Chromebook Pixel Review: A Laptop Grounded in the Cloud

PHOTO: Googles Pixel laptop runs Chrome OS and starts at $1,299.Google
Google's Pixel laptop runs Chrome OS and starts at $1,299.

"Are you mad at the computer or at the Internet connection?" my girlfriend asked me as I tried to get back on the Internet from 10,000 feet in the sky. We were on a plane, and I had been typing this review in the Cloud -- quite literally -- for two hours. With Google's Chromebook Pixel you have no choice.

The Pixel is Google's very own Chromebook -- a laptop that runs its Chrome OS, an operating system that is just a Chrome Web browser. There are no other programs in the machine -- the browser is it. Which means an Internet connection is also the only point of entry.

The Chromebook Pixel isn't the first Chromebook. Acer and Samsung have been selling their own inexpensive laptops that run the same software for around $2-300. But the Pixel is the first premium Chromebook and the first to cost $1,300. It's a shockingly high price tag, but also a shockingly beautiful laptop.

Top Notch Hardware
With the Pixel, Google set out to "design the best laptop possible." And that it did. The Pixel is one of the finest looking and feeling laptops I've ever tested. It's not as thin as Apple's MacBook Air or some of the other Windows ultrabooks out there, but it's still equally striking in its own so-I'm-not-the-thinnest way.

Made of anodized aluminum, the 0.63-inch thick laptop does appear slightly boxy, especially in photos, but its straight lines give it a clean aesthetic. The exterior is all metal -- there's no plastic bottom or edges to surround the ports.

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But there is one piece that lights up the design. Literally. Along the top of the lid is a thin light strip, which appears blue when the system is in use and red when it is low on power. Google's wacky engineers have also included a special Easter Egg -- punch in a special code on the keyboard and it will flash the green, blue, red and yellow of Google's logo.

It's under the lid that you'll find the real highlight of the laptop. The 12.85-inch, 2560 x 1700-resolution screen is dazzling. Like Apple's MacBook Retina Display, everything from plain text to high resolution images or video looks incredibly crisp. And the black flush frame surrounding the screen gives it a high-quality HDTV look.

The screen isn't just meant for looking at the Web, it's also meant for touching. But I rarely reached out, over the keyboard and trackpad, to use it. Perhaps that's because I used the laptop to type most of the time or that the Web applications and sites I spend the most time at aren't built for touch, but I didn't use the touch screen more than a few times. And even worse, when I did pinch in on the screen to try and zoom in on a photo on, all I got were some fingerprints on the screen; pinch-to-zoom is only supported on some Google sites, not all websites.

Keyboard and Trackpad
But the touch experience Google has gotten completely nailed is the one on the trackpad. As other computer manufacturers have struggled to create a trackpad experience as smooth as Apple's, Google has put the pieces in the right place. Two-finger scrolling on the trackpad is smooth and regular pointing and clicking works just as it should. No jumping cursors or mis-highlighted text.

My one peeve is the reverse scrolling, or what Google calls Australian scrolling. When you pull two fingers down the pad, it scrolls up, not down. You can change it to "traditional scrolling" in the settings.

The chiclet keyboard is also top-notch. The keys are well-spaced and the backlight was very helpful once the plane's cabin lights dimmed. And because this keyboard isn't for your Windows or Mac OS X computer, the top row has web browser shortcuts, including back, forward, and refresh buttons.

A Speedy Browser
All that hardware certainly enhances what we can do though with even the simplest barebones laptops -- surfing the Web and using a browser. However, it's what's inside the laptop that makes that experience even more enjoyable. While other Chromebooks have lower-powered processors, the Pixel has a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 32GB solid state drive to push the browser along. While 32GB of local storage space might sound like very little, Google gives you more space in the Cloud. With the Pixel you get a terabyte of cloud storage space with Google's Drive service. Google offers 1 terabyte for $50 a month to non-Pixel owners.

The laptop boots up in a remarkable eight seconds and resumes from sleep in just two. It also doesn't gasp for air when running three open browser windows with over 30 open tabs. Unfortunately, those parts do take a hit at battery life; I was barely able to make it through a five-hour flight from Los Angeles to New York on a full charge.

While Chrome OS is by and large just Google's Chrome browser, Google has added a desktop of sorts. There is a launcher on the bottom of the screen which includes some popular apps and some of Google's basic offline apps, including a camera app for taking photos with the front-facing camera and a video player. With the Pixel you are able to get apps, but those are through Google's Chrome App Store and they all run within the browser.

While I spend most of my day in a browser on my MacBook Pro, I use desktop apps for a lot of my daily computing tasks. That's where the Chromebook was limiting for me. I couldn't run some of the apps required for work and I missed having standalone photo-editing, Twitter and instant messaging programs. Sure, there are web-based alternatives for many of those, but many of the solutions are just not as robust as some of the desktop apps.

But what is essential to the software running smoothly and snappily is a reliable Internet connection. And any traveler knows, there's nothing less certain than the Wi-Fi connections you encounter. Of course, that connection is important to any device these days, but the Pixel is all about being online.

While Google says a number of its Google apps will work offline, including Docs or Presentations, the offline capabilities in comparison to Windows or OS X are noticeable. I couldn't read any of my emails as I could in Outlook, or finish my PowerPoint presentation. And then there was the fact that Google Docs crashed when I lost connectivity on my flight and I had a hard time getting back to my document for five minutes. On the plus side, Google does have a deal with GoGo, the providers of inflight WiFi; each Pixel comes with 12 free Gogo sessions (about $180 in value). There is also an LTE version of the Pixel that costs $1,449.

Bottom Line
"Are you mad at the computer or at the Internet connection?"

Unfortunately for the Chromebook Pixel, those are one and the same. Google has crafted one beautiful computer: the display is stunning, the trackpad is surprisingly frustration-free and it is very speedy. But unfortunately the Pixel is only as good as your Internet connection and the services and apps on the web. Other Chromebooks like Acer's $199 C7 have those same shortcomings, but the Pixel costs three times as much.

For the same price you can get a MacBook Air, or for $200 more, you can get a MacBook Pro with a Retina Display, both of which can run a Chrome browser as well as the Pixel.

$1,300, no matter how beautiful the hardware, is a lot to swallow for a browser-based computer. And it will probably continue to be until we are all living and working in a more advanced Cloud.