Google's original Chromebook Pixel was a beautiful, wonderful laptop. It was also absurdly expensive—so pricey that it became a tech nerd joke. Now Google's following it up with the Pixel 2, and surprise: it's better, cheaper, and dangerously close to buyable.
What is It?
The Pixel is a Chromebook in its most perfect form. It's an impeccably designed, damned handsome laptop with a 2560 x 1700 resolution touchscreen, 8GB of RAM and a 5th gen Intel Core i5 processor in the £799 base configuration. An even crazier £999 version is available with a Core i7 and 16GB of RAM. Both are available today from Google's new online store. Both seem like overkill for a machine that's primarily a web browser.
Drop-dead gorgeous, but not in the way you'd expect. Like its predecessor, the second-gen Pixel is a wonderfully minimalist block of metal with practically no branding anywhere. In lieu of a logo, the Pixel has a tiny little bar of colourful lights along the top of the lid, and a tiny little imprint that says "chrome" on its super simple hinge.
Make no mistake about it: the Chromebook Pixel is not something you could call "sleek". But it's thickish and squarish in a really deliberate way that sets it apart from all the teardrop-shaped MacBook Air wannabes. Crave function over form? The Pixel is a blocky-but-handsome Hummer of a laptop that's happy to be a little plus-size if it means room for USB ports.
Speaking of ports, you'll find a fancy new Type-C USB port on each side—the same kind you'll find just one of on the new MacBook. These things rock. If you're not up to date, USB Type-C is the future of, well, pretty much everything. Like the USB ports that are already all over your devices, USB Type-C can do power and data, but much better. It's as fast as USB 3.0 (5Gbps), and can actually be used to charge your laptop instead of just powering peripherals.
The Pixel's USB Type-C charger (roughly the size of a MacBook charger, but with a Type-C port on one end instead of MagSafe) offers enough oomph to take the Pixel from empty to full in about an hour and half. And if you want, you could even use an adapter or optional Type-C-to-3.0 cable to charge the Pixel from the same wall-wart you use to charge your phone—albeit very slowly.
Like the new MacBook, the Pixel doesn't have HDMI or DisplayPort because USB Type-C can also handle video. But where the MacBook has a single port and the solution for problems like wanting to charge and use an external display simultaneously is "go wireless or tough shit," the Pixel has two Type-C ports, one on each side. You can use either one for charging while you use the other for video—so long as you buy a Type-C-to-HDMI or DisplayPort adapter to plug it into your monitor.
You won't need adapters for your other peripherals, though: the Pixel's also got two full-size USB 3.0 ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and an SD card reader. That, plus 32GB of storage on the base model (and 64GB on the more expensive one). That's not a whole lot, no, but this is a Chromebook; ideally you're not storing a whole lot on the drive.
For its face, the new Pixel has a 2560 x 1700 231 PPI screen, just like the original Pixel. Google says the screen on this new Pixel has as an improved sRGB color gamut which helps make the colours pop. I can't quite tell the difference, but it sure does look nice. It also has an unconventional 3:2 aspect ratio, which is a little uncanny when you first notice it. Google's reasoning for this is that the Pixel (and Chromebooks in general) are mostly for browsing the internet, and it makes more sense to have vertical real-estate when you're constantly scrolling through websites. While I can't argue with the logic, I can't say I've ever found the ratio to be particularly life-changing.
That screen is also a touchscreen, although it's easy to forget. Though the original Pixel debuted with a pretty shitty touch experience, this one responds quickly and perfectly... but there's not a whole lot to do with it. I spent a few minutes cruising through Chrome with my fingers and it was fine, but Chrome still isn't particularly finger friendly, and since the Pixel doesn't fold all the way back or anything there's rarely good reason to poke it.
Never trust photographers with your login.
This thing is a dream machine. For starters, the keyboard and touchpad are among the best out there. Definitely the best I've ever used, possibly the best full stop. Your first sentence on that keyboard is like slipping into bed after a long day at work, and the touchpad is just fantastic. It's got the perfect semi-glossy texture but more importantly it clicks like a dream. Unlike the touchpad on my MacBook Air which requires inhuman strength to fully depress, the Pixel's touchpad will let you click anywhere with ease. Honestly, I hate touchpads without real buttons, but this one I could see myself using.
Combine that with the screen that blows away any dingy old MacBook Air (though admittedly on par with recent high-end Windows laptops), and the Pixel delivers a really great punch of "wow". People (myself included) tend to make little satisfied noises the first time they use it. It's fantastically well-built.
That sense of satisfaction holds up when you're knee deep in tasks, too. Unlike cheap Chromebooks, there are no "just four or five or six tabs at a time" limitations here. And though it's no secret I've had issues with Chrome on my MacBook, on the 2.2GHz Core i5-powered Pixel it screams. I couldn't tell you why — whether it's the 8GB of RAM, or that ChromeOS is more efficient than the Chrome you'll find on OS X or Windows, or maybe that the Pixel's new Core i5 is basically only running Chrome, or one of about 8,324,092,384 other variables — but none of my gripes with Chrome have reared their ugly heads here—yet.
So what's it like using a laptop that's basically a browser, stuck using Chrome apps (and an increasing but limited selection of Android apps) for everything, all the time?
Honestly, it's much less limiting than it was even a few years ago, and nowadays, it's surprising how often there's a Chrome extension for whatever you need. You can get an AIM client. And a web app that can edit videos. Chrome has a (gimped and limited-access) version of Photoshop now. Even torrenting is relatively trivial via Chrome these days, though you'll have to pay a little for the best apps.
Really, ChromeOS will only hold you back in two major ways: games and legacy apps. Those can can each be make-or-break depending on who you are, but even if not there could be some psychological pain. By going from anything else to ChromeOS, you are necessarily giving up a whole ecosystem of dedicated OS X or Windows or even Linux apps. Do you need to be able to run an old, obscure OS X app from five years ago? Probably not, but it still hurts to give it up.
And what you get in return are browser apps, which can feel a little cheap by comparison. Some apps—like the calculator, Google Keep, or any of the handful of Android apps that now work on Chrome OS—get their own little application-like windows. But others, like Google Calendar, or Sheets, and the web apps you download, literally show up as Chrome tabs.
They all work fine, but it's harder to silo off different parts of your computing life into different windows that you can minimise and organise on your screen when the lion's share of apps pop into existence as just another browser tab.
And should you find yourself without internet access, it's hard to know which apps will suddenly stop working, because the line between site and app is so thoroughly blurred. Google Docs? Google Sheets? Google Drive? Yes, yes, and yes. Google Calendar, Play Music, Gmail? Nope. And that's to say nothing of whatever third-party photo editors and video players and whatnot you pick up along the way.
What about the battery life? It's not bad, actually. When I put the Pixel through our standard battery test, it got roughly eight-and-a-half hours. Not remotely shabby. I haven't had a chance to put the new Pixel through the nigh unconquerable gauntlet of an entire day of blogging yet, and I'll update when I have. But so far, my bouts of 3-4 hours of 8-10 tab browsing have never knocked the battery below 50 per cent. And unlike the original Pixel, the machine doesn't get so hot that I worry about my fertility.
- The design is spot on. This Chromebook is (still) beautiful and a pleasure to touch and use. That, and it's unique. The screen is nice, the keyboard and trackpad are amazing. It's all-around great for my fingers and my sanity.
- Charging ports on both sides. I shouldn't have to explain why this is nuts and great. Never let your laptop's charging port location dictate where you sit again!
- Battery life is great, and if you double tap the top of the Pixel, the light bar will show you how much you have left!
The downside is that this also happens plenty of times when you are not asking for it but ¯_(ツ)_/¯
- Also that little Konami code easter egg is still there.
This is not a super portable laptop. At around 1.3 kilos, the Chromebook Pixel feels pretty damn heavy. This is no razor-thin MacBook.
It only runs Chrome! When you're looking at a machine in the low-hundreds price range, it's easy to see that as a trade-off or a compromise. But when you're buying a £799 laptop with great specs, it's just a choice. A limiting choice, with no upsides beyond access to this primo machine.
Should You Buy It
No. But I mean, maybe? Nah. But then again.
As wildly premium as it is (in the greater world of Chromebooks) the Pixel is designed to raise a big question: is a browser enough? Is it time to pay £799 for a browser machine? Has ChromeOS grown up enough that it's not just a budget option? If you put a gun to my head, I'd say the answer is still no, but it's a tougher call than it's ever been before. The £1,049 original Pixel was sort of laughable. This £799 second-gen? Much less so. Especially with a battery life that flirts with lasting all day, this is a near perfect machine for web-workers, and professional internet-surfers (like myself).
For a purely web-browsing and typing machine, the Chromebook Pixel is one of the best out there and certainly one of the best designed. The bulky function-over-form approach makes it an interesting and attractive counterpart to something like the slim new MacBook—which opts for a more powerful operating system, but a chip that could ultimately leave it less capable.
Still, Google's still got a bit of a ways to go to prove that Chrome—something that already lives on every other laptop out there—is worth picking to the exclusion of something like Windows or OS X. For now, it's still not. But if you were keen to buy a new Chromebook Pixel anyway, I wouldn't try to talk you out of it.
This flagship premium Chromebook has come a long way from its fantastic-but-laughable beginnings. If ChromeOS had a killer app, some killer exclusive feature, the Pixel could become a really solid choice for everyone.