Google on Thursday introduced a Google-branded high-resolution Chrome OS portable computer with a touchscreen, a shift that blurs the boundaries between keyboard-oriented laptops and touch-oriented tablets and between the company's mobile Android operating system and its Web-centric Chrome OS.
Fulfilling a prediction made late last year, Sundar Pichai, SVP of Chrome and apps, demonstrated the Chromebook Pixel, the first Chrome OS device aimed at power users, at a media event in San Francisco on Thursday.
Pichai described the Pixel as both as a fully engineered product and a reference device to show Google's hardware partners how a Chrome OS touchscreen device can work.
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The Chromebook Pixel features an Intel Core i5 processor and a 239 ppi screen. Pichai said the screen was "the highest resolution screen that's ever been shipped on a laptop." For the sake of comparison, the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display has a pixel density of 220 ppi.
Pichai also highlighted the device's speed. "It's an incredibly fast experience," he said. "In my personal experience, this is the fastest laptop I've used."
At 3.35 pounds, the Chromebook Pixel is about a pound heavier than Apple's MacBook Air, which appears to be the Pixel's primary competition, at least in terms of price. Despite its heft, the Pixel is a beautifully designed device, one that includes several custom-designed components. Pichai insists the Pixel compares favorably with Apple's ultraportable notebook.
"I think it will stand up very, very well against a Macbook Air," said Pichai. "... What you're getting from our hardware is in many ways far superior."
Google has partnered with Verizon to provide an LTE wireless connectivity option. It is providing Pixel buyers with 1 TB of Google Drive storage at no cost for three years. That much storage normally would cost about $600 annually.
The Wi-Fi version (32 GB) of the Chromebook Pixel is available for $1,299. It can be ordered through the Google Play store, with shipping scheduled in about one week. The LTE version (64 GB) costs $1,499. It is also available for order through Google Play, with shipping planned for April. On Friday, Best Buy will begin taking Chromebook Pixel orders.
To make the prospect of living in the cloud more appealing, Google is planning in three months to integrate Quickoffice (acquired by Google last year) into a future version of its Chrome browser and Chrome OS using its Native Client technology. This will allow Word and Excel documents to be opened and edited natively in Google Apps rather than converted to the Google Apps format. As a result, the Pixel should appeal to businesses that rely on Microsoft Office.
Google is also planning to release in its Chrome Web Store a Google+ Photos app that supports automatic photo uploading from SD cards.
Armed with a touchscreen, Chromebooks may be ready to transition from the role of understudy to star.
In October, Pichai described Chromebooks as a complement to existing PCs. And Google supported that sidekick role through its Chrome Remote Desktop software, a Chrome browser extension that lets Chrome OS users access and administer OS X or Windows computers from afar.
But the touch-oriented Pixel presents a challenge to personal computers running OS X, Linux or Windows, as well as tablets running Android. It aspires to be a primary computing device for those who want to "live in the cloud," as Pichai puts it.
Google first launched Chrome OS laptops with partners Acer and Samsung in mid-2011. Rather than trying to offer devices that were more powerful than leading PCs at the time, Google and its partners offered devices that were more affordable, more manageable and more secure.
Initially, Chromebooks sold poorly, but following the launch of second-generation devices in May 2012 and third-generation devices in October 2012, including an ARM-based Chromebook from Samsung, demand appeared to rise. Pichai noted that Samsung's recent model Chromebook has remained atop Amazon.com's laptop bestseller list for the entire 125-day period it has been available.
Some of the credit for rising Chromebook demand should go to Google for expanding the number of Chromebook kiosks at Best Buy stores. But Acer and Samsung played a part too by making Chromebook laptops more appealing.
Late last month, Acer said that Chromebooks accounted for between 5% to 10% of the company's U.S. computer shipments since the company released its C7 Chromebook in November. Based on IDC's Q4 2012 PC sales figures, it appears Acer sold somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 Chromebooks in the U.S.
Google to date has not released any official Chrome sales figures; two weeks ago, however, the company said that more than 2,000 schools are using Chromebooks, twice as many as were doing so three months earlier.
But the arrival of new Chromebook hardware partners is perhaps more revealing than sales figures. HP recently introduced its Pavilion Chromebook and Lenovo is about to release a ruggedized Chromebook for the education market. In addition, channel vendor CDW said earlier this month that it would begin selling Chromebooks to businesses and schools.
"We think this is a real game changer in terms of how people can start living in the cloud," said Pichai.