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posted: 3/2/2013 7:49 AM

Review: Google's Chromebook Pixel is upscale overkill

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  • Google is adding a new touch to its line of Chrome laptops in an attempt to outshine personal computers running on software made by rivals Microsoft and Apple.

      Google is adding a new touch to its line of Chrome laptops in an attempt to outshine personal computers running on software made by rivals Microsoft and Apple.
    Associated Press

 
By Rich Jaroslovsky, Bloomberg

I'm writing these words on a lovely new laptop. It's thin, light and made of machined aluminum, but it isn't a MacBook. It's got a beautiful touch screen, but it isn't a Microsoft Surface Pro.

It's the Google Chromebook Pixel, and the most striking thing about it is neither the design nor the screen. It's the price tag.

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Google's spent the last few years trying to establish its Chrome Operating System as a viable competitor to Windows and Apple's OS X by partnering with manufacturers like Samsung, Acer and Hewlett-Packard to produce inexpensive laptops.

But with the Pixel, it's taken on the hardware responsibility itself and gone decidedly upscale in the process. The new machine, available from Google Play online and at Best Buy stores, costs $1,299 for a Wi-Fi- only model with 32 gigabytes of flash-memory storage, or $1,449 for one with 64 gigabytes and the ability to also connect to Verizon Wireless's speedy 4G LTE network.

That's a lot of money for a computer whose usefulness is limited when it isn't connected to the Internet, and that costs even more than comparable Apple- and Windows-powered machines unencumbered by that concern.

The Chrome OS is, essentially, a Web browser. The idea behind it is that most everything you do exists not on the computer itself, but on the Internet.

Google Docs

Need to write something or create a slideshow? Open the word-processing or presentation applications in Google Docs. Want to save it? Use your online storage space in Google Drive. Want more apps? Choose them from the Chrome Web store, use them, and they go away when you're done until you summon them again.

Living in the cloud like that doesn't require a lot of computing power; pretty much all you need is an Internet connection. Acer is currently selling a Chromebook for as little as $199 that does nearly all that the six-times-costlier Pixel does.

You do get a lot with the Pixel, starting with a whopping terabyte of online Google Drive storage free for three years, and a dozen free sessions of GoGo's in-flight Internet access to address one of the most common connection-less situations.

Physically, the new Chromebook is as handsome as any laptop this side of a MacBook. It weighs 3.35 pounds and, with the lid down, measures little more than half an inch thick. A thin strip of lights across the back glows with Google's signature colors, or delivers coded status reports. (Red means "charge me.")

Dazzling Display

Lift the lid and you meet the Pixel's dazzling touch display. The 12.85-inch screen is unusually proportioned, with a 3:2 aspect ratio that Google says was chosen to optimize it for viewing Web pages over, say, widescreen videos. It's gorgeous, with a pixel density of 239 per inch that the company says is the highest on any laptop.

Under the hood are components that compare well with other high-end competitors, including the solid-state storage, an Intel Core i5 processor and four gigabytes of memory. But here's the thing: In a Chromebook, a lot of this stuff is unnecessary.

Having a touch screen is certainly nice -- but Google Docs isn't particularly optimized for touch, nor are many Web pages. A Core i5 is useful when you're powering through Windows 8 or Mac applications, but here it's overkill, plain and simple.

Costly Overkill

And overkill at a cost that isn't just reflected in the price: Perhaps a less potent processor would be less of a drain on the Pixel's battery life.

Google claims it gets five hours of use, which is 23 percent less than even the $249 Chromebook from partner Samsung. I got even less: not much over four hours when I was doing nothing more strenuous than streaming video over Wi-Fi. I also found the battery drained after a couple of days in sleep mode, a stark contrast to, say, Apple's MacBook Air, which can sleep for weeks and still hold its charge.

As for the Chrome OS, it's much more usable than in its early days. There are more things you can do offline, and synchronization with the cloud is transparent when you are connected.

Still, I continued to encounter odd glitches and ambiguous error messages, particularly when the Pixel was in the process of reconnecting to the cloud after being awakened from slumber.

My guess is that Google doesn't really expect to sell a bunch of Pixels. It seems more like a statement that Chromebooks can be high-end as well as low, and that Google is capable of crafting beautiful hardware that compares favorably with its competitors.

Personally, I'd find the statement a lot more compelling at half the price.

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