how does this machine fare overall? The Chromebook Pixel LTE is appealing in the same way that £100 chopsticks made of carbon fibre are appealing. Yes, they will do all the things that chopsticks are expected do, like lift sushi from a plate, and they have the lustre and feel of expensive material. The question is, why would you get one, when £3 lacquered wood chopsticks will do the same thing for pocket change?
The problem is, aside from the perceived status, screen, and the added extra services, there really aren't a lot of reasons to recommend the Chromebook Pixel over, say, the 13in MacBook Pro (with or without Retina Display). If wireless Internet were cheap, fast, unlimited, everywhere, and reliable, then the Chromebook Pixel with its included Google Drive subscription would be a decent buy. However, since wireless Internet is not cheap and everywhere, and since the Chromebook Pixel's battery isn't all day capable, we can't recommend it over any Mac or Windows-based laptop in its price range.
Manufacturer and Model
Google Chromebook Pixel LTE
Google Chrome OS
Intel HD Graphics 4000
General Purpose, Ultraportable, Desktop Replacement
Primary Optical Drive
Storage Capacity (as Tested)