Review: Google's Chromebook Pixel excels both as a machine and as an idea

Why not have a flagship for the fledgling Chrome OS that can stand with the best from Apple or any major PC vendor?

The laptop you're about to see is as much an idea as it is a machine. Google's new Chromebook Pixel is designed to be the world's best Chromebook--and it is, without even trying hard, by a yawning margin. That's the machine part.

Now for the idea part. Two years ago, when Google introduced the original Chromebook Pixel, you could argue it was too early. Chrome OS was young. There wasn't enough to do with all the processing power, and with an early-gen mobile CPU, battery life was disappointing. It was all dressed up with nowhere to go, and it was also crazy-expensive, with a base price of $US1299 and a higher-end model that cost $US1449.

Also, people looked at the Chromebook Pixel and asked, "Why build such a powerful laptop 'just' to run browser-based applications?" But they were asking the wrong question. Google made the Chromebook Pixel - the old one and the new one - to answer a different question: "Why not?"

Why not have a flagship for the fledgling Chrome OS that can stand with the best from Apple or any major PC vendor? Whether you thought the Pixel was awesome or ridiculous, Google was simply expressing its ambition to compete head-on with those two platforms.

The new Chromebook Pixel starts at $US999 and has an "LS" model with a faster CPU for $1299. It's still expensive--just a little less than before. But if the new 12-inch MacBook can get 4-out-of-5 stars for pedestrian performance and a tyrannical, single USB-C port, the Chromebook Pixel must earn more than that for delivering significantly better speed and battery life than its predecessor, plus significantly more generous and versatile connectivity.

It can hold its head up among the flagships of other platforms for beauty and features. Oh, and it's the best Chromebook available by far, as I'm about to show you.

Built to be the best

Let's be honest: It's not hard to be the best Chromebook when the market remains largely one of small, inexpensive, underpowered machines. But the masses clearly don't mind, because Chromebooks were the top sellers among laptops during the last holiday season, and they're big in education, too.

The Pixel, by contrast, exudes excellence, starting with its aluminum chassis whose subtle texture almost feels soft. Google paid attention to details, giving the Pixel crisply tailored edges and an extremely sturdy hinge.

A slender LED lightbar near the edge of the lid flashes Google's rainbow colors and also shows battery life. Compared to its predecessor, this new Pixel is slightly lighter than before (3.3 pounds compared to 3.35 pounds) and even a scant millimeter thinner (15.3 compared to 16.2).

On the sides, you'll find a lot more connectivity than we've seen on some other new models lately (*cough* MacBook *cough*), including right and left USB-C ports. The ports can be used with the included power adapter from either side--a nice convenience. Google sells a bunch of USB-C adapters: USB-C to HDMI ($40), DisplayPort ($40), or USB-A (adapter or cable, both $13). The new Pixel also has two USB 3.1 ports, an SD card slot, and an audio jack.

Open the Pixel, and there it is: That gorgeous, 12.85-inch touchscreen display with a 2560x1700-pixel resolution and 400-nit brightness. Take that, Retina. Of the machines we've seen, only Dell's XPS 13 has better bragging rights, with its 3200x1800 display option.

According to Google, the new Pixel's display has a wider color gamut. We set the same wallpaper and same display settings on both Pixels, and you can see that the new Pixel (at right in the photo) has richer colors. Just look at the richer blue details in the surf and sky, and the red-tinted crags on the sandy cliff.

The full-size, island-style keyboard is firm without being harsh (I've banged on a lot of crappy Chromebook keyboards, so believe me, I know). The trackpad on the Pixel is bigger, and it's also supposed to be more responsive than its predecessor. I enjoyed using both for long periods.

Like I said, it wasn't hard for this to be the best-designed Chromebook. But it's also hard to find a feature set this great on any other premium laptop.

The Broadwell CPU silences all comers

The Pixel's first-class on the inside, too. Our model boasts a Core i5 Broadwell CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 32GB SSD. (Call the Pixel LS super-ultra-premium: It sports a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD.)

Intel's improved its mobile CPUs significantly since the first Pixel came out with an Ivy Bridge chip two years ago. Not surprisingly, in test after test, the new Pixel left its predecessor and all other Chromebook comers in the dust.

Browsermark 2.1 gets right to the heart of the Chromebook's operating system, measuring graphics and computational performance within the browser. The new Pixel is 32 percent faster than its predecessor, let alone any other Chromebooks we've tested recently that have advanced CPUs.

The cr-XPRT performance test measures Chromebook performance in basic productivity tasks as well as more demanding activities, such as watching movies or playing games.

In the cr-XPRT performance test, the new Pixel is 30 percent faster than the old Pixel, and once again miles ahead of any other contenders.

Google's Octane 2.0 Javascript benchmark pushes hard on more advanced browser-based activities, including productivity applications, games, and interactive content. Google's new Chromebook Pixel outpaced its forbear by 28 percent, and other contenders weren't anywhere close.

At this point, some people are still going to say there's nothing to do with all that power. That argument is weaker now than it was in 2013. Chrome and the computing world have evolved a great deal in the last two years: There are more online games, more web-based productivity applications, more high-end content that you can stream, and there's more in the works. Even Adobe Photoshop, which has been a rallying-cry-slash-sacred-cow for many naysayers, is coming to Chromebooks in online form (it's already in beta if you want to try it).

Let's be honest again: Most of us have a PC that's far more powerful than what we really need. We buy more power because we like it. The Pixel is designed to be ready for the future, and the benchmarks show it has muscle to spare.

Finally, the new Pixel's battery life is a huge step up from before. The Broadwell CPU helps, but Google also designed other efficiencies into the Pixel, like turning off the keyboard backlight if you don't use the Pixel for 30 seconds. The cr-XPRT battery test provides an estimated rundown time of 12.88 hours for the new Pixel, compared to 4.62 for its predecessor. Other contenders had good stamina, but the Pixel comes out way ahead once again.

I saw the difference in my hands-on time, too. I streamed a movie at full-screen on both the new Pixel and the old one, using the same display settings, of course. After 20 minutes, the old Pixel had lost 10 percent of its battery capacity. The new Pixel had lost only 3 percent.

The Chromebook Pixel is clearly not for everyone, any more than any flagship is. It's expensive. It pumps much more power than most people need. But as a Chromebook, it's the best you can get. As a flagship, it's as avant-garde as it should be--and it gives other flagships a run for their overpriced money, too.

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Tags AppleGooglehardware systemsChromebookslaptops

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Melissa Riofrio

PC World (US online)
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