Chromebook Pixel review: A luxury laptop for life in the cloud

We take a deep-dive look into Google's new Chromebook, which has high-quality hardware and an amazing touch-based display. But at $1,300, is it the laptop for you?

If you're considering Google's new Chromebook Pixel computer, there's something you should know: It isn't your typical laptop. And depending on your perspective, that could feel like a revelation or a travesty.

The Chromebook Pixel, introduced on February 21st, is the latest hardware to run Google's Chrome OS operating system. It's also the first laptop designed by Google itself as opposed to a third-party partner. The Pixel is available now in Wi-Fi-only form for $1,299; an LTE-enabled edition is expected to ship in April for $1,449. (The LTE version will also include 100MB of data per month from Verizon for two years with the option to purchase additional monthly or day-based passes).

Google's Chromebook Pixel
Google's Chromebook Pixel offers a clean, lightweight design, a touchscreen and Google's Chrome OS.

Compared to other Chrome OS devices, like the popular $249 Samsung Chromebook, the Pixel's price is eye-catchingly high. And that's a large part of what's inspiring some impassioned debates over the laptop's true value.

So what's the Chromebook Pixel actually like to use -- and is it worth the cost? I've been using the device in place of my own personal computer for the past several days. Here's what I've found.

Beautiful, high-quality hardware

It's hard to find much to complain about with the Chromebook Pixel's body. It's a beautifully designed laptop; the level of thought put into its construction is immediately apparent the moment you pick it up.

The Pixel feels substantial in your hands, and it's no surprise: The laptop is made from anodized aluminum, giving it a high-end, luxurious vibe. The Pixel is 11.7 x 8.8 x 0.64 in. and weighs 3.4 lb. It's noticeably heavier than the aforementioned Samsung Chromebook, which weighs 2.5 lb., but that's what happens when you trade a plasticky construction for a more metal-based build. The Pixel doesn't feel bulky or uncomfortable to hold; it just feels solid and well-constructed.

The computer has a sleek and minimalist design, with no visible vents or screws anywhere on its surface. Even the printing is kept to a minimum, with a simple text "Chrome" logo on the spine being the only marking on the entire exterior.

There is one design-related indulgence: a multicolored light bar that sits on the device's outer lid. The bar lights up with Google colors when the system powers up and when you close the lid; during regular use, it glows a bluish color, with an occasional lighter-colored flare passing through. Functional? Nah. But it's a distinctive visual touch that adds to the system's appeal.

The left side of the laptop has a charging port, a Mini DisplayPort, two USB ports (USB 2.0, unfortunately -- a minor chink in the Pixel's armor), and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side, meanwhile, houses an SD/MMC memory card slot and a SIM card slot for the LTE-enabled model. Curiously absent is a dedicated HDMI port; if you need that functionality, you'll have to pick up a generic Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter -- available for about $5 to $10 -- to fill the void.

So where are the speakers? They're artfully hidden beneath the keyboard, so you never actually see them -- but boy, do you hear them. The Chromebook Pixel has some of the best-sounding speakers I've experienced on a laptop, with loud, crisp and relatively full-sounding audio. The speaker placement propels the sound right up at you, too: Music played at full volume actually borders on being uncomfortably loud when you're sitting close to the computer.

The Chromebook Pixel has a 720 HD webcam above its screen for video chatting. It has an unusual triple-microphone setup -- two near the camera and one below the keyboard -- which is supposed to help cancel out ambient noise and typing sounds during video and audio calls. It's a nice idea in theory, though I found it difficult to tell how much of a difference it really made.

A best-in-class keyboard and trackpad

Chromebooks have always had terrific keyboards, and the Chromebook Pixel is no exception. The laptop manages to improve upon previous models with a re-engineered bedding that results in the keys feeling stronger and more resistant beneath your fingers. The keyboard is also backlit, with an intelligent system that adjusts the lighting based on both the ambient lighting and what you're doing; when you watch a full-screen video, for instance, the keyboard lights slowly fade down and then remain off until you're finished.

The keyboard follows the typical Chrome OS layout, which replaces the caps-lock key with a universal search key and the top row of function keys with platform-specific commands -- Web-centric things like moving back a page, moving forward and refreshing, along with system-based functions like maximizing a window and adjusting the display brightness.

The top row of keys breaks from the previous chiclet style and instead has a bar-like appearance, with short horizontal keys that butt directly against each other. The setup creates a nice visual effect, framing the top of the keyboard, though it does make those keys a bit harder to identify by touch alone.

Last, but not least, is the trackpad, which represents an enormous improvement over past Chromebook devices. The Pixel's trackpad is made from etched glass, and the effort put into its design does not go to waste. The trackpad feels fantastic under your fingers -- soft and smooth -- and it's accurate and responsive. The pad supports both tapping and clicking; it has support for a limited range of gestures, too, such as a two-fingered movement to scroll horizontally or vertically in a page.

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