Review: Google Chromebook Pixel (2015)

The original Chromebook Pixel, released almost exactly two years ago, was a moonshot. Maybe not on the scale of some of Google’s other far-flung ambitions—the self-driving cars, the diabetes-managing contact lenses—but a moonshot nonetheless. It was the company’s attempt to define the future of the laptop as a simple, beautiful portal to a universe of apps and content that lives entirely online. But the Pixel was too expensive and too slow. The world just wasn’t ready for a life lived inside a web browser.

Today, Google announced the second-generation Pixel. It has a better processor, better battery life, and its vision for the future of laptops has gotten a few upgrades. But the surprising thing is how little is truly different. Google is sticking to its vision—and in the last two years, we’ve started to embrace it. We now demand beautiful devices, with great screens and simple software. We’re more comfortable existing in the cloud. All many of us need is a browser, a keyboard, and a trackpad.

Yes, at $999 (or $1,299 with a couple of remarkably unnecessary spec upgrades) it’s an expensive purchase for a laptop that will never natively run Bioshock or Photoshop. Google really still intends the Pixel for its hardest of hardcore fans: the people who live in Google products all day, or who develop apps for those products. It’s made to be the best imaginable showcase for everything Google offers. It is very much that. And it might soon be something much bigger.

The sell starts as soon as you take the Pixel out of the box. Like its predecessor, it’s a cold, metallic, boxy rectangle of a device, with really clean lines and no unnecessary flourishes or icons. If it were a person, it’d live in a giant, spotless house, with four items of furniture and a strict no-shoes policy. It does show off a little, I suppose: there’s still that skinny lightbar on the back that glows rainbow colors at anyone gawking at your laptop. (It has a purpose, now, too! When the laptop is closed, you can double-tap on it to show battery status.) I do wish the Pixel had shed some weight; its 3.3-pound body feels relatively a lot heavier than it did two years ago. It’s noticeably bigger and denser than almost every other Chromebook, and is borderline ridiculous next to the new 2-pound MacBook. But I loved this stripped-down, refined look then, and I do now too.

Same goes for the gorgeous 12.85-inch, 2560 x 1700 display. It’s only a slight upgrade to the 2013 model, but it’s clear, crisp, and as retina-level as any screen you’ll find. Its 3:2 aspect ratio means you get slightly more vertical space on the screen as you work. That’s great for web browsing, but a little awkward for watching movies. It’s also a touchscreen, like the last model, and I’ve never once used the feature on either device. Google’s explanation for the touch capabilities has to do with the Android apps it is, oh so very slowly, beginning to support in Chrome OS. Those apps are nice to have, but they’re just phone apps shoved into a small window on your screen—they feel tacked on, because they are. Touch is great in Windows, where there are UI elements specifically designed to be poked and swiped, but on Chrome OS it’s just a hassle. Touch might be useful a couple of years and many thousands of Android apps from now, but for now it’s just… there.

Google would be more than happy if you were to buy a Pixel, but it built this primarily to show its developers what computers might look like in a couple of years, to get them dreaming and building for the future.

That’s the idea, though. Google would be more than happy if you were to buy a Pixel, but it built this primarily to show its developers what computers might look like in a couple of years, to get them dreaming and building for the future. That also explains the tiny, round, reversible USB-C connector you’ll find on either side of the laptop’s base. (There are two USB 3.0 ports you can use in a pinch, but I get the sense that doing so would make Google deeply sad.) This is the same connector Apple just put on its new MacBook, the one that replaces all other connectors: Whether you want to charge your battery, connect a display, or plug in a hard drive, you do it through the same port.

It’s the best. Or it will be, anyway. Having a single, reversible cable for everything is such a huge upgrade, as is being able to plug my power cable in to either side of the device. I’ve had to carry around adapters for all my other gadgets while I use the Pixel, but that won’t last long—and at least Google eases the transition with other ports, as opposed to Apple’s ruthless boat-burning strategy of just ditching everything else entirely. Either way, USB-C has the support of basically the entire tech industry, and it’s going to catch on fast.

Google has lots of ideas about the future, but even if you ignore all of the Pixel’s developer-friendly toys, it’s still a pleasure to use. It has one of the most satisfying, comfortable keyboards you’ll find anywhere, and it’s even better this time because Google tweaked the row of function keys to be less rigid and much easier to find. There are these lovely quirks everywhere, too, like when the backlight turns on as soon as you put your hands over the keys, like it’s come to life and awaits your brilliant input. The trackpad, too, is still glassy and smooth and easy to use. Pinching and zooming is smoother than ever, and the whole thing is just incredibly intuitive to use. Google nailed this two years ago too, and didn’t change much.

There’s an Intel Core i5 processor inside, along with 8GB of RAM, and together they make the Pixel absolutely fly. (The upgraded LS version, which stands for Ludicrous Speed, has an i7 and 16GB. You don’t need that much power.) I generally hate using Chrome on my Mac, where it is endlessly slow and always crashing in some spectacular way; on Chrome OS it’s completely different. The OS is rock solid, and the browser is fast and capable even when I have my standard 35 tabs open. There’s simple multi-tasking and clever windowing, so it feels like you’re using more than just a web browser. And I’ll never stop loving that I can just type in my username and password, and suddenly everything’s set up exactly how I want it. The Chrome Web Store is still an odd jumble of bookmarks, utilities, and really useful apps, but you’ll hardly need it anyway. Chrome OS is better when it’s simpler—it’s not made to be customized and tweaked, it’s made to be used.

Google nailed this two years ago too, and didn’t change much.

Somehow, despite all the extra power it has, the Pixel still lasts upwards of 13 hours on a charge. I’ve used it for essentially two full days, then off and on for four more, and only had to juice it up twice. I almost can’t believe how good the battery is.

Chrome OS has become far more capable since its last Pixel showcase, too, mostly because web apps are improving so fast. Email clients, news sites, social networks, YouTube, Spotify, Hangouts; there’s actually very little you can’t do in a browser anymore. I used Office Online without any issues, and Google’s own QuickOffice apps have also gotten much better at dealing with Excel and Word files—those’ll even work offline, for the thumb-drive-on-a-plane users out there. Netflix streams perfectly, which is basically a laptop’s most important job.

The limitations are the opposite of the new MacBook: there’s plenty of processing power inside the Pixel, but there are some software limitations. Forget video editing or anything resembling heavy-duty gaming, for instance; there just aren’t apps for those things on Chrome OS. For the basic tasks and mundanities we all slog through each day, though, Chrome OS is now more than enough. The biggest downside at this point is the local storage. Google really, really wants you to use Drive, so it gives you 1TB of online storage but only 32GB of hard drive space. You’ll fill that with photos and torrented copies of The Hobbit movies way too quickly.

If it were cheaper, I’d say run, don’t walk, to buy a Pixel. It’s a terrific machine, one I genuinely enjoy using. It’s a great second computer for anyone, a great primary machine for some people. But right now, in 2015, it does still have limitations that a $999 computer shouldn’t. The biggest one is that same old story: Much though Google wants you to think so, you’re not always going to be online. When I found myself a comfy perch in the courtyard of my hotel but was just too far away from what I assume is single router from the 1970s, or when I peeled open the lid on a cross-country flight but didn’t want to cash out my 401(k) to pay for Wi-Fi, there just wasn’t much to do. I wind up using my computer in coffee shops with bad Wi-Fi, and bars with none; Chrome OS just isn’t great without a great connection.

But keep your eyes peeled. The Pixel has always been stuck in the future. Google made big bets two years ago about the way we’ll access data, and predicted that we’d all end up living inside our web browsers. With this new Pixel, it bets on a new kind of connector—and reinforces what it already believed. That soon we will be online all the time. Soon our browsers will be all we need. Soon we’ll only need one port, or maybe none at all. Soon we’ll all demand a computer this beautiful. When that future gets here—and it will—the Pixel’s going to be sitting pretty.

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