I’ve been a Mac user since 1986, and edited a Mac magazine for a couple of years. I’ve contributed to MacGasm, MacFormat, and pretty-much anything that has the word “Mac” in its title. I attended more Steve Jobs keynotes than is healthy, and suffered the epic 3 hour Gil Amelio keynote which reduced even the hardest-bitten hacks to weeping babies. If there is such a thing as Mac spurs, I’ve earned them.
But as a technology writer, I’ve also always kept an open mind about other options. I’ve used Windows in anger (back in the days when a tablet PC meant Tablet PC, not an iPad). I’ve had Android phones. I’ve used my own cash to buy Android tablets (and boy, did I regret that one).
And in the past couple of years, anyone that follows me will know that I’ve also long been interested in the Google’s Chromebook concept. The idea of a machine which reflects how I actually work (mostly online) is attractive. It’s secure, fast enough, and I never have to worry about where any of my data lives. Almost all the software that I use on a day-to-day basis is web-based, and my browser is the application I use most often. Sometimes two of them.
But… I’m also a hardware snob. And although the crop of Chromebooks that Google’s partners have released over the years have been interesting (and lord knows, I’ve had a few of them), when you’re used to the build quality of something like a MacBook Air, it’s really hard to trade down to something that’s more plasticky and cheap-feeling. And that’s leaving aside features like the retina displays on the current MacBook Pros, which – once experienced – are really hard to live without.
Google clearly thinks there are enough people out there like me to make it worth building a high-end Chromebook, and that’s exactly what the Chromebook Pixel is: a laptop with excellent build quality and the kind of attention to detail that previously you’d only usually see on an Apple machine. Add in a retina-class screen which is actually touch-enabled and you’ve got something that’s very interesting.
But, it has to be said, expensive: over £1000 in the UK, which is a hefty price to pay for any laptop these days. But when you look at the numbers, that’s about £200 cheaper than a 13in Retina MacBook Pro, which is its nearest equivalent. So if you’re basically doing everything on the web anyway (or could do) and you’re considering a retina MBP, it starts to look like good value.
Google was kind enough to invite me along to the UK launch, and at the end of it I picked up a loan Pixel to play with. What I’m going to do over the month that I have it is use it as my main machine, replacing my trusty recent-vintage MacBook Air for everything I can. Unlike the other Chromebooks, this is very much meant to be someone’s main personal computer. The question is, for a Mac user (who uses Web apps a lot), can it actually do the job? These, effectively, are my first impressions after a few days use.
I’m not even going to pretend otherwise: I love hardware. That’s one of the biggest reasons that I’ve always been a Mac user – the quality of Apple’s hardware design and build is simply streets ahead of everyone else. I’ve never found a Windows laptop that comes close.
What sets Apple apart is its attention to detail. You know, when you push the Lightening cable into an iPad, that someone has spent a lot of time listening to the sound of its “click” over and over again, adjusting the port until it’s just so. This is something that other computer makers cut corners on, and it always shows.
The Chromebook Pixel is the first non-Apple laptop I’ve ever used that’s actually taken the same approach. It’s clear that Google has worked really, really hard on the details. It doesn’t get everything right (the power plug, while pretty, is inelegant) but it gets all the big, important things right in a way that almost no PC makers do.
Take the trackpad. Once you’ve used a Mac trackpad, made of coated glass, everything else feels cheap. Google has made a trackpad that actually feels better than the one on my MacBook Air, by sweating the detail of what, exactly, the optimum patterning on the glass should be. It feels great, a world away from the cheap trackpads that you get on most laptops.
A second detail: as with most Chromebooks, there’s a row of dedicated function keys above the main keyboard. As you’d expect, these are a different shape to the main keys. But they also require much more pressure on them to invoke the function. Why? Because it makes them harder to accidentally hit and activate if you’re typing fast or reaching for the screen (and I’ll come back to why that’s important later). That’s something that most people will never notice – until they accidentally hit one and it doesn’t screw up their work.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that the keyboard itself is excellent. Keyboards are very personal things, and everyone likes a different action, but to my old fingers, the Pixel’s feels about perfect. It’s firm, but not so firm it requires you to hammer the keys. There’s a good positive action to it. And, of course, it’s backlit.
Oh you pretty things
The showstopper feature of the Pixel, and the inspiration for its name, is the screen. And what a screen. I was fortunate enough to test the first retina MacBook Pro, and the screen on the Pixel gave me the same kind of feeling: that we’re finally at the future of computing I imagined 20 years ago, with screens that have the definition of vividness of high-quality paper, where pixels are something you know exist in theory, but never actually see. The next-cheapest machine with a screen this good (the 13in Retina MacBook Pro) will cost you £200 more. I have to get about three inches away before I see pixels.
What difference does a screen like this make, though? Although there’s a lot of talk about how important it is for images, the biggest difference for me is on type. Words look how they’re supposed to look. Fonts which otherwise are horrible on screen absolutely sing. And the great bit is that unless you’re the kind of web developer who puts text in JPGs “to make it look right” (you fool), you get this improvement for free, because Chrome itself is retina-ready. If you love type, you really want a screen this good.
Unlike virtually every laptop on the market these days, the Pixel shuns widescreen and uses a decidedly old-fashioned 3:2 aspect ratio. This makes me a very happy bunny: I hate 16:9 screens, which make movies look great, but make the web look rubbish as it’s mostly designed vertically, rather than horizontally. Why laptop makers think widescreen is a good idea is something that I’ve never been able to work out. Unless you’re watching video – not the main thing I do on a laptop – it just makes everything feel cramped.
Touch me, I’m sick
Of course, what the Pixel has that the retina MacBook Pro’s don’t have is probably its most controversial feature: it’s multi-touch enabled. This is a bit of a weird one. In theory, when you have a really good trackpad, there’s no reason to have touch on screen as well. But in practice, I’ve found myself reaching out every now than then to do something on the screen itself: tapping a button, closing a tab, occasionally scrolling. I’ve been surprised, already, by the amount of times that I’ve used it.
I suspect that one of the key factors that’s made me naturally start to use touch is that I use my iPad a lot. I’ve almost become trained to expect that a screen can be touched, that you can manipulate things on screen using your fingers, to such an extent that I know there have been times that I’ve tried to touch objects on the screen of my MacBook Air.
Will I use it a lot? Probably not. Is touch a feature that’s really nice to have, and that leads to a more “natural” computing experience. Yes, I think it is. I wouldn’t buy a laptop (or reject one) solely on the basis of touch being part of the package, but overall I’m sold on it.
The rest of the hardware mostly exudes good design practice, marrying a really rather beautiful case with lots of attention to detail. Compared to a MacBook Air, it feels a little chunky, but compared to a retina MacBook Pro, it’s pretty svelte. You certainly wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen around with it in public. The ports (all arranged along the sides) are minimal but give you pretty-much everything you could want, with two USB 2, Mini-DisplayPort, headphone/mic jack and SD/MMC card slot. The absence of USB 3 or Thunderbolt doesn’t really strike me as much of an omission, given that they are most useful for high-speed storage, which is one thing the Pixel doesn’t really need.
I could talk about the dual-core Intel 1.8GHz Core i5 chip, 4GB of DDR3 RAM and 32GB SSD, but to be honest the specs are actually not really all that relevant. What they mean, basically, is that the Pixel is fast. Subjectively, the old Samsung 550 with its less-than-beefy Celeron felt fast, because ChromeOS cuts out all the cruft that usually slows your machine down. The specs on the Pixel just mean it’s damn quick at everything it does: your connection speed is usually going to be a greater drag on performance than the machine’s specs.
One thing that I found, though, was that it was easy to get the Pixel to run pretty hot – not lap-burningly hot, but definitely warm to the touch underneath. This isn’t a super-cool machine, despite it’s super-cool looks, and I found that the fans kicked in far more often than they do on my old MacBook Pro – and make more noise, too. Pixel may be strong, but it’s definitely not the silent type.
To say that ChromeOS isn’t like other operating systems is understating it. ChromeOS abstracts away almost all of the operating system as we know it, and presenting you with a window on the web – and nothing but the web. There are no local applications to install: everything runs in the browser. That means you’re limited, when you don’t have a net connection to whatever features your HTML-based applications can do locally.
It does have a local file system (and the 32GB SSD built-in to the Pixel lets you view lots of different file formats, even without a net connection) but if you’re like me, you’ll probably find you don’t use it much. Instead, your files are stored online, and Google includes three years’ worth of 1Tb of online Google Drive storage to get you started with that. Let me say that again: Google includes 1Tb of online storage, yours for free for three years. That’s around £1200’s worth of storage, which effectively means that if you’re looking to buy that anyway, you can pay up front and get a very nice free laptop – and a bit of a discount.
The biggest thing you hear about ChromeOS consistently is that it’s “just” a browser, something that’s true, but doesn’t really capture the heart of the OS. Yes, it’s a browser front-and-centre. But underneath that, there’s some pretty amazing technology designed to keep the machine running, updated, and safe from malware of all kinds. ChromeOS tabs are sandboxed, so it’s hard for web pages to do anything nasty, and the OS itself uses a verified boot system which means that it’s hard to write the kind of malware which plagues Windows (and is occasionally an issue on the Mac).
As with all ChromeOS devices, the Pixel auto-updates itself regularly and it’s virtually maintenance-free. In many ways, in this sense, it’s the true Google equivalent of the iPad, a “computer” which doesn’t need the kind of computer-savvy that you’ve needed since the dawn of home machines. I sometimes think of ChromeOS devices as “post PC” in the same sense as the iPad, simply because they’re not machines which require you to tinker in order to make them just work. They just work. They really do.
App-liance or science?
Back in the mists of time – OK, the 1990’s – one of the constant refrains that Mac users heard all the time from their Windows-tolerating brethren was that “the Mac just doesn’t have the programmes available for it”. Ironically, perhaps, this is exactly the same thing that hear from Mac users about ChromeOS.
Of course, now as then, this is bunk: there are huge numbers of web-based applications out there, covering pretty much every kind of task you can imagine. Word processors, spreadsheets, games, finance, project management, photo editing, even video editing all have apps available. The biggest problem I find with the Chrome Web Store (which is meant to curate web apps) isn’t scarcity – it’s wading through all the stuff that’s available. Just as with the Android Play Store, Google really doesn’t do editorial curation very well for Chrome.
What does really matter is whether the applications exist, and whether they are of high-enough quality – and it’s here that Chromebook has some question marks over it. Some web apps are of very high quality: Google’s office suite gets better and better, with less and less reason to dive into MicrosoftLand on that score. Basics like photo management, music and so on are well covered. More demanding applications like video editing are there… just.
The truth is that web apps, like Mac apps in the 1990’s, are “mostly there”, but the quality and breadth of choice mostly isn’t. If you were a Mac user in the 90’s, you’ll find exactly the same level of delight and frustration working with web applications.
Get off-a my cloud
“But wait” I can hear you say, “isn’t it just a paperweight when you don’t have a net connection?”
That sound you hear is me groaning, softly, and hitting my head on the desk.
For a lot of people – me included – any computer without a net connection is pretty-much a paperweight these days. There’s a reason that my iPad has 3G as well as WiFi: while there’s plenty of stuff it can do without a net connection, if I’m actually doing any work, I really really need one.
I’ve seen a fair few comments from disappointed existing Chromebook users that the Pixel is somehow a diversion from what they thought Chromebook was actually about: a machine which was cheap, easy to replace, and so on. Some of these comments have been pretty forceful – one commenter even referred to the Pixel’s price as “gouging”.
I think much of this comes from the feelings expressed in the Chromebook marketing campaigns that suggested the device was “for everyone”: a device of the people, for the people, for (literally) everyone. The problem with this campaign, though, is while it expressed the idea of Chromebook as something for everyone to use, the machines themselves were decidedly low-end – and not everyone wants a low-end laptop. Like lots of people, my laptop is my main computer and for my main computer I want something that’s a little more well-built, robust, and high-end than any of the other Chromebooks. Even the Samsung Series 5 550, which isn’t a cheap machine, still doesn’t match the build and features of even one of the cheaper Macs.
The Pixel makes me feel that Google probably took one look around its own campus at the plethora of Macs people were using, despite all of them mostly using web apps, and wondered why there wasn’t a Chromebook which could tempt its own employees to ChromeOS. The Pixel is the answer to that – and also for people like me, who want a good quality machine and are happy to pay a premium price for it.
To buy or not to buy?
Should you buy one? Looking at the machines around the same price point and of equivalent quality, you basically have the 13in MacBook Air (£999) and the 13in Retina MacBook Pro (£1249). If you need to use desktop applications, and haven’t (yet) made a switch to a web-based workflow, either of those will be a better option. Likewise, if you want to play games, either Mac will serve you better. Photoshop? Yeah, get a Mac.
But what if you really don’t use desktop applications – what if you’ve already made a transition to a wholly web-based workflow? Then the choice becomes a little more difficult.
Both MacBooks run Chrome, very well, so all your web apps are going to work great. The Air is lighter than the Pixel (1.35Kg vs 1.52Kg) and less bulky as a package. It also has significantly better battery life, with Apple rating it at 7 hours (and my own usage suggests that’s pretty much on the money), while you’ll get maybe 5 hours out of the Pixel. That’s a big chunk of working time.
What you don’t get with the Air, of course, is that utterly gorgeous screen. For that, you need to spend £200 more than the Pixel and get a 13in MacBook Pro. And there’s no touch screen option, although the value of a touchscreen on a laptop is moot, in my opinion.
A retina-class screen is a wonderful thing, and your eyes will thank you for having one. But your shoulders will thank you for carrying a lighter computer, and the power sockets of your nearest coffee shop will thank you for the extra couple of hours battery life you’ll get from an Air compared with the Pixel.
Basically, if all the apps you use are on the web, you need to consider whether you’d prefer a lighter machine with better battery life, or a slightly heavier and more power-hungry machine with an incredibly good screen. If you’re spending a thousand pounds, I don’t think either a MacBook Air or a Chromebook Pixel will disappoint you. But which one better meets your needs depends… well… on what your needs really are.
Would I buy one? At the moment, no – but that’s entirely down to the fact that I already have a current-model MacBook Air and I’m not looking to get a new computer for at least another year. And in a year’s time, the situation could be very different: Apple may have brought the retina screen to the MacBook Air, or Google may have hacked a couple of hundred pounds off the price of this year’s Pixel (and that that price, it would be a bargain).
Having said that, I’ve spent the last week using the Chromebook Pixel not because I felt like I had to, but because it’s a joy to use. It’s been the machine that I’ve picked up rather than my MacBook Air, out of choice, because using it with the web services that I use every day is a brilliant experience. I love the feel of its keyboard. I love its pixel-free screen. I love its purity, it’s single-minded devotion to the web and just the web. I don’t love the fans, which just kicked in and (compared to the almost-silent Air) sound like a small but irritating vacuum cleaner being used in the room next door.
But I do love the Pixel. And I am really going to miss it when it goes back.
One of the themes that Sundar Pichai came back to again and again when introducing the Pixel is that it’s almost a statement of intent: a rallying cry to developers to create web apps which are touch-enabled, and that include retina-quality images. These are two things that really bring the web to life, and I think that Sundar is right to highlight them.
But it’s also a statement about Google, too, because it says that Google can do hardware with the same attention to detail and quality that Apple does. It’s not a shot across Apple’s bows, but more putting a flag in the ground that says “Come on Cupertino, we can do hardware – you think you can do services?”
If part of the reason for the Pixel was to prove that Google can create really good hardware design, it’s done its job: The Pixel is the best laptop I’ve used that didn’t have an Apple badge on it (and it’s better than quite a few laptops which did). It’s a different concept, it’s not fussy old Windows, and it’s making me want to be at least occasionally unfaithful to my beloved Mac. For a first attempt at hardware from a software-and-services company, that’s pretty damn good.
Isn’t competition great?