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?

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A screen that'll spoil your eyes

No two ways about it: The 2560 x 1700 display is the star of the Chromebook Pixel show. The 12.85-in. LCD packs a whopping 239 pixels per inch -- 4.3 million pixels total -- which Google proudly proclaims to be the highest pixel density of any laptop available today. (Yes, even higher than Apple's Retina-display MacBook Pro -- though at these levels, most people probably couldn't detect much of a visible difference between the two.)

Numbers are numbers, but what matters is how things look in the real world -- and let me tell you, this screen is positively stunning. If you don't plan on buying a Chromebook Pixel, you probably shouldn't spend too much time staring at it; once your eyes get used to this caliber of display, you'll resent looking at anything else.

A preloaded HD video demo called TimeScapes shows off the screen's full potential; the clip's brilliant colors and surreal clarity provide eye candy that'd delight even the most demanding screen aficionado. The Pixel's display quality isn't lost on more mundane types of day-to-day use: Text looks magnificently crisp and smooth, and images pop with gorgeous detail. Regardless of what type of content you're viewing, it's virtually impossible to make out any individual pixels with the naked eye.

The Chromebook Pixel uses a 3:2 aspect ratio, which results in a screen with a more vertical feel than is typical with the widescreen 16:9 format that's become common in laptops today. Google says it opted for the 3:2 setup because it makes more sense for the Web, where pages tend to be vertical rather than horizontal.

In practice, I didn't find myself even thinking about it: Browsing the Web just felt natural, with far more space to see the vertically oriented content. I actually found myself preferring the 3:2 setup all around, though users who spend a lot of time watching full-screen videos may resent the non-widescreen approach.

The touch factor

Quality aside, the standout feature of the Pixel's display is its touch-sensitive nature: You can use your finger to tap icons and links, scroll through Web pages and documents, and manipulate images in editing utilities. At first, I questioned the need for such functionality in the Chrome OS universe; by and large, after all, it isn't an environment that's really optimized for touch-based interactions.

The more time I've spent living with the Chromebook Pixel, though, the more I've come to appreciate having the touch option. Once you get over the initial awkwardness of reaching up and pressing your finger to the screen, it's strangely satisfying to move back and forth between mousing around on the trackpad and swiping around on the display.

When looking through a social network stream or reading a long article, for instance, using your finger to swipe through the page seems like a perfectly natural thing to do. Even more useful is the ability to pinch-to-zoom into a page -- an action that isn't yet activated by default but can be turned on in the chrome://flags settings. (By default, the Chromebook Pixel has pinch-to-zoom enabled only for certain apps, such as Google Maps.)

As someone who's used to interacting with smartphones and tablets, I found being able to use my fingers to zoom into a particular area of a page to be a welcome addition to the laptop experience. Several other gestures can be enabled, too, including a four-finger pinch to minimize a window; you can also enable an option to request tablet versions of websites if you want a more touch-friendly experience across the Web.

The Gorilla Glass-protected touchscreen has proven itself to be accurate and responsive in my time with the device. That said, there is a downside to all the touch-based interaction: You tend to get oily smudges on your screen, which can be rather distracting on a laptop computer. If you're going to reach out and touch the Pixel, you'll want to carry around a small cloth to wipe down the display from time to time.

All considered, touch support certainly isn't something you need in a laptop at this point, but it's one of those things you quickly grow to value, even if just for occasional use. It's also a natural progression in our increasingly touch-oriented world, and I suspect Chrome OS -- along with the Web itself -- will become even more suited to touch interactions in the months to come.

Good performance -- with a couple of caveats

Google describes the Chromebook Pixel as a high-end laptop for "power users living in the cloud." As such, the system boasts a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000) and 4GB of RAM, giving it significantly more horsepower than any other Chromebook model.

To Google's credit, the Pixel feels fast. The system boots in about seven seconds; once you've typed in your account credentials, it's just another second or two until you're online, in a browser window and ready to roll. The Pixel is snappy when opening new tabs and toggling among your various apps and windows. It's also very quiet; most of the time, you can barely even hear that it's running.

When it comes to more extreme computing, though, the Pixel -- much to my surprise -- sometimes shows signs of struggling. When I have 15 or more tabs open, the system frequently starts doing what's known as discarding tabs: taking background tabs out of active memory. The process is designed to manage memory and avoid having tabs crash or freeze up.

It's a sensible-enough concept in theory, but the result is that when you switch to a tab you haven't had open recently, the page immediately refreshes. The constant page refreshing can be time-consuming and distracting, and it also runs the risk of losing data -- if, say, you'd started typing an update into Google+ or Twitter but hadn't yet clicked the "post" button.

To be fair, I'm far from a normal user; most people don't regularly keep 15 to 20 tabs open at a time, and with as many as a dozen tabs open, the system purrs along admirably. There are also other factors involved, such as the number and types of extensions you have installed. But given the Pixel's horsepower -- not to mention its branding as a power-user device -- you'd think it would be able to handle a higher-level workload without having to resort to refreshing.

The weak point likely to affect more users is battery life: The laptop is listed for five hours of active use, a drop from the 6.5-hour level of the $249 Samsung Chromebook. I found that five-hour estimate to be pretty accurate: The system typically gave me between 4.5 and five hours of active use, depending on what I was doing, with another 45 minutes or so of standby time. That's not terrible, but it's also not great; if you're going to be out and about all day with this laptop, you'll definitely want to bring a charging cable and make sure you have access to an outlet.

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