Review – Google’s Chromebook Pixel notebook computer (video)

5 Jul 2013

Google's Chromebook Pixel notebook computer

Some of the things Google does isn’t directly to do with market dominance but more so to do with market influence. Take its Chrome browser, for example. The idea of creating a browser was to get other browsers to raise their game. Could it be that the new Chromebook Pixel contains a message to computer manufacturers to do the same?

The Chromebook Pixel is not yet available in Ireland through resellers or via the Google Play store but its announcement is imminent.

While it might be slightly larger (thicker) than similarly priced devices, like the MacBook Air, the Chromebook Pixel from Google is nevertheless an expression of good solid design, refinement and elegance. Try as I might, I could not see a single screw on the device.

And forget about trying to find the speakers on the Pixel, they are invisible to the naked eye but you can darn well hear them. They’re tucked beneath the keyboard, in case you’re interested.

Google’s Chromebook strategy is aimed at promoting the Chrome browser as a fully fledged operating system (OS) and through recent devices like the Samsung Chromebook and the Acer C7, it has largely succeeded.

One of the things that will strike new Chromebook users is when they go into the applications menu at the bottom of the screen they’ll realise that Google’s software is far more embedded in their digital lives than previously thought. Think: Maps, Docs, YouTube, Gmail, Drive, Chrome, Search, and Play.

Once you open any one of these apps as you would on a computer they appear as web pages, so in effect there is very little learning curve involved in using the Pixel Chrome. Just turn on, enter your Google ID and tune in.

Chromebook Pixel Specs

What separates the Chromebook Pixel from its predecessors is ultimately the hardware, which is of a higher spec.

The first thing to note is it is a touchscreen computer. The 12.85-inch screen also boasts a high-resolution capability of 239 pixels per inch – that’s 4.3m pixels on this device.

One of the admirable things about the design is not only the perfectly proportioned screen and ergonomically and simply laid out keyboard, but the fact that no screws or vents are visible, the speakers are tucked beneath the backlit keyboard and the touchpad is made out of etched glass. The entire body is machined out of an anodised aluminum alloy.

Despite the simplicity of the Chrome OS, the Pixel comes with quite a hardware payload. It boasts an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor, packs 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 32GB solid state drive which can be augmented with one terabyte of Google Drive cloud storage.

In terms of connectivity, it has the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios you would expect but also there is an LTE (4G) radio built in to handle seamless updates and always-on connectivity. In the US, Google has Verizon as its 4G partner, so it has yet to be confirmed which operator in Ireland will connect the device to 4G when it arrives. Seeing as the first 4G services won’t be officially launched until late summer, it might be likely Google will hold its fire on launching the Pixel in Ireland until then. But then again, only Google knows what it intends to do.

There are some really nice high-end flourishes that Google has included in the Pixel. For example, if you are watching a movie on the HD screen, the keyboard automatically dims.

The other nice thing is there is no actual boot-up. Just press the power button and you’re on.

The Chromebook Pixel is powered by an integrated 59Wh battery, which gives five hours of continuous use. It comes with an SD card slot, as well as two USB ports and mini display port.

Verdict – it’s all in the touch

The very clean design of the Chromebook is impressive, and the high-resolution touchscreen really brings computing to life. For example, if I was using Google Maps and went into Street View, by putting it into full-screen mode it’s almost like being there. Wherever there is. Anyway, it looked fantastic and added a depth to Street View that’s as good as, if not better than, on a tablet computer.

The touchscreen capability of the 12.85-inch screen comes into its own when you are working on email or flitting through web pages or even social networking. It is quite responsive for pinching to zoom and navigating web pages.

Another interesting quirk is whatever oxide coating Google has put on the screen it just doesn’t seem to smudge the way most tablets and smartphones do. Yes, of course finger prints are there, but just not as evident. 

The device is extremely light at just 3.35lb and the keyboard is perfectly proportioned and doesn’t seem to have the mess of keys and functions on standard PC keyboards – all very clean and neat.

I found the battery life of five hours to be perfectly adequate and quite an achievement when you consider the high PPI rate and the brightness of the screen.

From a productivity perspective, you can use Google Docs in offline mode, so if you are off the network for any reason or just out and about, you can continue to work and access your docs and any work you’ve done while offline will be automatically saved.

The Pixel is Chrome OS-based, which means outside of the usual Google apps or whatever exists in the Chrome Store, users are pretty restricted in terms of adding on software or using it to code.

Then again, Google’s argument is that most computers for most people will pivot around the use of the web and apps, so most ordinary users shouldn’t have a problem with this and won’t find it restrictive.

So where is Google going with this?

Chromebook Pixel

The cynics among us would be right about one thing; all companies exist to make money. The Google Chromebook Pixel is a conundrum in this regard. It proves just how good technology in computing is today, but it’s hard to see Google making a lot of money out of it. But maybe that’s not Google’s intention and the company has a bigger, broader vision in mind.

Compared to devices from the same family, such as the Acer C7 or Samsung Chromebook (€249) that are good value and aimed at spreading computing to the masses, the Pixel is quadruple the price at around €1,000 (US$1,300) but comes with a payload of technology that would give proponents of the Apple MacBook Air pause for thought.

Considering the market is going to fill up soon with two-in-one tablet and PC devices to join the cacophony – everything from tablets and smartphones running iOS and Android to Windows 8 hybrids and Surface RT – at such a price point consumers will have plenty of cheaper alternatives to choose from so it’s hard to figure out where Google is heading with the Pixel.

To be clear, my instinct is this is Google attempting to up the standards of computing power in terms of how people will interact with devices. Higher resolution and touch lend themselves to the next generation of apps and products and services to come from the Google stable.

All in all, the Pixel is a landmark in terms of good, functional design and features for the Chromebook family.

If you ask me, the Pixel is more about influencing the shape of computing hardware for years to come and in turn influencing the future shape of apps, marketing and web services, and that’s where Google really intends to dominate rather than in the hardware space.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years