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Computerized Investing > June 29, 2013
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by Wayne A. Thorp, CFA

$1,229 (Wi-Fi only); $1,449 (Verizon LTE)

Touchscreen laptop running the Chrome operating system.

Prior to the advent of tablets, the Netbook was an inexpensive computing option for those looking for an inexpensive on-ramp to the Internet. I still have a couple Asus systems floating around, but I haven’t booted them up in months, if not years, now that I have my iPad and Google Nexus. However, these tablets aren’t cheap by most standards, so some consumers are still left wanting a cheap and easy way to access the Internet without all the bells and whistles of a typical Windows- or Mac-based system.

Enter the Chromebook, introduced in 2011. These computers run the Google Chrome operating system (Chrome OS) and are designed to be used while connected to the Internet.  They support Web-based applications instead of traditional, software-based programs that reside on the local machine. Manufacturers such as Samsung, Acer, HP and Lenovo sell these systems for between $200 and $450. Like the Netbooks of old, the typical Chromebook has a lower-level Atom or Celeron processor; between 2G and 4G of memory; and a 16G or 32G solid-state drive (SSD). It has a screen between 11.6 inches and 12.1 inches in size and it weighs between 2.5 pounds and four pounds.

Recently, however, I received a Chromebook that is anything but typical: the Google Chrome Pixel. I had read a lot about it and was intrigued by all the hype surrounding it. Furthermore, I had never used the Chrome OS before, so I was interested in seeing how it functioned. Along the way I discovered that it is impossible to compare a Chromebook to a Windows notebook or Macbook Pro or Macbook Air. While they are all portfolio computers, the similarities end there. In the end, I was left with very mixed feelings about the Pixel.

Design & Features

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I place greater emphasis on function than form. This flies in the face of the Chromebook Pixel, however, which has (almost) everything to do with form. Out of the box, it is apparent that the Pixel is a beautiful piece of hardware. It’s machined from anodized aluminum, so it has a bit of a Macbook Pro look to it, but it isn’t as rounded at the edges. It isn’t as flashy as some of the aluminum-body Ultrabooks I’ve reviewed, which is a plus in my book.

The Pixel weighs 3.35 pounds, which puts it in the upper range for Chromebooks. Interestingly enough, this also is heavier than some of the Ultrabooks I’ve reviewed. Its dimensions are 11.7 inches by 8.8 inches by 0.6 inches.

The display of the Pixel lets you know you aren’t dealing with a typical Chromebook. Size-wise, it’s nothing special at 12.86 inches diagonally. However, the 2560-by-1700 pixel resolution is the highest resolution you’ll find on any notebook PC, let alone a Chromebook. It even rivals that of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, which can have a resolution as high as 2880-by-1800. Google has also packed  in 239 pixels per inch (PPI), which outdoes even the Retina display which goes as high as 227 PPI. The display also sports a 178-degree viewing angle, which makes for excellent off-angle viewing (although it also helps nosey neighbors when on a train, in a plane or at a coffee shop). The screen has an aspect ratio of 3:2, whereas most notebooks now use a cinematic 16:9 or 16:10 ratio. The 3:2 ratio, according to Google, was used to give you more viewable space when browsing the Web.

If you thought we were done with the display, Google throws in one final wrinkle: the display supports touch! That means you can tap and swipe the screen while navigating the Web or apps. The multi-touch glass screen has a gloss to it, but I didn’t find it too glossy like some other displays. If you have a lot of light behind you, or if you are using the Pixel outside, glare can be a bit of a problem; but in a typical indoor workspace, I thought the display was amazing.

Having reviewed countless products, I know firsthand how easy it is for a manufacturer to aim for the fences only to be called out for not hitting the little things that impact the overall user experience. Luckily, Google also paid attention to the little things, including making the hinges in the cover stiff enough to prevent the display from wobbling when in a moving vehicle, such as a train. In addition, the magnetic latch keeps the cover closed when transporting the Pixel in a bag or carrying it.

The clickable, etched-glass touchpad is also one of nicest ones I’ve used. It’s extremely responsive and accurate. Since I am a lifelong Windows user, however, the “buttons” took some getting used to. Actually, there are no right- or left-click buttons, so it took some trial-and-error to figure out that it takes a two-finger click to right-click on something.

The keyboard on the Pixel is also top-notch. It offers a perfect amount of tactile response without feeling sluggish. The keys are well-spaced, making typing on it very easy. The key configuration is pretty much standard compared to other systems. However, I am not thrilled with the placement of the systems power button, which is directly above the backspace key. More than once I found myself hitting that instead of the delete key. Luckily, you have to hold the power button down for a couple of seconds before the Pixel powers down. Outside of the non-traditional right-click mechanism, perhaps my biggest complaint with the Pixel (design speaking) is the lack of a delete key. You can use backspace to delete text that’s lined up before the cursor, but if you want to delete characters on the right side of the cursor, you’ll need to hold down Alt + backspace. This omission confounds me and led to some frustration starting out, although eventually I got the hang of it. The keyboard is also backlit, something that really should be standard on all notebook systems these days.

The Pixel also has stereo speakers built into it. The sound was typical for a notebook system, with slight distortion at high volumes. While the speakers definitely aren’t the best I’ve heard on a notebook, they performed admirably for their purpose.

On the left side of the Pixel are two USB 2.0 ports, side by side. I prefer this configuration, which is rarely found these days, mainly in the off chance you are using a two-plugged USB device. I was a bit surprised that, for all the other high-end components Google used for the Pixel, it doesn’t support USB 3.0. Also, on the left side is a mini-display port for attaching an external monitor as well as a 3.5mm combo headphone/mic jack.

On the right side of the system is a SD/MMC card reader. This is an especially nice touch and allows you to transfer files between systems without having to email them or transfer them wirelessly.

For wireless connectivity, the “base” Pixel model features dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0. The model I reviewed also had built-in Verizon LTE wireless. If you buy the LTE model, you also get a 100M a month data plan, which is enough to check your email and do some very paltry Web browsing.

Google also didn’t skimp on the processor, putting an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge dual-core 1.8GHz processor in the Pixel. This is an interesting choice, seeing that Chromebooks don’t rely much on processor speeds, which is why most ship with an ARM or Intel Atom or Celeron processor. Some have speculated that the reason Google chose the Core i5 is to get the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU (graphics processing unit).

The Pixel comes with 4G of memory and either a 32G or 64G SSD (64G SSD comes with the LTE model). Sixty-four gigabytes is a lot of storage, especially considering the Google Chrome OS runs off of the installed RAM (memory), not the hard drive. Furthermore, when you buy a Google Pixel you get 1T (terabyte) of Google Drive cloud storage free for three years.

For videoconferencing and chat, the Pixel also comes with an integrated 720-pixel HD webcam and three built-in microphones and integrated DSP for noise cancellation.

Performance

When reviewing the Chrome Pixel, I had to be very careful not to compare its performance to that of other notebook systems I’ve tried out. That’s because Chromebooks aren't intended to do the types of things these other notebooks do. Chromebooks aren’t for those looking to crunch numbers or for graphics design. They are designed for the singular purpose of getting you on the Web and, typically, have the minimal hardware required to do just that. The Pixel breaks the mold, carving out a distinct niche in the “high-end” Chromebook marketplace.

Since the OS boots from memory and not the hard drive, the Pixel boots in just a few seconds from a cold start. In sleep mode, it starts up as soon as you open the cover. Within minutes of starting my Pixel for the first time, I had signed into my Google account, which allows me to sync my settings across multiple devices running Chrome OS or the Chrome browser. Connecting to my wireless network both at home and the office was equally easy and I was ready to go. The first thing Chrome did once I was connected to the Internet was update itself, which also required a reboot. Less than a minute later, with the latest version of the OS installed, I was ready to delve into the world of Chrome OS.

For Web browsing and Web apps, the Pixel is more than adequately suitable. In fact, it may be too much for the current Web. Most websites are designed for high-definition viewing, so you see a lot of pixilation, which doesn’t make for an overly pleasing viewing experience. The Web also isn’t currently optimized for touch screens, which negates another of the Pixel’s impressive hardware features. Having used tablets for a few years now, I am used to swiping and tapping on a screen; but sitting at a notebook with a dedicated keyboard, I didn’t find myself needing or wanting to use the touch screen.

The only real frustration I ran into was trying to set up my printer. With Chromebooks, you can’t plug in a printer. You have to establish a connection with a printer that is designed for cloud printing or sync with a printer using Google’s Cloud Print, which (supposedly) allows you to link to “traditional” printers and print to them via the cloud. However, I wasn’t able to use Cloud Print to link with my older Bluetooth HP deskjet printer, which was a severe inconvenience. In the office, however, I was able to quickly and easily use the same Cloud Print feature to establish a connection with my Lexmark printer.

It is also worth noting that the Pixel tends to get very warm after prolonged use. This is because there are no vents on the Pixel. The hinge cover doubles as a heat sink but isn’t able to effectively disperse the heat.

Chrome OS

If you have never used Chrome OS, don’t let that scare you. If you’ve used a Web browser you will have no problems navigating Chrome (especially if you use the Chrome browser). If you are considering a Chromebook, be sure you know exactly what you can (and can’t do) with the operating system.

With Chrome OS, you can’t run “traditional” programs, such as Microsoft Office. Instead, you install Web apps from the Google Store. There are thousands of Web apps for many of the services I use on my Windows PCs and Android or iOS devices. One drawback with many of these apps, however, is that they require an Internet connection, which means offline usage is prohibited. However, Chrome is constantly evolving and packaged apps are starting to become available that run outside the browser and, thus, run offline.

Battery

For all the over-the-top specs found with the Pixel, battery life isn’t one of them. Google claims you can get roughly five hours of active usage from the Pixel’s 59 Wh battery. Among other Chromebooks, this puts the Pixel in the middle of the pack, which isn’t bad considering the high-resolution, pixel-packed touch display is going to use more power than the typical Chromebook. However, for how much you are paying for the Pixel, five hours is a real disappointment.

Google added a nice little feature with the charging cable. When you plug it into the Pixel and the battery is charging, the plug glows yellow. When the battery is fully charged, the plug glows green. However, the plug is prone to coming unplugged easily.

Overall

This was probably one of the most difficult reviews I’ve written for this column. I was constantly bouncing back and forth between my love of the hardware and the frustrations brought about by the “limitations” of Chrome OS. For someone who uses a lot of investment software, all of it Windows-based, the Pixel simply isn’t an option as a primary computer.

For $1,229 to $1,449, you can buy yourself a similarly-appointed Windows notebook computer that will allow you to run all of the software you use every day. And for just a couple of hundred dollars more, Mac aficionados can buy a MacBook Pro with Retina display.

As I stated earlier, Chromebooks are designed to be a gateway to the Internet. For its price, the Pixel is a gilded gateway. Many have wondered why Google built such a device, with some speculating it’s a “statement device,” illustrating that companies can build hardware to rival that of Apple. Others believe that Google is merely positioning itself for the time when almost everything is based “in the cloud” and for users who want more fit and finish than the typical Chromebook.

As much as I do love the look and design of the Google Chromebook Pixel, the pragmatist in me can’t see this appealing to anything more than a very narrow market. It is without question the best-looking and best-designed notebook computer I have used. But, sadly, not very many people will ever experience it. As a means of quickly, easily and securely harnessing the Web, Chromebooks are an interesting option. With its price tag, however, the Pixel is an overpriced option.

Pros

  • Excellent design
  • Brilliant display
  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Responsive, backlit keyboard

Cons

  • Requires constant Internet connection to use most Web apps
  • Limited functionality of Chrome OS
  • Priced too high for casual Chrome users
  • Runs hot after prolonged use

Google Chromebook Pixel

$1,229 (Wi-Fi only); $1,449 (Verizon LTE)

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA is a vice president and senior financial analyst at AAII and editor of Computerized Investing. Follow him on Twitter at @WayneTAAII.


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