Google Chromebook Pixel Laptop Tech Reviews

Published on by batteryshops.com.au

 

The Chromebook series was launched in 2011 as a small, simple, affordable and always-connected notebook running Chrome OS, Google's browser-centric operating system that distinguishes it from a typical, now near-obsolete netbook. Its unconventional software and generally low SSD storage options, however, have so far limited the Chromebook’s appeal to niche users, businesses, and schools alike. Still, our past reviews of Samsung Chromebooks have revealed them to be easy-to-use, fast, and generally well-constructed for the price.

 

As the latest entry in the series, the Chromebook Pixel is an almost complete one-eighty for the family. Whereas previous Chromebooks have launched with Intel Atom CPUs, 2 GB RAM, 4 GB solid-state drives and 720p displays for as low as $300, the Pixel houses a full-fledged IVB ULV Core i5-3427U with 4 GB DDR3 RAM, a 32 GB SSD and a unique 12.85-inch 2560 x 1700 resolution 3:2 display for $1299. Combined with Chrome OS, the Pixel truly is unlike what any notebook has come before.

 

Connectivity

Physical connectivity options include the standard 3.5 mm audio jack, SD card reader, and 2x USB 2.0 ports; no USB 3.0 options are available. Almost all the ports are located on the left edge, which is beneficial for right-handed users. With the Mini DisplayPort, we were able to extend to a 1920 x 1200 resolution external monitor - complete with sound - without any problems. Options to mirror the displays, however, are not available with the Chromebook. How the Pixel handles a detected external display is indeed opposite to how it was done on older Chromebooks where mirroring was the default and only option supported.

Perhaps more disappointing is the lack of an RJ-45 port, especially for a device that practically relies on a consistent Internet connection to function at its best. A USB-to-Ethernet adapter, which is standard amongst several Asus Zenbooks, would have been an excellent accessory to throw in for Pixel users.

Front: No connectivity
Front: No connectivity
Left: AC power, MiniDP, 2x USB 2.0
Left: AC power, MiniDP, 2x USB 2.0
Rear: No connectivity
Rear: No connectivity
Right: SD/MMC card reader, SIM reader (optional)
Right: SD/MMC card reader, SIM reader (optional)

Wireless connectivity is handled by a dual-band (2x2) MIMO antenna capable of up to wireless-n speeds of 300 Mbps. This is a step down from the tri-stream 3x3 Atheros chipset in the 2012 Samsung Chromebook, though only a handful of WLAN networks can fully utilize the higher 450 Mbps throughput. Since a steady Internet connection is of utmost importance for any Chromebook, we experienced no random drop outs or other unexpected latency spikes during use. It would have been a huge plus to include wireless-ac compatibility, but it is understandable to have reserved the option for a possible future release as the 802.11ac standard is still in its draft stages.

Users looking for 4G WWAN functionality can opt for the recently launched Pixel LTE for $1449. The update doubles the SSD storage from 32 GB to 64 GB and adds native SIM support for Verizon's network, but the model is otherwise identical to the Wi-Fi model in review.

Security

The sheer uniqueness of the OS and its heavy reliance on cloud-based storage can potentially make the Pixel much more secure than Windows or Mac notebooks that could contain large amounts of locally stored data. Thus, the Pixel eludes many of the viruses that target Microsoft and Apple software and, if stolen, is less likely to contain locally stored sensitive files. In fact, the recent Pwnium 3 competition proved to be unsuccessful in crafting a complete hack on the Chrome operating system, further cementing the OS as a safe platform for the time being.

As per usual for Chromebooks, the Pixel requires a Google account and password upon boot-up to provide instant access to Google Drive and other Google services. Users without a Google account can still sign in as Guest, which allows private web surfing and deletes all cached data upon shutting down or signing off. TPM is included as another layer of protection against suspicious background activity, most notably keyloggers and other recording software.

Absent from the Pixel is a dedicated factory reset switch and Kensington Lock. While a hard reset can still be accomplished via keyboard inputs (Esc + Refresh + Power), the lack of a Kensington Lock is a bit of an oversight. Nonetheless, the underlying software is impressive on the security front.

Accessories

The lack of any dedicated docking or extension ports means that the Pixel uses no specialized accessories. The standard packaging is bare and includes no protective sleeves or cases, which are common free accessories amongst high-end models like the HP Envy and Asus Zenbook series. Fortunately, generic external mice, keyboards, drives, USB hubs, webcams, and similar Bluetooth devices are all still compatible should the need arise. Otherwise, the Pixel is generally a much more closed device compared to other notebooks.

Warranty

In the U.S., Google only provides a standard one-year warranty for material and workmanship defects; There are no extended warranty options available. Users who purchase the Pixel through Best Buy instead of directly from Google, however, can benefit from the additional coverage options that the store provides to all its products including accidental damage protection up to three years.

Software

Chrome Browser and Chrome OS

The Chrome operating system centers on its browser, but a traditional "Explorer" bar is available for displaying active windows and for users to easily pin favorited and commonly used apps for instant access. Syncing the notebook to one’s Google account will automatically port Chrome bookmarks, history, and extensions without any issues. Updates are downloaded in the background automatically and will alert users with a small icon should a restart be required. If so, the reboot will literally take seconds, and all previously opened tabs and windows are restored just as quickly. The simplicity of the software is very easy on the eyes and makes the Pixel easy to pick up and play with a very low learning curve.

Just as important as the browser is the Chrome Web Store, which allows access to Google’s major services including Books, Music, and Games, though it is not compatible with Play Android apps. This is perhaps where many users will be spending most of their time for quick entertainment and for personalizing their system. Unlike previous Chromebooks where built-in storage was as low as 4 GB, users are given much more freedom with the larger 32 GB SSD. The touchscreen is especially fun for many of the applications and games and can be surprisingly useful for navigation due to the large, touch-friendly icons and text.

Clean desktop with touch-friendly Explorer bar
Clean desktop with touch-friendly Explorer bar
Chrome Web Store is vital for productive apps
Chrome Web Store is vital for productive apps
Almost all system settings are done directly on the Chrome browser
Almost all system settings are done directly on the Chrome browser

Video and Photo

Supported major video files include AVI, MP4, OGV, and WEBM; MKV and DIVX fans will be disappointed to learn that the Pixel will not natively play these file types, though this is only a minor issue as numerous apps exist for extended playback support. Opening a video file from the browser will automatically launch a pop-up video player, while opening from a local drive will launch the built-in media player. In either case, both 720p and 1080p content play flawlessly, something that previous generation Chromebooks had trouble with. Video playback via the Mini DisplayPort is smooth as well. In this mode, the internal speakers of the Pixel are automatically disabled should it detect external solutions. Playback of any high quality content will heat up the Pixel quite easily, however, as seen in our Temperature analyses below.

Playback of native 2048 x 1536 video sources on YouTube are a mixed bag. Fast moving videos, such as in the two-minute Real Racing demo, resulted in almost 800 dropped frames and slight frame skipping throughout the video. The video is still very watchable, though not as smooth as videos with slower movement.

Supported major image and music files include JPEG, JPG, PNG, BMP, WEBP, GIF, MP3, M4A, and WAV. Large image files especially look truly amazing as fine details are represented much more vividly on the dense display. Any sort of editing, of course, will be limited to third party apps available on the Chrome store and are generally nowhere near as intricate as dedicated editing software for Windows and Mac platforms. In fact, the only default editing options include rotation, cropping, and brightness/contrast controls, which is unfortunate given the editing possibilities with the high resolution touchscreen. The built-in option to instantly upload pictures to Picasa is also gone, though most users will likely not miss the feature. Apps such as PicMonkey, BeFunky, and Sumo Paint offer a much advanced suite of editing options than the default.




Keyboard

The Backlit Chiclet keyboard is small in size (28 cm x 11 cm), but the flat keys are surprisingly large since many of the common auxiliary keys (i.e., Home, PgUp, PgDn, Print Screen, F keys, etc.) are not present. Feedback is firm despite the soft noise and very shallow travel, so typing is still comfortable and quiet for the most part. The rectangular keys on the top row, however, do feel different as they require a harder press with a more solid feedback in return. The directional keys have unfortunately taken a backseat as they are reduced in size and softer when pressed. It may have been beneficial to extend this portion of the keyboard to make room for larger arrow keys - like how they appear on the recently reviewed Samsung Series 4 400B5C - instead of halving their size.

Touchpad

The matte touchpad is large (10.2 cm x 6.8 cm) for a notebook this size and makes multi-touch gestures much easier to use. Inputs such as scrolling and drag and dropping are responsive without any noticeable lag or delays with very low input errors. Clicking on the touchpad with a single finger results in a shallow but firm left click, while two fingers will register a right click. We find this simple approach to be intuitive and superior to splitting the touchpad into the traditional left and right click regions.

The few complaints we have about the touchpad include its native lack of pinch-to-zoom and its ability to accumulate fingerprints very easily. Fortunately, the zooming function can be done via the touchscreen or key inputs, so it is only a minor criticism. Otherwise, the keyboard and touchpad are painless to use.

Touchscreen

The Pixel lacks any special hinges or swiveling mechanisms that have made some new releases special, such as the Yoga and Twist series, Satellite U920T, and Dell XPS 12. As a result, it has more in common with notebooks like the Asus Zenbook UX31A Touch and budget Satellite P845T or Acer Aspire M5-481PT. While the touchscreen may feel rather tacked-on on both the P845T and M5, the simple UI of Chrome OS is arguably friendlier for touchscreen use, if not easier to learn, than on Windows 8. It definitely doesn’t have as many unique gestures, but its basic functions are great for games and seldom err.

Fewer, but larger keys
Fewer, but larger keys
Large matte touchpad
Large matte touchpad


Display

The 12.85-inch glossy touchscreen is the highlight of the hardware that delivers an experience unlike any other traditional offering. The size and aspect ratio are certainly not commonplace for a notebook, but no one is going to argue against a display with over twice the pixels of a fullHD screen and an even higher DPI than Apple’s current crop of Retina MacBooks. The screen even appears to be plane to the display bezel for a greater "pop-up" effect instead of being buried under its Gorilla Glass layer. Texts are fortunately scaled to more legible sizes by default and can be zoomed out quite far if desired without losing visual quality. It’s also important to note that even though the screen size is small, its aspect ratio and high horizontal resolution make it easier than initially expected to transition from 720p or 1080p displays to the unusual screen size of the Pixel. 

Notebookcheck on native 1920 x 1200 resolution
Notebookcheck on native 1920 x 1200 resolution

Performance

Processor

The Pixel is the first Chromebook in the series to utilize a Core ix CPU of any kind, more specifically the 1.8 GHz ULV Core i5-3427U. The Ivy Bridge core brings a large improvement in terms of performance over the standard Atom and Celeron processors of past Chromebooks and can be found in a number of recent midrange to highend ultrathins including the 2012 MacBook Air 13, Dell Latitude 6430u, Toshiba Portege Z930 and ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Roughly speaking, it achieves the same performance as the budget Sandy Bridge Core i3-2330M while operating at lower core clocks and half the power envelope. See here for more information and benchmarks on the Core i5-3427U.

The full hardware specifications list of the Chromebook can be retrieved by inserting "chrome://system/" into the URL of its Chrome browser.

Battery Life

The 59 Whr Li-ion battery is, as expected, non-removable. Fortunately, it is also quite dense for a notebook in the 11- to 13-inch size range. The 12.5-inch ThinkPad X230, 13.3-inch Series 9 900X3B, and 2012 MacBook Air 13, for example, have Hp pavilion dm4 laptop batteries at 63 Whr, 37 Whr, and 50 Whr, respectively. Of course, these notebooks are not required to power screens with more than three or four times the pixels of standard 720p or 900p resolutions.

 

When idling and at its lowest brightness, we recorded a battery life of just over 6 hours and 15 minutes. For more realistic expectations, we set the notebook to 150 cd/m2 brightness (setting 10/16) and then proceeded to run our standard WLAN looping browser script. These conditions reduced battery life to about 4 hours and 49 minutes, which is close to the 5 hour estimate from Google. Continuous playback of 4K Youtube videos at maximum screen brightness yielded a bit less than 2 hours before automatic shutdown.

 

At almost 5 hours of constant use in our standard WLAN test, the Pixel falls a little short compared to the competition including the ThinkPad X230, X1 Carbon Touch, and MacBook Air by at least half an hour despite having a larger battery. The low maximum runtime of a little over 6 hours also gives less breathing room for the user to extend battery life if needed. Still, the 4 to 5 hour window is good considering the display density and ULV Core i5 as long as users don’t go in expecting a full day of use out of the Pixel.

 

Pixel is a straightforward notebook wrapped in an extraordinary case and display. The high-end hardware ultimately feels limited by the narrow scope of Chrome OS, so most users will likely get a bigger bang for the buck from a more established Windows or Mac platform, both of which can do much more than a Pixel and offer more customization options for lower prices. Buyers looking to install a Linux distro may be the exception, though such actions and resulting repercussions are beyond the scope of this review. The Pixel is certainly not conventional for typical day-to-day use, but Google has set the hardware bar very high not just for itself, but also for any future Chromebooks and Ultrabooks to come.

Published on Battery News

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