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Google’s Chromebook Pixel Is Fast, Gorgeous, Perplexing

David Pogue
·Tech Critic

People need cars, of course, but millions are happier with bicycles. It’s nice to eat filet mignon, but sometimes bread and cheese makes more sense. And nobody wears tuxedos all the time; most of the time, jeans are more practical.

That’s why the Google’s invention of the Chromebook was so brilliant and so disruptive. Let the executives tote around their $1,500 MacBooks and top-of-the-line ultrabooks. There still a place — a big and growing one—for $250 laptops that store their files online instead of on a hard drive.

That’s the idea behind a Chromebook: a fast, silent, light, attractive laptop with very little storage. A Chromebook is perfect for Web,e-mail, YouTube videos, and online apps like Google’s free online Word, Excel, and PowerPoint competitors. Chromebooks are a megahit in schools. Students live most of their lives online already, and Chromebooks are inexpensive and easy to manage. They’re also great for families wanting a handy second computer.

We at Yahoo Tech are big fans of Chromebooks. Here’s an article that lays out the basics, and here are our reviews of recent Chromebooks from Toshiba, HP, and Acer. (Yet, to be fair, most of us do travel with MacBook Airs.)

But it looks like the “kids and families” reputation of Chromebooks stuck in Google’s craw. In 2013, it introduced the Chromebook Pixel: a luxury Chromebook. Gorgeous all-metal design, superior keyboard, fast processor, a trackpad that actually works, and a touchscreen with a resolution that out-Retina’ed Apple’s Retina screens.

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For $1,300.

Say what? Isn’t the low price the entire point of a Chromebook? Why would anyone pay $1,300 for a laptop that can’t run actual programs? For that price, why not just get a Mac or a Windows laptop?

Pixel, Take 2

This week, Google is back with an updated Chromebook Pixel. The price is lower, the battery life doubled, the guts upgraded to the cutting edge, the software situation improved. In short, the Pixel’s value proposition is no longer laughable. Now it’s only marginal.

It’s still a gorgeous piece of kit. There are no stickers or panels on the bottom, no visible screws at all, no speaker grille (the speakers hide under the keyboard). Its aluminum body looks and feels very executive. It’s surgical in precision.

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The only break in the shiny gray metal is a horizontal groove. It lights up in the four Google colors when you’re using the laptop — and when the lid is closed, you can double-tap to make this stripe light up in segments that indicate your battery charge. It’s cool.

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This thing also weighs 3.3 pounds, which seems like a lot for a top-dollar laptop without a lot inside.

The Pixel’s price is now $1,000. This base model comes with an Intel i5 chip (the latest Broadwell type), 8 gigs of memory, and 32 gigs of storage. Yes, 32 — not 256 or 512 like an ordinary laptop. Remember, the whole idea is to store all your work online.

That’s why the Chromebook Pixel also comes with one terabyte of storage online, included in the purchase price, for three years. Which is probably the lifespan of this laptop anyway.

There’s also a $1,300 model that doubles the storage and memory and offers the faster i7 chip. Internally, Google calls this the LS model (for “ludicrous speed”).

Battery life has been enhanced — from the six hours on the original Pixel to what Google says is 12 hours on this one. I pounded on this thing morning till night and still had juice at bedtime.

The 13-inch screen (2,560x1,700 pixels) is lovely, although I still don’t understand why it’s a touchscreen. Both the Chrome OS and the Web itself are designed for the precision of a cursor, not your big, fat finger; meanwhile, a touchscreen adds weight, thickness, and cost.

The keyboard is phenomenal. It’s just incredibly crisp and solid.

The keys light up only when the room is dark. If you wander away, they dim; when you reapproach the laptop (without even touching it), they light up again. Slick.

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The Pixel has a slot for your camera’s memory card, a headphone jack, a standard USB jack, and two USB-C jacks. And that last part is a big, hairy deal.

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USB-C

USB-C is a new kind of connector, years in the making, concocted by a consortium of Google, Apple, and others.

It’s about the same size as micro USB, meaning that it’s small enough to be built into laptops and tablets and phones. It’s a power-cord jack and a video-output jack for projectors or second monitors and a traditional data-transfer jack like regular USB. With the right adapter, it can even do all of that simultaneously.

It’s the same on both ends, and it’s the same upside down, so you never fuss with which way to plug it in. And once all laptops move to USB-C power cords, they’ll all be interchangeable, no matter what brand or model you have.

In short, USB-C is the Jesus jack.

Apple’s new two-pound, half-inch-thick MacBook has USB-C; in fact, that’s the only jack it has, and it has only one of them. The Chromebook has one on each side, which comes in surprisingly handy when plugging in your charger. It charges fast, too — 15 minutes plugged in is enough to get you two hours of battery life. Ninety minutes charges the battery fully.

Google sells a USB-C-to-USB-A cable (that is, standard USB) for $13. That cable, incredibly, can plug into someone else’s computer to charge your Chromebook. It’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for laptops.

Google also sells USB-C video cables (to HDMI and to DisplayPort) for $40 each. 

The software story

Of course a Chromebook is a champ online. It’s a computer built around a browser. Email, videos, music, editing, Web-based email, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, Pandora, reading your Kindle books, accessing your Dropbox files — it’s all here, it’s all fast, and it’s all an absolute joy. The Pixel is silent and simple and speedy.

And secure; viruses have not yet come to Chromebooks. And you sleep easy knowing there’s not a single thing on your laptop that’s not backed up online.

But what about all the things people do with laptops besides Internetting? Skype, Photoshop, Quicken, Word, Excel, .zip files, BitTorrent, iTunes? Printing? Editing video?

The answer for Chromebooks used to be, “You can’t.” Now it’s, “There may be a workaround.”

For example, you can install a free program called Chrome Remote Desktop onto your Mac or Windows PC — and then access it and its programs from your Chromebook, wherever you happen to be. If you left the Mac or PC turned on, and if you have a fast connection on both ends, and if you don’t mind a little lagginess.

There are also workarounds for zip files and BitTorrent.

Google has even worked with Adobe to come up with an online version of Photoshop, called Photoshop Streaming. It’s a bit on the experimental side, but it works.

There are even a few Android apps (for Android phones and tablets) that can now run on Chromebooks. They show up in the Chrome app store right alongside actual Chrome apps. Check out Evernote and Vine, for example.

And in place of the desktop Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, you can use either Microsoft’s free Web Apps or Google’s free equivalent apps. They’re not exactly the same thing, but they get the job done, and you can exchange documents with people who use the Microsoft programs.

Google wishes to emphasize, by the way, that you don’t have to be online to do work. A huge collection of Chromebook apps can download whatever documents you need to your device, so you can edit away offline. (Here they are on the Chrome app store.) Google has said that by the end of this year, all Chrome apps must work offline if they hope to remain listed in the Chrome app store.

Your offline activities can include writing email, reading saved Web pages, editing Google Drive apps (clones of Word, PowerPoint, Excel), listening to music you’ve saved onto your Chromebook, and so on.

You can view Office and PDF files offline but can’t edit them. Same thing with your Google Calendar appointments: They’re look, don’t touch.

The Chromebook still can’t run Mac or PC programs (iTunes, Quicken, AutoCAD, Skype), play high-end games (World of Warcraft, Civilization 5, Diablo 3), run major video-editing programs (Cyberlink PowerDirector, Final Cut, Adobe Premiere), or connect to devices that expect a Mac or a PC (printers, smartphones, fitness bands).

The value story

Most of the pros and cons you’ve just read about apply to any Chromebook, even the $250 models. So what do you get for one that costs four times as much?

Here’s what: The best keyboard and trackpad you’ve ever used. Incredible battery life. A body so pretty you just want to run your fingers over it between brainstorms.

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But, man, $1,000 for a laptop that can’t edit video, place Skype calls, or run Quicken?

When there are slimmer Mac and Windows laptops with the same luxurious components at about the same price? And, by the way, they also run Chrome just fine. 

If you’ve carefully considered the Chromebook caveats, and you’re expecting a big tax refund next month, there’s no question: You’ll love using the Chromebook Pixel for the things it’s made to do.

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For everyone else, the Chromebook Pixel is a bizarre, worst-of-both-worlds machine. It’s a $30,000 bicycle, a $30 bread-and-cheese plate, and a pair of jeans you have to rent from a tux shop.