Before discussing the actual device, I think it is worth spending a little time reviewing the history of the Chromebook Pixel, and how it relates to the Chromebook concept. If this doesn’t interest you, just skip down to the “Specs” header for the actual review. And if words aren’t so much your thing, check out my video review on YouTube:
Chromebook Pixel – Backstory
Chromebooks are, of course, designed to be Cloud machines, primarily focused on web apps and online storage. Given this definition of a Chromebook, it doesn’t really make sense for them to have high-end laptop specs. Without powerful local applications for photo and video editing software, or local graphics-intensive gaming, there’s little need for anything beyond Celeron or Core i3 processors.
Chromebooks have traditionally offered excellent value at the $200-$350 price point, providing very fast boot times, excellent battery life, and a variety of build quality and screen options, though generally most are running on Celeron processors and 1366×768 TN panels.
The one device that completely bucked this trend?
Google’s 2013 Chromebook Pixel, which released in two versions, with the cheaper being $1,299 and the upgraded model $1449! When released, this Chromebook received generally rave reviews, but also engendered plenty of confused responses, mostly centered around who, exactly, was supposed to buy such a device?
While it offered web browsing performance superior to that of similarly-priced high-end Windows PCs and Macs, it also had the limitations of Chrome OS with regard to running local applications, and that led most critics to essentially say that the Pixel was the best laptop you shouldn’t buy. In a way, this made sense: per Google, the Pixel wasn’t meant for the general population, but instead was meant as a reference device as well as one for developers. It was meant to help drive the platform as a whole forward.
Of course, some regular consumers did still buy it.
It was a beautiful machine, and arguably the best web-browsing experience you could have on a laptop, hampered only by relatively poor battery life. It was also very expensive and at its price point, one couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the Macbook Pro, comparisons that weren’t wholly favorable.
With the release of the new 2015 Chromebook Pixel, we’re again seeing many members of the media positively review the device, but also again express confusion about who, exactly, would buy such a Chromebook.
Today, I’ll give you my review of the device itself as well as my thoughts on who might buy it and how it compares to competitors from Apple and Dell.
Note that I will also add a wholly separate piece on how the Pixel handles in Crouton; I want to make sure I have enough time to spend doing so to give an accurate analysis, but didn’t want to hold up the release of this review.
The Google Chromebook Pixel 2 (2015) continues to feature a unibody aluminum design, with “flat” and “seamless” being key design parameters. It is a beautiful and premium device, though if not for the trademark lightbar on top of the device, I might say it is almost too generic; if and when the Pixel 3 is released, Google will probably need to do a redesign on the body if they want to stay ahead of the competition.
That lightbar not only looks great, but it is also functional, as Google has added the ability to knock on the lid when the device is closed to display the current battery status.
The base model of this year’s Pixel runs $999.99 plus tax, though you do get free 2-day shipping. Under the hood is the new Intel 5200U Broadwell Core i5 processor, at 2.2 GHz base speed and paired with 8 GB of RAM and a 32 GB SSD for local storage. Both the RAM and SSD are not user-upgradeable, so if for some reason these specs sound insufficient to you, you can opt to upgrade to the “LS” AKA Ludicrous Speed version of this device.
The “LS” model is a $300 upgrade bringing the price to $1299.99, offering a Broadwell Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 64 GB SSD. Note that the all other specs are exactly the same between the two versions: both feature the same ports and the same 12.85″ display, an IPS 2560×1700 3:2 aspect ratio touchscreen.
For ports, the new Pixel has two USB 3.1 Type-C connections, one on each side of the device, along with two traditional USB 3.0 ports, a full SD card slot, and a combination headphone/microphone jack. It also supports Bluetooth 4.0, wireless connectivity up to and including AC, and comes with a 720p webcam as well as three built-in microphones.
The keyboard and track pad on this device are essentially unchanged from the 2013 Pixel, and continue to rival the best-in-class offerings from Apple. The keyboard is back-lit with exceptional feel and just the right amount of travel and resistance. The track pad is immediately pleasing to touch, being etched glass, and responds precisely, including multi-gesture control.
One area where this device trumps all three varieties of Apple laptop is in the screen; the 3:2 aspect ratio is exceptional for viewing web pages and reading documents. Not only is it super-high resolution with class-leading PPI, it also has terrific contrast and deep, rich blacks. It is also a touch-screen that supports pinch-to-zoom. While Chrome continues to have minimal optimization for touch input, having this functionality is still very useful and helps show off that fantastic display.
Anything negative I can say about this device from a build quality perspective would be nit picking, so I’m not going to just for the sake of doing it. It is great to look at, has a super-premium feel, and I am confident that regardless of what your prior laptop was, you’ll be very comfortable with all aspects of the build quality of this Chromebook.
It is worth noting that this device weighs almost the same as the 2013 Pixel, coming in at 3.3 pounds; the 2015 Pixel is not designed to be a lightweight wonder like the MacBook Air or 2015 MacBook; it doesn’t feel so much heavy to me as it feels like a dense, futuristic slab. That said, I imagine the extra pound would make itself known if you were going from a lighter device to this one and carrying it on your person all day long.
Speaking of all day, the Broadwell Core i5 in the standard Pixel is rated for a whopping 12 hours of battery life with regular mixed use, and that’s with the device packing a premium 2560 x 1700 3:2 aspect ratio IPS super high resolution touchscreen display. With a base clock speed of 2.2 GHz, that i5 paired with 8 GB of RAM is more than sufficiently powerful to make this laptop lightning fast. It also features fast charging, picking up 2 hours of run time on 15 minutes of charging via the USB Type-C connection on either side of the device.
Boot time is less than 5 seconds, and turning the device off as well as waking from sleep are basically instantaneous. This computer makes other devices I’ve used, even Windows and OS X devices with solid state drives, feel downright slow by comparison.
It isn’t just the boot times that make me say that; the web-browsing performance is exceptional. Even with twenty tabs open, new tabs continue to open instantly and pages render with blistering speed. Scrolling is buttery smooth even on websites loaded with images and videos, like CNN.com or The Verge.
Running five Octane 2.0 benchmarks on the 2015 Pixel gave me an average of 24747 with a median score of 24894.
This is a very good score, to be sure, but I actually think this is an example of a device feeling faster than the benchmarks say. To say this device can take anything you throw at it from within Chrome OS is an understatement; only the absolute heaviest of use cases, with dozens of tabs running at once with multiple processor-intensive tasks, going will slow it down.
Because of the unusual 3:2 aspect ratio, you do get additional black bars on this device when viewing traditional widescreen movies and TV shows, not unlike what you’d see on an iPad (which is 4:3 ratio). Regardless, the actual experience of watching content on this device is fantastic, on account of that gorgeous IPS display, which offers great viewing angles both horizontally and vertically.
I should note that some users have reported being underwhelmed by the speakers; they sound acceptably loud and of expected quality to me, being clearer than the other Chromebooks I’ve owned, but of course still sounding like laptop speakers. I wouldn’t expect to host a dance party with the Pixel as a sound-system, but there’s enough “oompth” in these speakers for watching movies and listening to music.
The integrated microphone and webcam are of very good quality; calls and video-conferencing with Google Hangouts was far better on this device than any other Chromebook I’ve used before.
Because the screen looks so good, I do find it hard not to keep the brightness up somewhat, and I also tend to find myself watching a lot of media on it. Thus my battery life has been more in the 8-10 hour range. I have no doubt that if you have better self-control than I do and limit your video consumption, you can exceed ten hours on this device, which more than doubles that of the 2013 edition, despite stronger performance from the processor. This can definitely be an all-day device.
As always, this section will be very brief, as Chromebooks offer the easiest set-up in tech, even easier than iOS or Android tablets. In fact, this Chromebook is so easy to set-up and so quick to install updates and your extensions, that you can actually watch me finish setting up mine in my unboxing video, linked in the appendix or here.
I pretty much always install Crouton on my Chromebooks, because I love the additional functionality you get out of a full Ubuntu environment. Having said that, I don’t think I am going to keep one on the Pixel long-term. Regardless of my affection toward Crouton, even at its best it does still feel quite like a “hack” and this device is so perfectly designed at the hardware and software level that I almost feel like I’m spoiling it somehow.
Setting that aside, Crouton is a bit more involved here than on a normal device because of the problems with scaling and the high resolution display of the Pixel. As a result, I want to make sure I spend enough time with this device to give an accurate read on its performance, as well as to see if it has any of the same problems the Acer C740 had with Crouton. In the coming days I’ll be writing up some information on how this goes and will link to it here as well.
EDIT 4/6/15: There is a fix for the graphics issues on the Broadwell Chromebooks including the Acer C740 and the Chromebook Pixel 2015. The Intel HD 5500 graphics drivers need to be updated from your chroot and this will resolve the issues. See the second post in the thread at the link below, and follow the instructions to update.
Comparing the Chromebook Pixel to the Competition
When I decided I really wanted to buy the new Pixel, the Google Store was already out of the “LS” (Ludicrous Speed) edition. I actually think that the base edition is the one most people should be looking at, and at $999.99 it compares pretty favorably to similar offerings from Apple and Dell.
Instead of competing with the MacBook Pro as the 2013 edition did, at this price point, it is now competing with the 13″ MacBook Air, which the Pixel outperforms in many categories. The Pixel offers significantly better screen quality, double the RAM, comparable battery life, a touchscreen, and where it can compete head-to-head such as Octane tests and web browsing applications, the Pixel has much more power on tap than the MacBook Air.
Of course, the Air does take the day when it comes to local applications and with regard to weight.
If we take this comparison to the new “MacBook” for 2015, this escalates the performance advantages of the Chromebook and highlights the additional ports of the Pixel compared to the limitations of the that device; here, even more so than with the Air, the weight difference is the major issue. With its low-power Core M processor, the MacBook will work best at the same things Chromebooks are good at: web browsing and media consumption. The Pixel is much heavier, but does these things far better, at a lower MSRP.
The reality here is that if you’re looking for a premium device and the majority of your time spent on that device will be in a web browser, the Pixel is a very compelling product. For those who have to do a lot of local application work while on the go and need their laptop to be their primary device, laptops like the Dell XPS 13, Surface Pro 3, and MacBook Pro probably still have the edge on the Pixel. But, if the Pixel is your second computer, it offers a faster device with significantly more accessibility options and better battery life compared to the comparable options from Apple and Dell. The base Pixel is cheaper than the comparable touchscreen Dell XPS 13 or Surface Pro, and has the typical Chrome OS pros/cons of being a more stable and hassle-free experience in exchange for one that is much more limited in scope.
I tend not to purchase many high-end, high-cost devices. It isn’t so much for financial reasons, but rather that I prefer to be in that sweet spot of intersection between price and performance; for Chromebooks, I believe this is still the Acer C720 and Toshiba Chromebook 2 for most users, though am certain this is changing with the introduction of the Broadwell processors and, hopefully, more IPS displays (such as the $349.99 15” Acer Chromebook 15).
From a personal perspective as a writer, there’s also the issue of competing with the “big boys” when you talk about premium devices, whereas there is much less interest out there among the press in the middle- to low-end spectrum that the majority of users actually buy.
I’m not upset that I made an exception for the Pixel, on either front.
While the upgrade you get for the cost is reasonable with the “LS” edition – double the RAM, double the local storage, and an upgrade to a Core i7 is reasonable for $300 – I don’t know that the performance increase is actually worth it, because the base model already so far exceeds the capabilities of the OS. The base $999.99 edition is, to me, actually worth the money. There is literally no other laptop out there at this price point that can come close to this combination of web browsing performance, build quality, battery life, and exceptional touchscreen display.
Part of what makes this device right for me, however, is that I have both a gaming PC running Windows, and a very low-end Windows laptop (an Asus X205TA), so pretty much all scenarios and use cases are covered in my case. I don’t even really need Linux on the Pixel to fill the gaps. Thus, my situation may not match yours.
If you know what you’re getting into here – a device that isn’t going to have support for your legacy apps and minimal support for offline applications in general, but one which will offer in my opinion the best web experience you can get from any device at any price – then this is as no-brainer recommendation from me.
I want to be very clear: I’m not a developer. I don’t work for Google (though God knows I wish I did, if anyone from Google is reading this). I am in no way, shape, or form a computer programmer or developer. And, I was not loaned this device or provided it for review purposes, but rather purchased it for my own personal and semi-professional use.
For the things I do on my laptop – consuming web content; emailing and social media; listening to music; watching movies and streaming video content; light photo editing; shopping; working in Google Docs, Sheets, and Forms – this is the perfect device. I could not be happier with my purchase.
So, who is the Google Chromebook Pixel for?
It may not be for everybody, but well, it most definitely “is” for me.
My Unboxing and First Impressions:
Buy the Chromebook Pixel: Google.com
(Note: Be aware that third-party sellers on Amazon.com are charging inflated rates due to the device being sold out direct from Google as of 3-21-15)