As far as niches go, the Chromebook Pixel has always occupied a pretty narrow one.
Like other Chromebooks, the Pixel demands that you run nothing but Google’s Chrome browser, abstaining from traditional programs like Office and Photoshop, and instead using web-based equivalents.
But unlike other Chromebooks, most of whose prices hover around $250, the Pixel is priced like a MacBook, with a fit and finish to match. It’s for people so obsessed with the web that they’ll shell out big bucks to access the best possible version of it–at the expense of everything else. You can safely assume that Google hasn’t sold vast quantities of Pixels since the laptop first debuted in 2013.
Nonetheless, Google is now back with a second-generation Chromebook Pixel, and it’s aimed at making the browser even more efficient. Like Apple’s new MacBook, it has a new kind of reversible USB port, called Type-C, that can recharge the battery, drive an external display, and connect with USB peripherals such as hard drives and mouses. It also has a much longer battery life of 12 hours (compared to five on the original Pixel) and a wider color gamut on its crisp 2560-by-1700-resolution display. It’s loaded with satisfying touches as well, such as the light bar on the rear panel that shows battery level when you double-tap on it, and the keyboard that lights up as your palms hover over the trackpad.
The new Chromebook Pixel is one of the finest laptops you can buy, though the unfamiliar Chrome operating system ensures that many people won’t, even at a lower starting price of $999, down from $1,299. (That’s for a Core i5 model with 8 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage; Google will also sell a Core i7 “LS” version with double the RAM and storage.) Still, Google seems perfectly fine with the fact that the Pixel won’t be a blockbuster, noting that the new model is for developers and enthusiasts who just wanted a hardware refresh. Long live the niche.
It’s hard to overstate how important USB Type-C is for the future of laptops (and, for that matter, many other devices). Instead of having separate connections for a charger, display output, and peripherals, USB Type-C combines them all into a single, universal port. The cable itself can also be flipped in either orientation, eliminating the variant of Murphy’s Law that states you’ll never insert the USB plug the right way on your first try.
Type-C already enjoyed some time in the sun earlier this week, when Apple announced its ultra-thin MacBook with a single USB-C connector on one side. It’s a polarizing move, saddling first-gen users with the need for adapters and hubs, but at the same time pushing peripheral makers to speed adoption of the new standard.
The Pixel probably won’t wield that level of influence either way, so Google has taken the less extreme approach of including some legacy connections. The new laptop still has two USB 3.0 ports on its left side, and a full-sized SD card slot on the right. (For external monitors, you’ll have to buy an HDMI or DisplayPort adapter for $40 each.)
Still, Google wants people to fall in love with Type-C, and claims to have played a big role in defining the standard. On the Pixel, there are two Type-C connectors–one on each side–so you can plug in a power cord from either direction, or drive an external display while keeping the laptop fully charged.
Part of the reason critics scoffed at the original Pixel was that it seemed expensive for a device that was basically just a web browser.
But a lot of what’s pleasurable about the Pixel doesn’t show up on a spec sheet, and that hasn’t changed in the second generation. The aluminum chassis, which is nearly identical to the original Pixel, has no visible gaps or vents and doesn’t flex under pressure. The display is covered with edge-to-edge glass, and unless you press your nose up to it, you won’t be able to discern individual pixels. And while the 3:2 aspect ratio is taller than most laptops, the fact that it packs in more content vertically feels just right for the web.
Meanwhile, I can’t muster a single complaint about the keyboard and trackpad. The former strikes a perfect balance of travel and rigidity while giving off a light yet satisfying clack. The latter is generously sized and covered in glass. MacBooks are often held up as the gold standard in these areas, but the Pixel holds its own.
If I have one big complaint with the hardware, it’s…well…that the Pixel has better performance and longer battery life than it actually needs. The 12-hour battery is more than enough for a workday, and I have no idea how to push the i5 processor to its limits, so I would have happily made compromises on both fronts in exchange for a lighter laptop. At 3.3 pounds, the Pixel is a lot heavier than the new 2-pound MacBook and the latest thin-and-light Windows notebooks, so it wouldn’t be my first choice to carry around all day.
I’m also still ambivalent about the Pixel’s touch screen. This is such a tall laptop that reaching out over the keyboard feels like a lot of work, so I wish there there was some Lenovo Yoga-like way to fold the screen around. Even then, Chrome’s touch-screen support is inconsistent, occasionally failing to support gestures in places you’d expect, such as swiping through screenshots in the Chrome Web Store.
Inevitably when you get into the $1,000 range, a question comes up: Why buy this thing instead of a MacBook? (Or, if you’re a Microsoft diehard, why not a Surface Pro 3 or Dell XPS 13?) Any computer can run Google’s Chrome browser, so why not buy one that also runs other software?
The answer has always come easy for me, as someone who can do nearly all his work in a web browser. If I don’t need other programs, there’s a benefit to not having them there in the first place. Everything feels faster and more efficient. There are no cluttered Start screens to wade through, and no antivirus programs to deal with. The settings menu is dead-simple compared to the labyrinthine Control Panel of Windows. Even the taskbar feels optimized for the browser, giving me shortcuts to useful web apps like Gmail, TweetDeck, and (my new favorite) Dillinger.io. Chrome can feel like a resource hog on other machines, but I suspect that’s because it’s competing for memory and processing power with all sorts of cruft.
It’s also worth debunking a common line of attack about Chromebooks being useless without an Internet connection. This is simply not true anymore, as the Chrome Web Store includes plenty of apps that run offline, including Google Drive, Gmail, Calendar, and Google Play Movies & TV. Google’s Chrome app strategy is a bit muddled–a plan to bring Android apps to the platform has been languishing in beta with only a handful of apps since last year, and the Chrome Web Store has its fair share of junk–but a good offline app like Pixlr Touch Up can be invaluable.
Having said all that, even I find myself hung up on that handful of programs I’d like to have–things like Livescribe Desktop (which is far superior to its web-based counterpart), Steam in-home game streaming, and the desktop OneDrive client. It’s hard to shake the notion that Chromebooks are still secondary laptops, and $1,000 is a lot to ask for any laptop that isn’t your daily driver.
Still, I’ve never understood the animosity some folks have felt toward the Chromebook Pixel’s very existence. For one thing, Google notes that its work on the Pixel will trickle to the rest of the Chromebook line, which can take advantage of more efficient display software, better trackpad drivers, and USB Type-C support. Beyond that, some people might just want a kick-ass Chromebook. It’s a bit part in the broader cast of Windows PCs and Macs, but the new Pixel, future-proof and free of its predecessor’s shortcomings, is ready to play it.