Google's Web-based Chromebook laptops seem to be heading in two different directions. On one end, there's the Samsung Chromebook Series 3. At the time of his writing, it's the best-selling laptop on Amazon.com. Perhaps not surprising, given its $249 price tag -- it's basically filling the low-end gap left by the collapse of the netbook and the rise of the 7-inch tablet.
At the other end of the spectrum is Google's new Chromebook Pixel. This is the first Google-designed laptop -- not one that was farmed out to a partner like Acer or Samsung. And Google has upped the ante, adding a high-res touch-screen -- with a pixel density greater than that of Apple's vaunted Retina screens -- and a real Intel Core i5 processor. But the 3.3-pound Pixel also has a high-end sticker price: it starts at a whopping $1,299. That goes to $1,449 for the step-up model, which adds a built-in 4G LTE cellular modem (and won't ship until early April of 2013).
For die-hard denizens of the cloud, this may look to be the ultimate online-only laptop. But like its less-expensive predecessors, the Chromebook Pixel comes with a long list of caveats -- all of which are amplified by its high price. The screen is gorgeous, but -- unlike Windows 8, which has been designed to interact well with touch -- the Chrome OS itself is not particularly touch-friendly right now.
And unlike every other laptop in this price range, the Chromebook Pixel can't run familiar desktop software like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop -- only the Chrome-compatible Web-based alternatives such as Google Docs and Pixlr Express. Want to do video editing? Even if you think WeVideo is as good as Final Cut or Adobe Premiere, be prepared for long upload and download times as you manipulate your video clips in the cloud.
Until Google can provide a Web app ecosystem that's as robust as the vast software libraries for Mac and Windows, and a cloud-based architecture that's as convenient as working on your local hard drive, this sort of high-end Chromebook is going to remain a tough sell.
We like to think of the Chromebook as a Google experiment -- a physical playground upon which a handful of wealthy consumers play out a utopian Google Fiber future that anticipates gigabit wireless everywhere. When that future arrives, the Chromebook Pixel may be just the hardware to navigate it.
The marquee feature of the Chromebook Pixel is its multitouch-enabled screen, with enough pixels to match Apple's Retina Display. In person, it's nothing less than spectacular.
The 12.85-inch, 2,560x1,700-pixel display has a taller-than-usual 3:2 aspect ratio, and is covered with a layer of Gorilla Glass for protection. It also gives you an unusually high 400-nit brightness.
There's no doubt that the 3:2 ratio, as opposed to the more common 16:9 ratio, is a difference that becomes apparent in two ways. The first is with the touch screen's height: if you're typing away and then move to tap the screen, it feels just a hair further away than the shorter, wider Windows touch screens. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it is noticeable.
The second difference with the 3:2 ratio is that you get more vertical space. (In that regard, it's a throwback of sorts to the older, squarer 4:3 screens of the pre-HDTV era.) If all you use your laptop for is watching movies, you may lament the return to larger, black letterbox bars. But Chromebooks live in the cloud, which means the Web, and in terms of design, the Web is nothing if not vertically-oriented. You scroll down through your online docs or to read stories, blogs, and reviews such as this one. It's a natural fit for something so centered on the Web.
The screen density of 239 pixels per inch means it edges past the 13-inch MacBook Pro's Retina Display at 227ppi, making fonts smooth and graphics sharp. As with Retina devices, though, a lot of software and Web pages must be updated before graphics will look their best, but text is a pleasure, and going back to ordinary resolution displays is no fun.
Using the touch screen itself was a smooth experience. You'll encounter more problems from using Chrome, which does not have a touch-friendly interface, than you will from anything related to the Pixel's screen. For example, Chrome's tabs are thin, and it may take two or three taps to switch to the right one. Using the screen to draw or pinch-to-zoom was flawless.
Hardware features: Under the hood
Inside the Chromebook Pixel is a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, and 4GB of memory. That's a huge step-up for Chromebook power; previous models use low-end Celeron or ARM chips. Essentially, it puts the Pixel at the same computing parity as other Mac and Windows PCs.
There are two versions of the Pixel: the $1,299 Wi-Fi-only model has a 32GB SSD (flash storage), while the $1,449 64GB model adds built-in 4G LTE wireless. Both come with an impressive 1TB of cloud storage with Google Drive for three years. While LTE costs have not been fully revealed, if you go over the Google-comped 100MB per month, you can add the Pixel to your Verizon Share Everything plan for $10 per month. Per day access is available as well, although the price has yet to be revealed.
On the outside, the Chromebook Pixel has two USB 2.0 ports, a Mini DisplayPort for external monitors, an SD Card slot, and a combination headphone-microphone jack. Google promises five hours of battery life with typical usage. Bluetooth 3.0 and USB 2.0 mean that the Pixel is a version behind the latest standards. Likewise, you can get a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, but nearly all other laptops in this price range (with the notable exception of non-Retina Macbooks) offer built-in HDMI.