“Wait. That’s a touchscreen?!”
That wasn’t the first thought that popped into my head when I started to use the Chromebook Pixel — it was about the tenth. But that’s only because it seemed impossible that a screen this nice could be a touchscreen. Of course, being that nice, comes with a price.
I dove into using the Chromebook Pixel almost completely blind. During the unveiling, I saw some buzz about a new device Google had just unveiled, but I really had not read anything about it when I received one that afternoon from the company. I just figured: Oh, another Chromebook. Cool. (But not that cool.)
All it took was holding it for about five seconds to realize that this Chromebook was very different. It was actually well made. My tweets that evening sent some people into a tizzy. Yes, I really liked this thing. A Google product! (Of course I have plenty of times before and have always said I would if it was a good product.)
But the true test came the past few days. I have not used my MacBook since I got this Chromebook. No, I’m not making some grand statement there — I simply wanted to see if I could possibly use a Chromebook as my primary machine.
There’s good and bad news:
Yes, I could.
No, I won’t.
Simply put: the Chromebook Pixel is a brilliant device. That’s not to say it’s all rainbows and puppy dogs. In his full review, Frederic hits on many of the downsides of the device — and there are a number of them. I’m going to focus on my experience trying to use this thing as my primary machine, both good and bad.
Just as I did, the first thing you’ll notice about the Pixel is the build quality. It’s solid. Unlike previous Chromebooks which ranged from plastic-y to downright janky, this thing is handsome. It’s not exactly like a MacBook, but it’s not completely different either. In some ways, it’s sort of like a cross between a MacBook and a Microsoft Surface. Really, my only (minor) complaint is that the ports don’t quite feel like they have the same attention to detail as the other parts of this machine (power input is ho-hum, headphone jack is way too tight, etc).
When you turn the Pixel on, you’ll see a machine that starts almost immediately. It’s a first taste of just how fast this thing is when paired with the svelte Chrome OS. When the desktop loads, all you’ll see is an amazing background image. It looks like a framed photograph. The retina MacBooks have displays like this. But this is a Chromebook. I had to keep reminding myself of this.
As you’re undoubtedly aware, Chrome OS is really just the Chrome web browser with some added functionality to make it more like a traditional OS (file handling, etc). When you load up the browser, you’ll find razor-sharp text and beautiful web pages. Unlike when the retina MacBooks first hit, it’s much harder to find sites that look like total crap — though there are still plenty of images that do. But the big sites: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc, all look great.
Because most of what I do on a daily basis on a computer is already in a web browser, I was right at home with the Pixel. With previous Chromebooks, I was frustrated by the lack of speed of either the hardware or Chrome OS (or some combination of the two). Here, everything performs fluidly.
That includes the trackpad. You may recall myself and others blasting the trackpad on the original Chromebook, the prototype Cr-48 device. That remains one of the most frustrating bits of hardware I have ever used. Some improvements came over time (via software updates) and in subsequent Chromebooks, but nothing could match the trackpad found of MacBooks. This trackpad comes very close.
But again, you don’t actually have to use the trackpad because you can just touch the screen. Amazing, right? Eh, sort of.
Maybe it’s a case of old habits dying hard, but I basically never find myself touching the screen. Honestly, I think it has more to do with the fact that it’s sort of a pain to reach up and touch the screen when you can just manipulate the on-screen elements using the trackpad where your hands already lay.
What’s weird is that as an addicted iPad user, I have found myself from time to time trying to touch the screen on my MacBook. Maybe I’ve shamed myself enough times to have learned my lesson. Or maybe I’m just not used to manipulating Chrome this way (I still prefer Safari on my iPad). Either way, I find it odd that I’m not more drawn to touching the screen. I keep forgetting about it.
And again, it’s simply not that convenient to do so. It’s something that gives great demo. But in practice it’s a figurative pain that may lead to a literal pain. It’s cool to show off Angry Birds and Google Maps, I guess. And it may be good for some other games down the road. But for now, it remains a novelty. Worse, it’s a novelty that’s often a bit laggy.
Having said all that, Frederic notes that the bottom of the touchscreen has some Chrome OS APIs as well. Right now, you can swipe to hide/show the toolbar. If they do more there, maybe the touchscreen will gain use over time. But manipulating standard windows with touch still feels weird. I feel the need to be very careful when trying to hit menu drop-downs and window tabs. It stresses me out. That’s not what touch computing should be. (See also: desktop mode in Windows 8.)
Despite (or perhaps because of) the vastly improved performance of the Pixel, I find the fan kicks on quite a bit. Most of the time it’s not too loud, but it’s noticeable. Even more noticeable is the heat that the device puts off in the upper left corner of the bottom of the machine. It’s not quite George Foreman Grill-hot (like my old Dell laptop), but it can be uncomfortable (to fire up the grill, trying running this demo). It has been a while since I’ve noticed any of my MacBooks getting this hot.
And the fans enter jet-engine-mode (loud fan whirring) far less often on MacBooks as well. In fact, basically the only times I notice the fans kick on while using a MacBook anymore is when Flash is enabled and running (which is rare on my machines). Perhaps that’s the issue here as well since Google ridiculously still insists on bundling Flash with Chrome (and Chrome OS). It’s time to move on, Google. Our computer fans and laps will thank you for it.
And since it’s undoubtedly related to all of the above, I’ll note here that the battery life of the Pixel is, in fact, disappointing. Maybe I’m spoiled by the MacBook, but 4 to 5 hours isn’t good enough anymore. And really, I’ve been seeing a lifespan much closer to the 4 hour end.
BUT the good news is that part of this battery performance is undoubtedly related to the fact that the version of the Pixel that I received comes with LTE built-in. It’s amazing to not have to worry about tethering to my phone (or using the undoubtedly awful WiFi at the local coffee shop). It takes a little bit to connect (to Verizon, in this case), but once you do, it’s solid and fast. I wish MacBooks came with this option.
I just went from gushing to negative about the device in the span of a thousand words. But the bottom line remains that the Chromebook Pixel is a very good laptop. It’s a laptop I would have no problem using on a daily basis. In fact, I’m writing this post on it right now.
It’s nice to see how far Google has come with both Chrome OS and the hardware of these Chromebooks over the past couple of years. People will complain that it can’t run things like Office, but the reality is that most of what many of us now do on a traditional computer is through a web browser (and Office is slowly but surely moving there as well).
I still absolutely adore the dedicated search key on the keyboard. And I still absolutely abhor the fact that the copy-and-paste shortcuts are basically the reverse of what they are on a MacBook. (See update below.)
From a pure product perspective, this device is a winner. It’s the Chromebook that should show many PC users they no longer need Windows in their lives. Hell, it could even convert some Mac users as well. This is how a browser-based computer should be built. Unfortunately, many of you will never know this firsthand because you’re never going to buy this device.
It’s not the battery life issue that’s the real problem, it’s the price. At $1,299 and $1,449 (for the LTE version), the Pixel is far too expensive to get users to switch from what they know (PCs or Macs). There’s no real reason to do so. The touch element on the brilliant display is cool, but not nearly enough.
I have to believe Google realizes this. Maybe the Pixel is meant to be more of a look-what-we-can-do machine. And if that’s the case, great. But it just seems sort of silly to go to all the trouble of making a very good product that will never sell.
To me, Chrome OS still makes the most sense at the low end of the market. Apple owns the high end, with Microsoft dominating everything else. And “everything else” is still a much bigger market than Apple’s end. Yet Google is more or less playing in Apple’s end here. Yes, the margins and as such, the profits are much better on this end. But Google has never played that game. Why would they now?
Further, much of the audience at the high end of the market still likely wants native applications that deliver performance and functionality that the web simply cannot match yet. Photoshop, Final Cut Pro — even things like the iLife suite of products. You don’t get any of those things with the Pixel. And the inverse is true: basically everything you can do on the Pixel, you can do on a high-end laptop (except maybe the touch element, but we’ve already been over that). And those machines can probably still run Chrome itself faster than this device.
If there’s one saving grace, perhaps it’s the 1 TB of Google Drive storage that is included with every Pixel. That kind of storage isn’t cheap. In fact, it’s worth about $1,800 if you were to pay for it monthly over the three years it’s included with the Pixel. (For comparison’s sake, a 2 TB Time Capsule is $299 — but not in the cloud, obviously.)
The Chromebook Pixel proves that Google can make great traditional computing hardware. They need to take what they learned here and put it in play in the sub-$1,000 market — and ideally, the sub-$500 market. Eventually, if Chrome OS is to work, it will be when $199 (and maybe one day, $99) Chromebooks squeeze Microsoft from the bottom while MacBooks continue to squeeze from the top. Then iPads and Android tablets come in to punch Windows machines in the kidneys repeatedly for the TKO.
In a world without MacBook Airs (lighter and cheaper) and Retina MacBook Pros (more robust and powerful), maybe the Chromebook Pixel makes some sense on the market. Or in a world where this device is $500, maybe the Pixel blows away its PC counterparts in terms of quality and ease of use. Or maybe even in a world where touchscreens on a laptop are a must-have feature, the Pixel would be perfect. But none of those things are true here. And so what we’re left with is a great product without a market fit. A classic startup story. Time to pivot, perhaps.
Update: So, us Mac users can actually switch ctrl/alt functionality in the settings!