Chromebook Pixel revisited: 6 months living with Google's luxury laptop

Google Chrome OS

October's turning out to be the Month of Chromebooks. So far, we've had the HP Chromebook 11, the HP Chromebook 14, and the Acer C720 Chromebook dangled in front of our eager muzzles. And there's still a Toshiba-made Chromebook on the way this fall (though we don't know much about it yet).

Each of these Chromebooks has its own advantage -- design and build quality with the Chromebook 11, size and performance with the 14, and affordable power with the Acer -- but they all also have something in common: They're low-cost, entry-level systems. And consequently, in one way or another, they all require a certain level of compromise.

Chromebook Pixel

That's where the Chromebook Pixel comes into play. The Pixel, launched earlier this year, is a nearly compromise-free Chrome OS device. It's about as high-end as you can get, and its price reflects that quality: The Pixel sells for $1300, or $1450 if you want a higher-storage LTE model.

After reviewing the Chromebook Pixel, I ended up purchasing one of my own when the LTE version became available in April. Since we're looking at so many new Chromebooks right now, I thought it'd be a good time to reflect on my six months with the Pixel and share some updated thoughts on how it fits into my life.

So fasten your seatbelts, kiddos -- here we go:

• Plain and simple, the Chromebook Pixel is the nicest computer I've ever used. The design and build quality are simply out of this world; even the most elegant low-cost Chromebook is in a completely different league.

Chromebook Pixel

• Six months later, the laptop is just as impressive as it was when I bought it. Hardware quality aside, that speaks volumes about the benefits of Chrome OS: With the ongoing automatic software updates and lack of traditional OS bloat, Chromebooks really do get faster, more efficient, and more feature-rich over time. 

• I now use the Pixel almost every day. I still have a Windows tower in my office that I use in conjunction with the laptop, but I consider the Pixel my primary system. There's not much I need to do that I can't accomplish on it, and nine times out of 10, I'd rather work on the Pixel than anything else.

Chromebook Pixel Desktop

Interestingly, my work flow is about the same on a Windows desktop as it is on a Chrome OS device these days: I use Google Docs for word processing and Gmail for email. I increasingly use the various Pixlr apps (which work both online and offline) instead of Photoshop for image editing. And all of my files are synced somewhere on the cloud and thus equally accessible on any computer, phone, or tablet I'm using.

The difference for me is that on a Chromebook, I don't have to deal with all the hassles of traditional computing -- things like bloated and bogged down software, messy drivers, virus protection, and cumbersome software updates. The system boots up and is ready to use in seconds. And all my stuff -- apps, data, and settings -- is synced seamlessly from device to device. I can sign into my wife's Chromebook or any other device and everything instantly looks and works exactly the way I want with no effort on my behalf.  

The cloud-centric environment isn't going to be right for everyone, but for someone who works the way I do, its advantages are invaluable. 

• The display -- man, oh man, the display. Other computers have perfectly passable screens, but this one is downright luxurious. Once you get used to looking at it, it spoils your eyes for anything else. Staring into the Pixel never gets old.

Chromebook Pixel

As for the touch aspect, I'm definitely a fan of having that functionality in place. With the amount of time we spend using smartphones and tablets these days, being able to reach out and touch a screen feels quite natural (how many times have you seen someone inadvertently try to scroll or pinch a display on a standard laptop?).

I don't use the Pixel's touchscreen every minute of every day, but it's nice to be able to reach up and tap something, scroll down a page, or pinch in to zoom when I feel the urge.

• Much as I like using tablets and touchscreens, you can't beat a real keyboard for text input -- and the Pixel's keyboard makes me resent typing on anything else. The high-quality keys, spot-on resistance, and backlit nature of the keyboard are truly first-rate. Again, even the best entry-level Chromebook is in a different class. The same goes for the trackpad.

• The speakers, hidden beneath the keyboard, are good enough that I can happily watch TV and movies on the Pixel and forget I'm using a computer. With music, the audio quality is such that I often don't even bother connecting to a Bluetooth speaker. 

• The newer low-cost Haswell Chromebooks deliver solid performance that's more than sufficient for most regular use. Even so, the Pixel is the Lamborghini to their Toyota; Chrome OS has never been this fast.

I tend to keep a ridiculous number of tabs open at once, and the Pixel handles it all with high-octane grace. That's a distinct change from when I first reviewed the system: Back then, the Pixel would inexplicably stutter in those sorts of extreme usage scenarios, with an annoying background tab-refreshing behavior (officially known as "discarding") that drove me nuts.

Shortly after I bought a Pixel of my own, I discovered that enabling zRAM -- a hidden but relatively simple task -- fixed the problem. Google has since enabled zRAM by default in Chrome OS, so the auto-tab-refreshing is thankfully a thing of the past.

Chromebook Pixel LTE

• The option for LTE connectivity isn't unique to the Chromebook Pixel -- other devices, including the new Chromebook 14, also offer that functionality -- but in terms of my own personal Pixel-using experience, it's been a tremendous asset. I can't count the number of times I've found myself without reliable Internet access for one reason or another, whether sitting in an airport, in a hotel, or in my own home while the Wi-Fi's down, and switched seamlessly over to the Pixel's LTE connection as a superspeedy backup.

Sure, I can always connect my Android phone to the computer via USB and tether that way, too, but having the connectivity built directly into the laptop makes things much easier (and avoids draining my phone battery as well, which is important especially for the travel-oriented circumstances). Plus, given that the Pixel utilizes Verizon and my own personal phone is currently connected to T-Mobile, it doubles my chances of getting a solid network connection (again, important especially while working on the road).

• The Pixel's Achilles' heel is still battery life. Five hours is about the max you can get out of this machine, and that isn't a great amount. When I take the laptop out to travel (it's typically the only computer I bring with me when covering tech events), I always have to carry the charger and think about finding a place to plug in midway through the day.

• Speaking of chargers, after spending time with the Chromebook 11 this month, I really wish the Pixel could charge via micro-USB in addition to its own proprietary setup. The computer's charging brick is pretty damn bulky to lug around, and it'd sure be nice to have a standard-based option that'd work with the rest of my devices.

• Another bit of Chromebook 11-inspired envy: the system's dead-silent nature. The Pixel isn't too loud most of the time, but when it really gets going, it does have a mildly annoying fan noise that kicks in. Gotta love nitpicky first-world problems.

• One last minor gripe: the heat. The Pixel gets pretty hot when it runs, to the point where its aluminum casing can be slightly uncomfortable against bare skin. It's by no means a deal-breaker in the big picture, but it's a little bothersome at times -- particularly during the warmer summer months.

All in all, my take on the Pixel is pretty similar to when I first reviewed it: It's a fantastic high-end luxury option for users sold on the Chrome OS concept -- people like me who rely heavily on cloud storage and spend most of their time using Web-based apps and services.

Like with any luxury item, the level of quality it delivers certainly isn't something anyone needs -- you can obviously get by fine with a lower-end system -- but its premium nature is something a lot of people want. It's no different than dropping extra dough on a high-end car because you enjoy the elevated quality it offers. The Pixel just happens to be a luxury computer -- one that's geared toward folks who prefer a cloud-centric environment over a traditional OS configuration.

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Whether we're talking cars or computers, you get what you pay for -- and for me, the Pixel's been worth every penny I spent.

[Chromebook Pixel revisited, redux: Updated thoughts one year later]

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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