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Ultrabooks & Chromebooks

Chromebook Pixel review

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To paraphrase Monty Python: no-one expects a £1,000 Chromebook. When Google announced the Chromebook Pixel laptop the internet let out a collective 'Wah?!?'. Chromebooks had previously been the preserve of the bargain bin - after all, an OS that requires web connectivity in order to work properly must be definition be limited. It takes a serious effort to think about Google's web-centric operating system on a premium laptop and not roll your eyes. (See also Samsung Chromebook 2012 review.)

Samsung Chromebook 2012 review

But the Chromebook Pixel is here, shipping from the Play Store for £1,049 inc VAT. And as crazy as the concept of a premium non-Windows, non-Apple laptop might seem, it just might work. (See also: what's the best laptop?)

Chromebook Pixel: the story so far

Up until now Chromebooks from manufacturers including Acer, Samsung, HP and Lenovo have all cost around the £200 mark. They were aimed at those people constrained by budget who wanted to surf the web and undertake office-based tasks. People who required a keyboard but otherwise may purchase a cheap Android tablet. The Chromebook Pixel takes the category into the premium market.

Chromebook Pixel

The main reason for its asking price is a 12.85in touchscreen that's covered in Gorilla Glass. Its resolution? A more than healthy 2560x1700, which equates to a total of 4.3 million pixels and a MacBook Pro with Retina-Display-busting density of 239ppi. That's right, the Chromebook Pixel's display out-retina's the Macbook's Retina Display.

The MacBook Pro, remember, starts at £1,299. And the Chromebook Pixel's imitation as sincere flattery doesn't stop there. Other key Macbook like specifications include a machined aluminium body, two USB 2.0 ports, an HD webcam and a touted five hours of battery life. The Chromebook Pixel is 16.2mm thick and weighs 1.5kg.

The Chromebook Pixel is powered by a 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM. Running a light OS such as Chrome that is serious hardware. Storage is limited at only a 32GB solid state drive (SSD), but Chrome OS is a cloud operatings system, and for three years you get 1TB of Google Drive cloud storage space for free.

Chromebook Pixel

Chromebook Pixel: design and build

We put the Pixel through its paces at the PC World labs, under the watchful eye of Jared Newman. He was taken by the eye for detailed employed in the Chromebook Pixel, finding it almost Macbook-like.

"The lid has a thin strip of light that beams blue when the laptop is running. Snap the lid shut, and the strip briefly flashes the Google colours green, yellow, red and blue - before fading out. Of course, this won't help you get work done faster. It exists only to deliver a dose of satisfaction every time you put the laptop away. And it works.

"Other flashes of craftsmanship are more practical. A magnetic latch helps snap the laptop closed, for instance, and an indicator on the charge cable turns from glowing yellow to green when the laptop is full of juice. The hinge on the back side of the laptop actually doubles as a Wi-Fi extender as well as a heat sink (although in my use, the Pixel still ran pretty warm on its underbelly).

"And then there's the design of the Pixel itself. It's a handsome slab of technology, one that's less bubbly than Apple's Macbooks, thanks to its sharp corners and completely flat lid. The lack of tapering around the edges does make it look a bit bulkier than it actually is. But rest assured, in real-world use, it's quite comfortable.

"The real stars of the show, however, are the Pixel's backlit keyboard and glass-covered trackpad. It's rare to find a laptop whose input features compare favourably to those of a MacBook, but I've enjoyed every moment of pointing, clicking, and typing on the Pixel. Sure, my 3-year-old Windows laptop technically can do more things than this laptop, but its cramped trackpad and squishy keyboard are far more frustrating to actually use.

"At a time when tech specs don't mean the world to the ordinary user, these design flourishes can make a big difference."  

Chromebook Pixel: performance

Performance has never really been an issue for Chromebook devices - after all, all the heavy lifting takes place on the internet. So the Chromebook Pixel's advanced spec doesn't have much of an effect over cheaper Chromebooks.

JN: "I suspect that Google spec'd the Pixel with a Core i5 processor because it wanted Intel's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU to drive the machine's display. In actual performance, Google's machine doesn't feel like a huge leap over the Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook, which combines a Celeron processor with the same 4GB of RAM as the Pixel.

"In my ordinary work-related use, which requires some dozen open browser tabs for writing and researching stories, the Pixel never skipped a beat. But then again, neither did the Series 5 550."

"It was possible to find the Pixel's limits. In 3D games like From Dust, the action got pretty choppy, and the browser-based MMORPG Realm of the Mad God wasn't nearly as smooth as it is on my desktop PC. Also, the newfangled touch response on the Pixel could be a lot better. There's a noticeable lag between swiping your finger and seeing the result--more so than just using the trackpad."

Chomebook Pixel: display

The display, then, is critical. It's the reason the Chromebook Pixel costs so much more than the earlier Chromebook laptops. Can it compete with the market-leading Macbook Pro with Retina Display.

After testing the Chromebook Pixel, Newman said: "The Pixel's display is gorgeous, with a 239-pixels-per-inch density that's higher than that of any other laptop. The screen is glossy, but not obnoxiously reflective. You can tilt the screen or view it at off-angles without washing it out. Blacks are so deep that they almost - but not quite - blend into the laptop's black bezel.

"As with any device with this fine a screen resolution, you won't see individual pixels at normal viewing distances. And with a screen ratio of 3:2, you can see a bit more of Web pages than you would on a laptop with a 16:9 or 16:10 display."

Chromebook Pixel: battery

One down side of a high-resolution display is that is sucks out battery life, and the Chromebook Pixel needs decent battery life to be a true portable workhorse. Unfortunately it's in this area that the Chromebook Pixel is least impressive.

JN: "If there's one major complaint I have about the Chromebook Pixel so far, it's the battery. The power demands of the high-resolution display definitely take their toll, as the Pixel barely lasts more than 5 hours on a charge at about 60 percent brightness.

"That's not horrid for modern laptop, and not even unusual for a Chromebook. Samsung's Series 5 550, for instance, gets about 6 hours, while Chromebooks from Acer and HP get about 4 hours. But none of those devices cost anywhere near $1300. For a premium laptop like the Pixel, I'd expect something closer to all-day battery life. Add the Pixel to the pile of devices whose battery life will someday, hopefully, be saved by next-generation processors."

Chromebook Pixel: the verdict

In assessing the value of any Chrome laptop you have to factor in the limitations of the OS. To be clear: a Chromebook can't run the desktop software to which you are used. So there's no Word or Excel, no iTunes, no Photoshop. No Windows-based games.

Google does provide free web-based alternatives such as Google Docs, and there are of course a plethora of third-party apps that work via your web browser. It's not worse necessarily, but it is different: and unlike a Macbook you can't install Windows if you want to utilise the familiar. The Chromebook comes with Chrome OS, and that's it.

With that caveat in mind the build quality and performance of the Chromebook Pixel are very strong, and the display is the best around. And it's a touchscreen display, which is more useful on a laptop than you might think. Oh, and you won't need AV - you can't install software on to this hardware.

On the down side the battery life isn't great.  

That's probably a couple two many caveats for a £1,049 laptop. You can buy a £300 Windows box that offers similar functionality, as well as an iPad or Android tablet. Or you could spend a couple of hundred quid more for a Macbook Pro that offers similar build and display, in addition to the ability to run OS X - and Windows if you want.



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