Chromebook Pixel

Initial Impression

What do you say beyond "fantastic"? Quite a lot actually.

The Unboxing

I don't usually take pictures when opening new kit. I did this time. I may post them later. What I'll say is the unboxing is worthy of a $1299 computer. Google do not disappoint.

The computer arrived in a plain, brown shipping box. I don't think it has the Google name on it anywhere. This is pretty typical of products I've received from Google. Inside is a white box supported at all four corners by a poly-something corner brick to keep the inner box from sliding around.

The inner box is white with just the Google logo in the center. After removing the shrink wrap you find the cover lifts by first pulling a hinged lip toward you to separate the magnets holding it closed. Inside you see just the Pixel.

In the Box

Chromebook Pixel, charger (about the size of a MacBook charger), longer power cable (also similar to that found with MacBooks), Getting Started Guide and not much else.

It's not in the box per se but the Pixel comes with 1 TB of Google Drive storage for 3 years. You can enable it once you've logged into the Pixel.

Removing the Pixel

Like most electronics, the Pixel is wrapped in clear plastic. Removing the plastic wrap finds you holding a ~3.5 pound of aluminum-cased computer. It has no flex. It feels solid.

Starting Up

Starting-up the Pixel is easy: lift the lid. The Pixel springs to life and you're greeted with a language selection screen and the standard new-computer EULA. It's not clear whether the Pixel was suspended or booted that quickly. If it booted, it was faster than anything I've seen the Samsung Chromebook do.

After accepting the EULA you're prompted to connect to a wireless access point. The Pixel then updates itself and reboots. Again, it boots amazingly fast.

Logging In

Logging in is just like any other Chromebook: type any Gmail account id and password, and you're logged in. If you have two-factor authentication enabled you'll be prompted to type the current key.

Once authenticated and logged in, the Chromebook begins adding your Chrome apps. From login to initial desktop takes less a couple of seconds. The "Get Started" app pops up and offers to teach you about your Chromebook.

Reaction

There's so much to say about the Pixel.

Screen

The screen is phenomenal. And so much brighter than the Samsung Chromebook's matte screen. It's also so much more detailed; so much larger. The fonts are smoother. Everything about the screen is an improvement over the Samsung. The screen also far exceeds the non-retina display of my MacBook Pro.

I've only tried the touch screen a bit. It's fast and smooth. I tried it using a Remote Desktop connection to my Mac. It works there as well.

Speed

If you're a previous Chromebook user it's amazing how much faster the Pixel is. It's not a little bit faster. It's a lot faster. Everything from page load, to Flash to Remote Desktop are snappier.

I always felt a bit limited by the speed of my Samsung Chromebook. No more.

Keyboard

I read a lot of reviews about the Chromebook while waiting for mine to arrive. Everyone gushed about the screen (and they should have) but I don't think anyone did justice to the keyboard. It's great. The Samsung keyboard is good and I wrote a lot of words on it but it pales in comparison to the Pixel. The only other keyboards that does compare is found on the MacBook Pro line.

It is backlit as promised by Google.

Trackpad

The trackpad is solid and smooth to the touch. Like the Samsung and the MacBook trackpads it supports both hard clicking (push down) and soft (tap). I prefer the feel of the Pixel trackpad to the one on my MacBook. That may just be due to the age of my MBP. Perhaps the trackpad has lost some texture.

The trackpad is a deep granite color. You wouldn't think the color of the trackpad would matter much (and it doesn't from a functional perspective) but aesthetically the color contrasts nicely with the rest of the case.

Case

As noted above, the case is solid. It lends a real feel of quality construction to the Pixel. I don't know whether it's machined from single billet of aluminum the way the MacBooks are but it feels very well engineered and manufactured.

As some reviewers have noted, the edges of the Pixel's case are slightly rolled. If you've ever worked for a long time on a MacBook in just the wrong position the angular edges of the Mac's case can really dig into your arms. I think that will be less of a problem on the Pixel.

The lid is relatively thin and quite solid. There's about a 1/2 inch of bezel on the sides of the screen, close to an inch on the top and an inch and a quarter on the bottom.

The hinge is rock solid and smooth. You'd have to work (relatively) hard to break it. Other reviewers have mentioned that the lid opens very smoothly with one hand. You don't have to hold the bottom of the case down to open it.

The case appears to be sealed or the screws are very well hid. There are four feet on the bottom. Perhaps they hide the screws for opening the Pixel. If the Pixel can be upgraded in terms of RAM or storage, it'll likely be a warranty-breaking event. There's no service panel for accessing the insides.

Ports

As noted by others, the Pixel has two USB 2.0 plugs, one DisplayPort, a power plug, earphone plug and sd-card slot. That's it. No wired ethernet port, though I expect the Pixel will recognize common USB ethernet dongles just as the Samsung does.

There's been a lot of ink spilled over Google's decision not to ship with USB 3.0. From a cost perspective it's hard to imagine USB 3.0 would have added huge cost but the decision may fit better with Google's focus on cloud-enabled computing. How much data to you need to transfer from a USB device to a cloud computer? Still, it seems like a gratuitous omission.

While I'm not holding my breath, it would be sweet consolation to learn the DisplayPort is actually a Thunderbolt port.

Battery Life

I don't have a good feel for battery life yet. It arrived about half charged showing 2 hours, 58 minutes of charge left. After an update, reboot and an hour or so of use it's dropped to one hour, 12 minutes of charge.

Sound

The speakers sound really good. For the past couple of weeks I had been listening to music almost exlusively on my Nexus 4 and the Samsung Chromebook. A couple of nights ago I previewed a track on my MacBook Pro and was reminded how good the speakers sound. I'd rate the Pixel speakers as good as those of the MacBook.

Noise

This might seem to be an odd category for a computer with no hard drive but it's worth noting that unlike the Samsung Chromebook, the Pixel is not completely quiet. The Pixel has a Core i5 in it. It also has a fan to help keep the Core i5 cool.

When I heard the Pixel had a Core i5 and a fan to keep it cool I feared it might produce some noise when the fan was running. It does. It's not noise like a spinning hard drive and it's not high pitched, more like the sound of wind blowing. Nor do you hear it all the time. But it's there. I can hear it running right now.

Silent running was one of the features that attracted me to the Chromebooks. The Pixel does not follow in that line. For me, that's a mark against it.3

The "Pixel" Bar

At the top of the lid, on the outward-facing side is a light bar, or Pixel bar. So far I've only seen it shine blue. Other than that I don't know what it does. I should probably read the manual or something. Or let it be a surprise when I do figure it out.

Verdict

I like the Pixel. I think the price is about right. Many reviewers, pundits, armchair CEOs and others have derided the Pixel as too costly or too close in cost to a "better-equipped" MacBook Pro Retina. There's some truth in their complaint, and it's a fair comparison. Google obviously had Apple in their sights when designing the Pixel. It'll have to stand-up to the scrutiny.

That said, I wouldn't go so far as to accuse Google of slavish copying. I see the Pixel as a genuine competitor. I bought a Samsung Galaxy 2 when it first came out. It was so iPhone like I had to laugh. Google didn't go down that path. The Pixel is it's own machine with real value and features the MacBook Pro line lacks:

  • The Pixel has a touch screen. Whatever you think about the usefulness of a touch screen or of how little it adds for you, a 2560x1700 touch screen has value and the MacBook Pro Retina doesn't have one.
  • The Pixel comes with 1 TB of Google Drive storage for 3 years. The current value of 1 TB of storage on Google Drive for 3 years is ~$1800. That's real value. Perhaps it's not valuable to some users but it's still value.

The cost comparison while somewhat valid overlooks two important points:

  • Google have none (or little) of the production scale of economies Apple have. Apple buy flat-panels, RAM, SSD and other parts by the tonne. Yet Google still managed to bring the Pixel to market at a very competitive price.
  • Apple have been in the hardware business for 25+ years. The Pixel is a first for Google. For a software/internet company to come in and in one go deliver a product with this level of quality, attention to detail and finish in their first outing is impressive. The fact that it's compared favorably with the MacBook Pro is witness to what Google have done. I applaud the Chromebook team for it.

Life's not all roses with the Pixel. As noted above, the decision to ship with USB 2.0 is baffling. Unless the cost for the upgrade would have seriously broken the pricing model it would have made sense to add it, if for nothing else than for appearance of value.

There's also the issue of noise. I understand a more powerful processor brings with it a price, but I wish I had the option to scale down the CPU frequency rather than run the fan. Still, it's not a deal breaker. And I do appreciate the boost in performance.

I expect the Pixel will easily supplant my MacBook Pro. It won't mean an immediate, cold-turkey switch. But it'll be close. Once I get my data migrated to a local server and the rest to Google Drive it'll be my daily laptop.4

I couldn't be happier.

Footnotes


  1. Technically it arrived yesterday. I'm just now getting around to opening and using it.

  2. Disclosure: Unlike almost all the reviewers I've read, I didn't receive mine as a loaner. I bought the Pixel with my own money, on the first day. Some might think that biases my opinion towards liking the Pixel (and perhaps it does) but it might also mean I'm taking a more thoughtful approach when reviewing it.

    One thing's certain, I've used a Chromebook more than many reviewers. I'm writing with real experience with the platform.

  3. In fairness, it's 2:30 in the morning; I'm sitting in a quiet house, no music, no TV. It's just me and the Pixel. That said, if I were writing this on my Samsung Chromebook, the only noise I'd hear would be the light tap of fingers on keys. Still, it's better than my MacBook Pro. I'd be hearing a spinning hard drive if I were writing on it.

  4. If you're wondering how I wrote this in Emacs on a Chromebook Pixel, it was easy. I connected to a machine running Emacs. In this case I used Chrome Remote Desktop but have frequently used ssh as well. Using the Chromebook as a portable terminal is one of the reasons I like them and bought the Pixel.