Chromebook Pixel review

Google goes gunning for the premium market

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The Google Chromebook Pixel is a £1,049/US$1,299 (around AU$1,264) laptop that enables you to run a web browser and needs a connection to the internet to do much, yet doesn't have a built-in cellular connection. It has poor battery life and, in consequence, probably doesn't appeal to you.

But we say again: Google doesn't care. It doesn't expect you to buy one, and you can't, as a consequence, apply the same criteria for criticising it as you would with almost any other product.

Basically, if you're Google and have done all the work to re-tool Chrome and Chrome OS for touch and high-res displays, why not make a laptop that showcases them and gets people excited about it - a reference design, almost - especially when you're trying to learn how to make hardware as well? Some people will buy it.

And if that showcase product just happens to get people thinking about you as a producer of high-end, luxury products as well as a commoditised search engine and email provider, so much the better.

We liked

To be fair, Google has pulled off 'luxury' well here. It's apparent as soon as you pick it up that the Chromebook Pixel is beautifully made, with fine tolerances. The anodised aluminium alloy of the case feels good, and there's no flex in the body. The fine, etched pattern on the trackpad gives it a gloriously silky texture.

There's a blue KITT-like light bar on the lid that, when you close the Pixel, glows in Google colours; pointless, but no less sweet because of that (plus, you can do the Konami code for a light show). The 3:2 screen looks stunning.

And while most laptop manufacturers don't give any thought to the power brick, the one that comes with the Chromebook clearly has been considered; there's a notch along one edge that enables you to neatly wrap the cable around it, and a light-up ring that shows charge level.

The design finesse is about more than just well-executed details, though. There is Apple-like attention to the holistic design as well, and a good example of that is that with the laptop closed on the table in front of you, you can use a single finger to lift the screen back to a working position. Few laptops get that balance right, and it's both welcome here and indicative of a laudable focus on getting the overall experience right.

Chrome OS isn't all about compromise, either. You might think 'well, I can do everything the Chromebook can on my computer just by launching Chrome, yet still do loads of other stuff as well using my Windows, OS X or Linux distro' but one lovely thing about Chrome OS is that it's essentially maintenance-free.

It's secure, it's constantly updated in the background, and it requires less ministering-to to keep it running smoothly. Plus, it's fast. In short, you get a desktop-like experience with an iOS-like mindset.

We disliked

There's no getting away from the fact, though, that Chrome OS won't be right for many, perhaps most, right now, and making the chassis from aluminium rather than plastic doesn't change that.

The Chromebook Pixel's tagline is 'For what's next', which could be read both as saying Chrome OS is ready for the coming high-res and touch technologies, or as a tacit acknowledgement that the Chome OS cloud computing experience is still ahead of its time.

The Chromebook Pixel itself is also not flawless. The battery life is severely underwhelming, the warmth that comes from the processors is inelegant, and the keyboard feels, to our fingers at least, a little dead.

Then there's the price. Whatever your thoughts on Chrome OS, the hardware is highly desirable, but few people are going to swallow that price tag.

Final verdict

This is the best Chromebook in the world, but even within the context of rating Chromebooks, it's not perfect. When you put it in the wider context of Windows, OS X, iOS, Android and so on, it becomes even less compelling.

However, while it's a little trite, Google is getting good at hardware faster than Apple is getting good at services, and the Chromebook Pixel is the best example of that we've ever seen. Apple, the world's biggest technology company, should be paying attention.

Ultimately, unless you're a technology fetishist who wants some bragging rights, already love Chrome OS or think you might and are looking for better-made hardware for it than the previous, cheaper Chromebooks, or have enough money to dispose of, move on.

An 11-inch MacBook Air costs £200/US$300 less. A 13-inch MacBook Pro with a Retina display costs £400/US$400 more. A Lenovo IdeaPad U410 costs significantly less.

Again, though, that's only a concern for Google as the Pixel's manufacturer if it cares about convincing you to buy one (it doesn't) or if you care about buying one (you probably don't).