Chromebook Pixel (2015) review: A cloud dweller's dream machine

Google's new high-end Chromebook dances with perfection -- but at $999, is this luxury laptop right for you?

Chrome OS enthusiasts are always clamoring for high-quality hardware -- cloud-centric laptops with solid construction, snappy performance and stunning displays. But the vast majority of Chromebooks cater to the budget end of the market.

Google set out to change that with its Chromebook Pixel, which launched just over two years ago. The Pixel was a luxury laptop for life in the cloud, designed to show off just how good of an experience Chrome OS could provide. But for all of its positives -- and boy, were there a lot of them -- the Pixel came with some serious compromises. Not least was its cost: The system sold for a cool $1,300, or $1,450 if you wanted a higher-end model with built-in LTE support.

Now Google is looking to one-up itself with its new second-generation Chromebook Pixel, on sale now in the company's online store. The new Pixel addresses nearly every weak point the original model had, including its price: Even with its many enhancements, the updated laptop costs $300 less than its predecessor, with a price of $999 for the base model.

That still isn't cheap, of course -- especially when you can get a perfectly decent midrange Chromebook for around $300. So is the high-end system worth the elevated cost? I've spent the past several days living with it to find out.

A beautiful and familiar form

The new Pixel looks almost identical to the original model -- and that's a good thing. Like its predecessor (which I've personally used for the past two years), the new Pixel sports a gorgeous design, premium materials and top-notch build quality that screams "high-end" from edge to edge. It has an anodized aluminum body with no visible vents, screws or branding beyond an understated text Chrome logo above the keyboard and an even subtler logo on its hinge.

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The new Chromebook Pixel (left) alongside the original model (right).

The hinge is the same high-quality "piano hinge" introduced on the first Pixel. It feels strong and sturdy and allows the laptop to open smoothly -- so much so that you can easily pop the lid up with a single finger.

The laptop's lid is minimalist as can be, with a smooth silver finish (just slightly lighter in color than the first-gen model) that is interrupted only by a thin lightbar at the top. The lightbar serves mainly as a decoration, illuminating in different colors while you use the device, but it also has a neat new function: You can tap on it twice when the lid is closed to turn it into a quick-glance battery indicator to see how much power your system has remaining.

03 chromebook pixel lightbar Google

You can tap on the lightbar twice when the lid is closed to turn it into a quick-glance battery indicator.

The only downside to the Pixel's design is that it doesn't make for the lightest laptop around. The device measures 11.7 x 8.8 x 0.6 in. and weighs 3.3 lb. -- about the same dimensions as the last model. For perspective, that's slightly smaller -- yet about a third of a pound heavier -- than Apple's 13-in. MacBook Air. The Pixel is quite comfortable to use and doesn't feel at all clunky, but it's more aptly described as solid than svelte.

That screen -- oh my, that screen

Inside the metal exterior sits the Pixel's stunning 12.85-in. 2560 x 1700 IPS touchscreen display. The screen maintains the first model's 239-pixel-per-inch density, which is no less impressive today than it was when it debuted two years ago. Images on the Pixel are impossibly detailed and sharp, with brilliant colors and clarity that borders on being surreal. Even viewing something as mundane as a document is delightful, given how crisp and smooth the text appears.

The new Pixel's display is actually a slight upgrade over the first model's: Google says the new device's screen has a broader color range for even more vivid imaging. When I closely examine the two side-by-side, I can see that some images in the new model do appear marginally more brilliant, while whites appear a bit more pure -- but realistically speaking, the difference is incredibly subtle. Perhaps more significant is the fact that the new Pixel's screen consumes less power than the original's -- something that has a very apparent benefit when it comes to battery life (which we'll get to in a moment).

The fact that the Pixel's screen is touch-enabled is (pardon the pun) a nice touch that warrants a mention. While touch-based interaction is by no means something you need on a laptop, I've found it to be a welcome addition -- especially given how accustomed I've grown to interacting with a screen on smartphones and tablets. Whether it's reaching up and scrolling through a page while I'm reading, pinching the screen when I want to zoom into something or simply tapping the display to move through photos in a gallery, having that option is a helpful bonus that feels right at home with my modern-day gadget habits.

And with Google slowly but surely making Android apps available to run on Chrome OS, it's not hard to see how having a touchscreen on a Chromebook could become increasingly beneficial over time. (If you're using a Chromebook right now, you can see a list of the Android apps currently available on Chrome OS by visiting the Android app page of the Chrome Web Store. That link won't work properly from a Windows or Mac system, however, since those apps can't be installed on those platforms.)

04 chromebook pixel android apps

The Chromebook Pixel's touchscreen makes it easier to interact with Android apps, like Vine, that run on Chrome OS.

It's also worth noting that the Pixel uses a relatively uncommon 3:2 aspect ratio, which results in a screen that's less oblong and elongated than the 16:9 widescreen setup common in laptops today. Google went that route because it felt the format made sense for the Web, where pages tend to be vertical rather than horizontal -- and in practice, it really does feel quite natural and appropriate. You will see a bit of letterboxing when you watch movies full-screen on the device -- about three-quarters of an inch of black space on the screen's top and bottom edges -- but the display is large enough that I barely even notice.

The Chromebook Pixel has a 720p webcam above its display for video chatting and casual hair-checking. In a new twist from the first-gen device, the camera features a wide-angle lens to let you capture a wider area of space -- something that could be useful if, say, you plan on chatting with multiple people and/or a hippopotamus beside you.

A best-in-class keyboard and trackpad

Typing on the Chromebook Pixel is a true treat. Like the first-gen model, the new laptop has a luxurious-feeling keyboard with strong and properly spaced chiclet keys that have just the right amount of resistance. The keyboard is backlit, too, with an intelligent system that adjusts its brightness based on both ambient lighting and how you're using the computer.

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The Pixel's keyboard and trackpad.

When you watch a full-screen video, for instance, the keyboard lights slowly fade down and stay off until you're finished. This year's model also introduces a new trick in which the keyboard lights automatically turn off when your hands are away for 30 seconds and then automatically come back on when your fingers return (made possible by a proximity-detecting sensor hidden in the trackpad).

The keyboard itself is slightly reworked from last year's model: The top row of keys now matches the chiclet style of the other rows instead of taking on a more closely connected bar-like form, as it did on the previous-generation device. The bar-like configuration created an attractive and distinctive visual effect but made the keys harder to identify by touch alone, so the change -- while it may take a little getting used for those accustomed to the previous Pixel -- is generally a positive evolution.

Artfully hidden beneath the keyboard are the Chromebook Pixel's speakers. In my original Pixel review, I praised the first-gen device as having some of the best-sounding speakers I'd ever experienced on a laptop, with loud, crisp and full-sounding audio. I was surprised, then, when I played music on the new Pixel and found its audio quality to be rather underwhelming; in my side-by-side comparison with the first-gen device, the difference was striking. (When asked, a Google rep assured me that the new Pixel's speaker quality is comparable to the old model's and that this appears to be a fluke defect specific to my review unit.)

[Update: After hearing complaints from some early adopters that echoed my observations on audio quality, I reached out to Google to inquire further about the new Pixel's speaker configuration. Upon further investigation, a representative informed me the speakers used on the first- and second-gen Pixel devices are, in fact, different sizes and shapes, and that the laptop's internal configuration has also evolved. Consequently, the two models are "tuned differently" in terms of audio and may not sound the same when played side by side.]

The Pixel's trackpad, meanwhile, is as good as it gets: Made of etched glass, the rectangular pad feels soft and smooth and is wonderfully accurate and responsive. It's similar to the trackpad on the previous Pixel model, only slightly more recessed in the laptop's surface and without the darkened tint that made it stand out from the rest of the system.

A smarter approach to ports and charging

One significant upgrade in the 2015 Chromebook Pixel is the fact that the laptop has two reversible USB Type-C ports -- one on either side of the device. Either port can be used for charging or for connecting the display to an external monitor (and yes, you can do both at the same time). Google tells me USB Type-C will be making its way to Android devices soon as well, which means the same charger you'll have for a future phone or tablet will also work with this laptop.

USB-C, if you aren't familiar with it, is the up-and-coming new standard for mobile device connectivity being adopted even by Apple. USB-C connectors are the same size as the micro-USB standard used on Android devices now, but they're more durable and fully reversible -- so you don't have to futz around to figure out which way the cable fits (and boy, is that a pleasant surprise every time you plug something in!). The cables transmit ten times the power of their micro-USB equivalents, too, and they automatically detect how much power is needed from one device to the next.

On top of that, the new Pixel uses "fast-charging algorithms" that allow it to gain two hours of battery life with just 15 minutes of being plugged in or a complete charge with only about an hour and a half in an outlet. Being able to power up that quickly can be a formidable perk, especially when you're pressed for time and need to juice up fast. Equally handy is the fact that you can charge the Pixel from either side, since there's a USB-C port on both the left and right of the laptop.

The Pixel's USB-C ports support DisplayPort natively and can send video out via HDMI with an adapter. Google is selling all the cables and adapters you might need -- $40 for a USB-C-to-DisplayPort cable, $40 for a USB-C-to-HDMI adapter and $13 for a USB-C-to-USB-A cable or adapter (with which you could charge the Pixel via any other device with a traditional USB connector). Extra universal USB-C chargers are available for $60, meanwhile, though each Pixel ships with one in its box.

In addition to the two USB-C ports, the new Pixel has two USB 3.0 ports for "legacy" peripheral connections.

Performance, stamina and storage

Let's make this part easy: The new Chromebook Pixel is ridiculously fast, with a level of performance unmatched in the Chrome OS realm. With a 5th-generation (Broadwell) Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 2.2GHz and a hearty 8GB of RAM, the Pixel is consistently snappy and ready to handle anything you throw its way.

The laptop boots up in about four to five seconds and -- once you've entered your password (or simply clicked through, if you have an Android phone configured to keep your Chromebook unlocked) -- has you online and ready to roll another second or two after that. I tend to do an abnormally high level of multitasking, with as many as 15 to 20 tabs open at a time, and the system still flies even in those admittedly extreme circumstances. I've been using the device for all of my day-to-day work and have yet to see a single stutter, slowdown or sign of lag.

Of course, the original Pixel was no slouch, either -- and even with its updated hardware, the new Pixel is really only a hair ahead of its predecessor in real-world use. When I've compared the devices side by side, the new model boots up about three to four seconds faster than the original and is typically a second or two speedier in page-loading time. The new Pixel's performance is stupendous, but the original version set a bar that's still difficult to surpass by much.

That being said, the new Pixel does blow its predecessor away in a couple of important performance-related areas. First, the second-gen system is consistently cool and quiet -- practically silent -- while running, whereas the first-gen model had a nasty habit of getting hot and loud. (You can thank a new dual-fan configuration under the hood for that improvement.)

Second, and perhaps most significant, the new Pixel has outstanding battery life -- up to 12 hours per charge, according to Google, compared to about five on the previous model. With heavy multitasking, I've been hitting closer to nine hours per charge, which is still perfectly respectable for resource-intensive use. When I've used the laptop in a more typical manner -- with a few tabs open at a time instead of 20 -- I've come much closer to reaching that 12-hour mark. The stamina would likely be even better if the display were dimmed down from its default level of about 63% (where I've left it for testing purposes).

The Chromebook Pixel includes a 32GB solid-state drive for local storage -- substantially less than what you'll find on most comparably priced Windows or Mac laptops, which isn't surprising given this system's cloud-centric focus. The Pixel does have an SD card slot for external storage expansion, however, and the device comes with a full terabyte of cloud-based Google Drive storage for three years. That level of Drive storage would typically cost you $9.99 a month, so almost $360 over the same three-year span. (After the three years have elapsed, any files you've stored will remain in your account and accessible, but your available free space will drop back down to the standard 15GB level.)

Google is also selling a higher-end version of the Pixel, incidentally, that has a 5th-generation Intel Core i7 processor with 16GB of RAM and a 64GB solid-state drive. That laptop is priced at $1,299. Quite honestly, it's tough to imagine many situations where that level of horsepower would be necessary or even beneficial with Chrome OS; for the vast majority of people, there's simply no need to spend the extra $300.

One model that's missing compared to the last go-round is a device with built-in LTE connectivity. Google tells me it found most consumers were tethering to their phones instead of paying extra for an LTE-enabled laptop, so it decided to keep costs down by eliminating production of that option.

Bottom line

Some pundits are quick to pooh-pooh the idea of a high-end laptop for cloud-centric computing, but dismissing the Pixel for not being able to run traditional PC programs is missing the point.

The Pixel is intended to be a luxury laptop for people who rely primarily on Web-based services and are committed to the Chrome OS concept. The pros and cons of that platform are a whole other discussion (see my three-question quiz for a quick overview), but there's no reason you can't prefer that type of environment and also want high-end hardware that's exceptionally nice to use.

It's no different than paying more for a top-of-the-line Windows or Mac machine, if those are the platforms you prefer. In either scenario, a lower-end system can certainly get the job done, but the difference between using it and using a high-end device is akin to the contrast between driving a budget car and cruising around in a luxury sedan.

As far as laptops go, the new Pixel is remarkably close to perfection. It's a pleasure to use in almost every possible way -- and if you can justify its cost, it'll make life in the cloud feel like a first-class dream.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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