Google's announcement last week of the Chromebook Pixel — a Chromebook device with a high-end computer pricetag and design ethos — caught the industry by surprise. After a brief play with one of the devices, I've reached the same conclusion as many other testers: it's gorgeous, but it's an utterly pointless waste of money for an IT professional who actually wants to get stuff done.
In Australia, the entire Chromebook concept remains a novelty: there have been no official releases of any of the Chromebook models to date, so the only people using them are those who are so keen on the idea of using Chrome as their entire OS that they're willing to import one. The majority of Chromebook machines so far have been bargain-priced, slotting into that budget-conscious segment of the market where netbooks once resided before being all but abandoned in favour of tablets.
Compared to tablets, Chromebooks have the advantage (like netbooks) of a built-in keyboard, but they suffer a serious lack of apps compared to any computer, tablet or mobile out there. They belong to a niche market: people who type a lot but are happy purely to use Gmail and Google Docs, supplemented with the odd HTML5 app. I don't doubt that's a real market, but it doesn't include developers, designers, video editors, or anyone who needs word processor or spreadsheet software with more than ultra-basic functionality. Unfortunately, that doesn't change no matter how much you beef up the specs.
The Pixel is certainly different to its Chromebook predecessors. Its specs — a 239 pixels-per-inch 12.85 inch Gorilla Glass touch screen, an Intel Core i5 processor,, a 720p webcam — and design position it against higher-end laptop and ultrabook designs, whether Windows 7, Windows 8 or Mac. Sure, the included memory and storage are a tad anaemic (4GB and 32GB respectively), but in theory you'll store everything in the cloud anyway (and Google is throwing in 1TB of storage for three years so you don't run out).
What makes you pause even before you've seen the machine is the price. In the US, the Pixel is selling via Google Play for $1299; in the UK, it's an even more painful £1049 ($1535, though the difference is largely down to the compulsory inclusion of VAT for UK customers). In the somewhat unlikely event we see one in Australia, a price around $1450 would seem indicated, which is enough to get you a bigger screen and/or more storage and/or more memory once you shop around.
The UK is one of just two countries where the Pixel is actually slated for release. Oddly, while Google only plans to sell the devices directly at this stage, it has placed sample units in a handful of Currys PC World outlets. As I'm in London for the latest instalment in our World Of Servers adventure (more on that later in the week), it seemed too good a chance to miss to check one out.
Somewhat remarkably, when I ventured into the almost empty Tottenham Court Road store, the resident Google sales dude was busy explaining the virtues of Chromebooks in general to a customer. The customer had wanted to buy a tablet but felt they were overpriced, and was drawn to the £250-odd pricetag attached to some of the Chromebooks in store. While the salesperson patiently explained the difference between Chrome and Chrome OS and enthused about his own use of an early model Chromebook, I slid up to the (well-secured) Pixel to check it out.
There's a lot to like. The design is sleek and minimal, with an impressive lack of excess detail, right down to not labelling the USB and other ports and the lack of any visible screws. The keyboard feels solid and responsive, and switching between and opening tabs is speedy. The trackpad works well, though I can't quite see that the fact it was "honed using a laser microscope" makes a massive difference. Loading pages feels fast, and switching between built-in apps is also easy. But . . .
I'd be lying if I said doing any of this feels any faster than it does on my current Ultrabook, or on any of the other models I've recently played with. Chrome is an efficient browser on most any platform. The value of having it as the core of your operating environment rests heavily on your never wanting to do anything outside the browser. (Case in point: you can't easily build Chromebook apps on a Chromebook.)
The screen also looks gorgeous, but that level of detail is frankly only useful if you're checking out high-resolution photos or videos, or custom apps like Google's 100,00 Stars experiment (which the salesperson quickly rolled out as a simultaneous demo of the screen resolution and touch screen capabilities). When you're simply using Gmail — text on a white background — the resolution seems wasted to me, and the touchscreen is also pretty pointless.
Indeed, even the salesperson was quick to point out that there are a few bugs in Chrome OS when it tries to work with such high resolutions. There were frequent artefacts towards the bottom of the screen in the form of unexpected white lines resembling dead pixels. No software is perfect, but when you're paying this much, you don't expect that kind of bug.
Even more annoying was the file browsing dialog box. I took an experimental picture of myself with the built-in camera and tried to save and email it. The text in the file browsing dialog box was ridiculously small, to the point of being unreadable. There's no point having a higher resolution if your OS can't support it in something as fundamental as a file browser. (The demo machine was locked down so I couldn't actually export my Pixel selfie; count your blessings.)
There are elements of the design you can't test in store, such as the claim that the piano hinge design helps enhance Wi-Fi performance and dissipate heat. Nor can you replicate the day-in, day-out experience of use. But while it looks great, it didn't make me go wow to anywhere near the extent I'd need to justify the price tag.
Experimenting with form factors and designs is welcome, and Google is rich enough to spray something like the Pixel into the market without necessarily making a profit from it. My Currys guy wasn't convinced it would amount to much. "If they were serious about selling this, they wouldn't put it out in February, which is the deadest retail month of the year," he suggested.
More to the point, Google would make it affordable. The Nexus 4, 7 and 10 succeeded by offering value for money (as well as cutting out unwanted crapware). The Pixel doesn't cross the line on the value part of the equation, and while there are dozens of brands out there which can attest to the fact that people will spend ludicrous amounts of money simply for looks, that isn't the Lifehacker way. If you had $1400 to spend, I simply can't visualise any context in which an Ultrabook or Macbook Air wouldn't be a more sensible and flexible purchase.
While it's apparently possible to install Linux on the Pixel as well, you shouldn't need to hack something that costs $1400+ to make it useful. For now, it feels like a gorgeous folly, and I'd advise spending your money elsewhere unless your goal is purely to show off how much cash you have to splash.