I finally managed to procure a Chromebook Pixel, during Google I/O 2013 of all things, while watching the keynote from the companies offices in Warsaw. And to think I wasn’t even going to be there …
When I first saw the Pixel after its debut, I was one of the first to shout “What where they thinking?!?” That’s Retina MacBook Pro territory after all, with functionality that at least partially explains the high price. The Pixel on the other hand, runs Chrome OS — an operating system based on the Cloud and Google’s own browser. Why would one even consider buying a computer which can do so little and costs so much at the same time? Two days ago I finally got the chance to find out.
Anyone who has ever held an aluminum MacBook will feel right at home with the Pixel. It’s build quality is almost as high and although there are a few small issues that I have with it, overall it’s an excellent product. Despite not being a unibody construction, it’s sturdy and doesn’t flex at all that I could find, even by holding it by the edge. I’m not a fan of the USB, SD card and MDP ports, or their build quality, but otherwise everything seems top–notch.
I’ve found myself looking for reasons to type on the keyboard, which seems to be nearly identical to my favourite thus far — Apple’s own offering. I had no trouble adapting, apart from getting used to pressing CTRL instead of CMD, but that’s a Mac thing. The rest was a breeze however and my muscle memory easily adapted to the slightly altered spacing of the keys. The feedback from them is practically undistinguishable from a MacBook Air or Pro with a Retina screen. I do however prefer the slightly deeper travel on an Apple Wireless Keyboard.
CPU & Fans
The CPU is an Ivy Bridge i5 clocked at 1.8 GHz, which should be plenty enough to power a simple browser, right? Well, it is, unless we start traveling into the outer regions of the web, where flash is still present. I like to test the fans on my own gallery, which is flash based, but has some great benefits, so I unfortunately continue to use it. The Pixel managed to go from cool to scorching hot in under two minutes. The top left corner on the underside actually starts to burn, making it near impossible to work on it in one’s lap. I don’t have any children of my own yet, hence this is something that worries me. The CPU’s fans like to kick in at weird times, spinning up to high speeds in the space of a few seconds. Then, suddenly, they spin down for half a minute or so, and spin back up. Overall its not a pleasant experience and in direct contrast to what Apple has achieved on the Retina MacBook Pros. Even my gallery doesn’t affect them. And I’m skipping the fact that Mac’s run OS X, which allows for so much more.
Since I’m on the topic on the Chromebook Pixel’s cons, I really need to mention the pathetic battery life. Since Chrome OS is a browser based system, it should in theory allow for many hours of browsing, writing and so on. Unfortunately, despite trying to avoid flash, various gimmicky websites and focusing on my work, I rarely get more than three hours of charge from it. This is with ten or so tabs open in Chrome. Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, WordPress, Medium and a few others. Nothing heavy, mind you. I was expecting a minimum of five, but as things stand, I’m actually surprised with anything over the figure of three. Perhaps its the screen. Perhaps the battery isn’t big enough. I only use Wi–Fi, because I have the cheaper, $1,299 model, without LTE, as a review unit, so I cannot attribute the drain to the carriers.
Despite all of the above, I rarely have the need to visit a website which makes the fans roar with fury. I’ve found that this is an ideal typing machine, as long as I’m not far from a power outlet. The reason for this is simple — the gorgeous “Retina” LCD and it’s 2560×1700 pixels.
The experience is nearly identical to what Apple offers — the user gets an equivalent to a 1280×850 pixel desktop, with each on–screen pixel being represented by four physical pixels. This of course makes font rendering near perfect and is the reason for my love affair with type. My own website, which I’ve laboured over for hours on end, is Retina–ready, with nearly all graphics and illustrations prepared to be served in high resolution, should anyone with the appropriate hardware venture there. All of this in despite of the fact that only my iPhone has a Retina screen at the moment. The Pixel allows me to experience my own creation in the way it was meant to be seen, and that alone makes all the work worthwhile.
Another huge advantage of the Pixel’s screen are its dimensions. At 3:2, its a fair bit taller than a typical 16:10 or 16:9 screen. Those fifty vertical (and virtual) pixels really make a difference, especially since the web, most of it anyway, is meant to be scrolled from top to bottom. Less scrolling is always preferable. I actually wish MacBooks had 3:2 screens. The 16:9 display on the 11″ Air is absolutely terrible in this regard, as it requires frequent scrolling even while trying to write an article. The more typical 16:10 is better, but I absolutely fell in love with the Google’s view on the subject.
The only negative things that I can say about the Pixel’s display is the fact that it reflects close to everything if there’s a lot of light. What’s on the screen is still visibly, but it’s practically a mirror. The new Retina screens on the MacBook Pros are much better, although still far from perfect.
I do have one more issue with the Pixel, regarding its hardware. The trackpad is not as good as it could be. It feels much better than it should, especially since I do prefer glass under my fingertips, but it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes its precision, for example when using two–finger scrolling, is perfect. At other times, for no apparent reason, the screen jumps to the top of the page. This happens only a few times a day, but its extremely irritating. Since it appears to be a software issue, I hope Google gets around to fixing it, reason being that their trackpad implementation easily bests any other PC that I’ve tried. It’s close to Apple’s offering, but not there yet. There is one more ergonomic issue though, one which cannot be fixed by software. The trackpad itself is in the centre of the Pixel, but not centred below the spacebar. This means, that while typing, my right hand rests on the trackpad itself, forcing accidental clicks every time I try to reach for the ‘y,’ ‘6′ or ‘7′ keys. Since the whole trackpad is pressable, not just the bottom part like on Macs, this gets some getting used to. I haven’t yet and it’s extremely frustrating.
This was what worried me most. An operating system which is browser based? With limited file handling and no native Dropbox support? Google Drive is the only alternative worth considering and you do get one terabyte of space free for the next two years included in the price of the Pixel. For some, who need a lot of storage and rely on Google’s services, this makes sense. It doesn’t for me.
After two days of doing everything solely on the Chromebook, I found that I can get ninety percent of my work done without any major hassles. In this regard it’s almost identical to my iPad, the difference being that the Pixel is more comfortable to type on if you want to hold it in your lap. Be careful of the computer’s warm belly though.
I have found a lot of bugs in Chrome OS though. First of all, I cannot comfortably input en– or em–dashes. Since I’m writing this article on the Pixel itself, I will need to correct it before hitting publish, on my iMac. It is possible to use hex codes to get the needed symbols, but this is neither comfortable, nor something which I wish to memorise. The second issue, which has me irritated to no end, is the fact that barely any Facebook Like, Google +1 or Tweet buttons work. When I click one of those, I get a popup stating that I need to login to my account — I’m already logged into all of them of course. When I try to input my credentials however, they’re rejected. Don’t expect to share anything you find on the web, not even to Google’s own Plus.
What bugs me most is the fact that there are no native Dropbox clients, which would somehow integrate with the Files app. There are workarounds, but not something I wish to experience. This whole setup should be as simple as possible.
There are other problems with the OS that cannot be overcome, which is understandable given its nature. The lack of any professional video and photo editing software is a huge deterrent, which guarantees that a Chromebook cannot be many people’s main and only computer. I use a lot of Final Cut Pro and Lightroom in my workflow and this basically makes the Chromebook an unfeasible option.
The Pixel serves its purpose as a typewriter though and its gorgeous screen make for a very good overall experience. An extremely expensive typewriter. Once I get the hang of not pressing down on the trackpad by accident, at least.