Google Chromebook Pixel: Hands-On Review

Aspiring to be more than just a browser-in-a-box, the Chromebook Pixel shows that Google can deliver head-turning technology.
Google Chromebook Pixel: Visual Tour
Google Chromebook Pixel: Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The Software
If you download Google Chrome for free and install it on your Mac or Windows computer, you will have a very similar software experience to any Pixel user. Web pages may not look as vivid, unless you're using a MacBook Pro with Retina display or a current model iPad, but otherwise there's not much difference.

Chrome OS has improved immensely since last May when the software was updated to conform more with the traditional desktop metaphor. Prior to that, when the Chrome browser window was locked in place, Chrome OS felt confining.

The Pixel does offer a strong startup experience. It's easy to set up and easy to use. The help options are genuinely helpful. But browsing the Web isn't particularly difficult on any platform.

Chromebook users have alternatives to traditional software -- Google Apps instead of Microsoft Office or Apple iWork; Hangouts instead of Skype or Facetime; Google Play Music instead of iTunes or Windows Media Player -- but for many, Web apps just aren't an adequate substitute for certain native OS X and Windows applications.

Whether this is a function of habit or genuine shortcomings, Google has addressed this issue for Office users. In three months, Google expects to integrate Quickoffice into Chrome via its Native Client technology. This will allow Chrome users to open and edit Word and Excel documents natively rather than translating them into Google Docs format.

Chrome OS has also come a long way in terms of working offline. Google still considers offline usage "rare" -- a worldview perhaps informed by Google's interest in serving ads over network connections -- but many of the company's major online apps like Gmail, Docs and Calendar now can be used offline.

For most computer users who don't depend on specific native applications, Chrome OS is a perfectly viable alternative to OS X, Linux or Windows. It also has noteworthy security and maintenance advantages.

The Pixel's Reason For Being
Pichai said that the design philosophy that guided the creation of Google's Chrome browser, to get the browser out of the way of the user's experience, also guided the creation of Pixel.

"The philosophy [behind Chrome] is that, as a user, you actually don't care about the browser," he said. "You want the browser to get out of your way. You want to be immersed in what you're doing inside. You want to be immersed in the applications and the content you see within the browser. That core philosophy powers the Pixel. We literally want the computer to disappear so that all you are doing is spending time immersed in the content of what you're doing. So you will see a lot of design choices arising out of that concern."

But Google didn't design the Pixel to fade into the background, and potential customers probably aren't planning to pay $1,300 or more for a machine that vanishes behind the browser. Google designed the Pixel to show what's possible rather than what's practical, profitable or prudent. It's a shot across the bow, or the browser.

The Pixel is a reference design for Google's future as a hardware company. Like a high-end sports car or $10,000 watch, it's a device few actually need but many will want, whether or not they actually buy one. It will delight Web developers who can afford to splurge and will demonstrate that living in the cloud, Google-style, can be done in high style. It will amplify the message that Samsung has been singing, that Apple no longer has a monopoly on innovation and industrial design.