Long before the Chromebook Pixel was released, I, and surely many other Chromebook users, begged Google to create a high-end laptop that would allow technology professionals to use the Chrome OS to its fullest. To really give it a run against our high-end MacBook Pros and PC workstations, Google would have to throw more than the repurposed netbook hardware that OEMs like Samsung, Acer, HP, and others were giving this operating system.

Google’s Pixel is that high-end machine, but does it stack up where it needs to? First, the good:

I’m a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro user, and I have an older MacBook Air. This machine fits in between these two machines size-wise, and, with a 12.85-inch 3:2 display, it probably feels similar to the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. It is a good size and the hardware feels awesome. The hinge is solid and creates a great antenna. I like the 3:2 “tall” display that goes against the 16:9 resolution that has become the standard in PCs as of late. There is more display to work with, and it makes that 12.85-inch display much more useful when browsing web pages.

The LTE is fantastic and feels indistinguishable from fast Wi-Fi. The model I’m using came equipped with Verizon’s LTE built in (which I really wish Apple would include in their MacBooks). Verizon phones don’t get 4G where I live, so the fact that the Chromebook can pick up an LTE signal means it is an incredibly strong radio receivers. Built-in LTE trumps a Mi-Fi or phone tethering, because that extra hop, latency, and packet loss is always noticeable and really a pain point to me.

An important note for commuters: As I pulled into the Grand Central Tunnel, the modem didn’t step down to 3G as my Verizon phones usually do. The Pixel’s wireless just turned off. I’m not sure if this thing has a regular CDMA radio for Verizon or if it just doesn’t function correctly in this situation.

The display is simply amazing, and it is right up there with the Apple Retina displays. As I said before, I enjoy the ‘tall’ 3:2 display that shows more of a website (100 lines to be exact) than you would see on Apple’s display. Adding touch is a nice gimmick and fun for things like maps, but I didn’t find myself using or even remembering the feature in my use. My kids, on the other hand, who are raised on touch displays of iOS devices and Androids, love the touch display and specifically ask for the Chromebook so they can play Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope on a laptop.

The build quality in general is very impressive, especially for a first go, but it is heavy for people who are used to a MacBook Air, Ultrabook, or Netbook. The dark metal alloy feels strong, and there is little in the way of creaking or bending in normal usage. The hinge is incredibly solid and acts as an antenna for multiple radios. The speakers, as far as I can tell, are located beneath the keyboard keys and sound great. The vibrations are a little disconcerting, however, when typing and having music going loudly together.

The keyboard in my particular unit felt a bit more “rattle-y” than what I’m used to, but it’s not something that can’t be easily overcome. The trackpad is awesome. I had absolutely no problem going back and forth between a MacBook Pro and the Pixel.

The software experience overall is pretty great. As you’d expect, it starts up almost immediately from sleep and in a few seconds from power off. There were very few hiccups in my testing, and things worked as they should. I should note that Google claims you get 3 years of 1TB cloud space with the Pixel (an $1,800 value), but, when I signed up, it only said 2 years (a $1,200 value). Either way, if you are paying for that space now, you might as well get a $1,299 Pixel “for free.”

The key metric:

As for the performance, it is great but not a game changer. I think this is where the Chromebook should have blown me away. Instead, web browsing was “as good” as a high-end MacBook Air or a base model MacBook Pro. Sunspider JavaScript benchmarks came in the 500ms range—which is about half the speed as my high-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro running Chrome. The flagship Chrome OS laptop should have the fastest web browser in the world bar none, and it shouldn’t lag behind similar competitors. Sure, the processor, RAM, and GPU on the 15-inch MacBook Pro are specced higher, but they also have to carry a full OS while Chrome is just a browser.

The downsides:

Samsung’s $249 Chromebook actually beats the $1,299 Pixel in a number of areas. That’s not a good thing, Google. If you want fast-transfer of your camera photos up to the cloud, you can get them there faster with the USB 3 port on the Samsung Chromebook rather than the USB 2.0 ports on the Pixel. Battery life? Google claims 5 hours for the Chromebook, and that seems reasonable for my testing, but the ARM-powered Samsung gets 6.5 hours. That’s significant. It is also much lighter and more portable than the Pixel. Obviously, the $249 price is worlds away from the Pixel as well.

The biggest hindrance is obviously the browser-based Chrome OS. I still use a multi-account Twitter app, Image editing apps, iTunes, Skype/IM, and a few other apps sporadically that can’t be substituted on the Chromebook. I can get by without them or find solutions (like having Twitter accounts open in incognito windows for instance) for limited amounts of time, but I’m still hindered. The tools just aren’t there yet.

Conclusion:

If I were going to justify a high-end Chromebook, it would have to do something way better than my current MacBook Pro to make up for its lack of apps. The touch screen is nice and using the built-in LTE is certainly better than tethering, especially with the plans that Google has negotiated with Verizon (100MB free per month and discounted rates after that), but it doesn’t make up for Chrome OS’s shortcomings.

Here’s a checklist of people who should get this computer:

  • If you buy 500GB-1TB of storage for Google Drive already, you will save money by buying this computer and getting 1TB of free space for 3 years. This is actually a no-brainer.
  • If you only work in the Google cloud and find benefit from a touch screen and built-in LTE, the Chromebooks benefits may outweigh its shortcomings.
  • If you have a lot of money and you never want to think about upgrading a computer or calling tech support again.
  • If you work at Google or Google Cloud-based company and your IT folks say you should.

That’s not to say Google isn’t on the right track. As it has been said, Google appears to be getting better at what Apple does (hardware) faster than Apple is getting better at what Google does (services). I remember the original MacBook Air was an overpriced, underpowered first effort from Apple that wasn’t very popular. However, as prices came way down and performance improved dramatically, the MacBook Air hit a sweet spot for many users. I think the Pixel could be the great start in this direction. If Google can solve more of the native app gaps, hit an $800 price point, and boast the fastest web browser on earth, this might make a great machine for someone who doesn’t work at Google.

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