In an attempt to satisfy cloud-computing power users, Google recently launched its Chromebook Pixel, a $1,299 laptop with a high-resolution touch screen that’s now the flagship of the Chrome OS fleet.
“The goal was to push the boundary and build something premium,” Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president of engineering in charge of Chrome and the Google Apps online services, said in an interview. Two years ago, Google engineers set out on “the labour of love” project asking themselves “What could we do if we really wanted to design the best computer possible at the best price possible?”
The answer to that question is a new 3.3-pound computer that brings a lot more polish to a product family that’s been much more about low-cost. Chrome OS runs Web apps in the browser rather than native apps written for traditional operating systems such as iOS or Windows. Google’s focus so far has been on consumer machines with a low sticker price and business machines that are cheap to manage.
There are two Chromebook Pixel models in the United States, a $1,299 Wi-Fi-only model with a 32GB SSD and a $1,499 model that adds 4G mobile networking using Verizon’s LTE service. The price includes three years’ access to 1 terabyte of cloud-based storage space on Google Drive and 12 sessions of GoGo Inflight Internet access.
For Google, a touch-enabled Chromebook paves the way for more dramatic departures — for example, a Chrome OS tablet.
“We’re pushing computing forward. It’ll definitely make the ecosystem rethink touch,” Pichai said. “I think people will take the first step toward building tablets with this.”
Of course, a Chrome OS tablet would mean the browser-based operating system competes directly with Android. It’s possible to build Android’s Java-like programming foundation into Chrome OS so Android apps could run, but Pichai said it’s “premature” to talk about that possibility at this stage. Chrome and Android sharing already is going the other direction: with Chrome now available for newer Android devices, Google can work on improving how well Web apps run on mobile devices.
The most impressive feature of the Chromebook Pixel is its high-end screen.
The Chromebook Pixel has very high-resolution 12.85-inch, 2560×1700 display whose aspect ratio is a taller-than-usual 3:2 size for more vertical screen space. It’s covered with a layer of Gorilla Glass for protection and has an unusually high 400-nit brightness.
The linear resolution of 239 pixels per inch means it exceeds the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s Retina 227ppi screen by a smidgen, making fonts smooth and graphics sharp. As with Retina devices, though, a lot of software and Web pages must be updated before graphics will look their best.
And of course it’s a touch screen, something Microsoft has strongly advocated with Windows 8 but Apple has yet to embrace for its Macs. People can touch icons to load Chrome apps, touch tabs to switch among them, swipe to scroll around Web pages, and — when Web apps have been adapted suitably — pinch to zoom.
Under the hood, the Pixel uses a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor with integrated HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of DDR3 memory, and a fan that can switch on to keep the electronics cool. It’s got two USB 2.0 ports, a combination headphone-microphone jack, an SD Card slot, and a Mini DisplayPort for hooking up a TV or external monitor. The battery lasts five hours with typical usage.
In addition, Chrome OS dovetails well with Google Apps, Google’s suite of online services for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, calendar scheduling, and e-mail. Google charges $50 per user per year for Google Apps, and for businesses deploying Chromebooks, it charges an extra $30 per user per year for use of centralized management software.
“The Google Apps customer base turns out to be a lead generator for Chromebooks,” Pichai said.