Rethinking Chromebook Pixel

Yesterday marked my second full day using Chromebook Pixel, following a nearly 7-month hiatus and pointless journey to Windows 8.1 and OS X Yosemite. Last summer, I sold my 64GB LTE Pixel to a student from Brazil; I had purchased the laptop new off Craigslist, substantially discounted. I feel foolish for letting it go. I type on the 32GB WiFi model—used, and I’m grateful to have it.

Google unveiled the Pixel two years ago next month. The hardware is unchanged, while competitors—and even most Chromebook manufacturing partners—have moved on to newer hardware. The only real difference is Chrome OS, now at version 40, up from 25 when I reviewed the computer in late February 2013. My questions today, rethinking the computer: Is there still a place for the Pixel, and, if so, should Google release updated models? 

Call Me Stupid
I abandoned Pixel when suffering vision problems and while wanting to reconnect to my core Microsoft audience of readers. I moved to Surface Pro 3, but the tablet-hybrid didn’t fit. My productivity declined tremendously. In selling SP3 at the end of August 2014, my destination should have been back to the Chromie lifestyle rather than the Apple Way. But Mac and iPhone are supposed to be tools for creatives, and I had great experience using both. iPhone 6’s release was imminent and tempted, too.

But I had changed and failed to see. I had moved on to a very different computing lifestyle, which neither Apple nor Microsoft provide—despite efforts to do so. To embrace Chromebook, you must change your mindset, particularly if a long-time computer user. The browser is the user interface, and the usage experience cannot be recreated running Chrome on OS X or Windows. Simplicity, distraction freedom, and effortless anytime, anywhere, on-anything computing are defining characteristics.

As the new year dawned, and I surveyed the last six months of creative content production, blindness lifted. The cluttered, distracting PC app-centric way was the past where I didn’t belong.  My return journey started on January 15, with purchase of Toshiba Chromebook 2—the first budget model worth my money since the Samsung Series 5 550, which released in May 2012. Because Apple products hold value for so long, I could sell off gear and go Google without blowing budgets. I sold my MacBook Pro three days later.

The Toshiba has a fantastic display that is a tad brighter than the Apple. Performance is good, but not great. For example, there is lag scrolling down the browser, which is unfortunate given Chrome is the major motif.

I would use Chromebook 2 right now if not for unexpected circumstance. The same day the laptop arrived from Amazon, Ian Betteridge posted to Google+: “I still enjoy using the Chromebook Pixel as much as any computer I’ve ever owned. If there was a new version with a ten hour battery life, I’d buy it in a heartbeat”. In the two years since Google started selling the Pixel—$1,299 (32GB WiFi) or $1,449 (64GB LTE)—price and configuration haven’t changed. I reshared his post, adding: “I regret selling my Pixel and would buy a newer model too”. That set things into motion.

“I have one if you’re interested”, Thomas Vu responded. He had looked into selling it on eBay. Instead, we swapped. He took my iPad Air 128GB LTE, and I got his Pixel to replace the Toshiba.

Minority Computing
There is something about the Pixel that just fits me. I got way more work done in the last 48 hours than the previous couple of weeks, whether using Chromebook 2 or MacBook Pro Retina Display; both have 13.3-inch screens. Using the two-year old hardware, my reaction is exactly the same as expressed in my original review: “The Chrome OS laptop is, from a hardware and operating system perspective, finely balanced. Performance is generally smooth and the ergonomics excellent”. I would argue the Google feels snappier than the Apple, while effortlessly outclassing the Toshiba.

I’ve long attested that Chromebook Pixel is meant for creatives considering MacBook Pro, based on design, price, and, most importantly, balanced benefits. I should have taken my own advice sooner, and yesterday I actually reread all my stories about the Pixel. Refresher required.

Pixel is a strange turnabout to the past, even while embracing a more contextual, web-centric future. I bought my first Mac in December 1998 and soon after joined a computing minority. At a time when everyone used Windows, I worked alongside the cool kids of creatives choosing the Apple Way. Today, it’s passe, given Apple’s amazing popularity surge—and unfathomable financial success during this decade.

There have to be even fewer Chromebook users, Pixel adopters even less so, than when my Mac life started 16 years ago. I don’t mean to join, or even establish, an elite club. But I belong to something, and maybe that’s just a bunch of fools. But I’d like think we’re something more.

Future What?
Much as my computing concepts have changed, some old ways of thinking remain. Chromebook Pixel gives me tremendous value, but not enough that I would spend $1,299 or $1,449 to buy hardware released two years ago. Budget would not allow regardless. From that perspective, Ian’s point about an updated model is worth discussion in context of my past Pixel posts and how my sharing his post put the Chromebook under my fingertips.

Let’s start with specs: 12.85-inch touchscreen, 2560 x 1700 resolution, 239 pixels per inch; 1.8GHz Core i5 processor; Intel HD graphics 4000; 4GB DDR3 RAM; 32GB or 64GB of storage; HD WebCam; backlit keyboard; dual-band WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n 2×2; 4G LTE (on one model); Bluetooth 3.0; mini-display port; two USB ports; Chrome OS. Measures: 297.7 x 224.6 x 16.2 mm. Weighs: 1.52 kg (3.35 pounds).

The newest MacBook Pro, at $1,299 or $1,499, packs 2.6GHz i5 processor and 8GB RAM. Touch isn’t an option, while Pixel packs higher screen resolution and brightness. But using Pixel, I must say again that it is goddamn snappy. That speaks as much to Chrome OS as the hardware. They balance superbly.

But battery life—four hours at a stretch—is about half MacBook Pro or one-third some cheaper, current Chromebooks. WiFi ac would be valuable addition, too, particularly remembering that this is a computer meant to be as constantly connected to the Internet as possible.

Google built Chromebook Pixel to last—to improve as Chrome OS matured. That goal is achieved. The laptop I use to write this post is better than the one reviewed in February 2013. Fifteen operating system revisions, coming about every six weeks, mean something. That benefit goes to all the K-12 schools buying cheaper Chromebooks and hoping to keep them in service for three years or more.

I tell them this: Don’t be dissuaded by Apple’s popularity and wonder if you should have purchased iPads or Macs instead. Chromebook is a worthwhile investment; it’s primped for learning—keyboard is one reason. Google search, informational, and collaboration services are also huge benefits, as are the costs saved using webapps rather than buying desktop or tablet applications.

Do This, If Not That
My advice to Google: If there are no plans to update Chromebook Pixel, don’t abandon it. Keep selling both current configurations for at least another year. The laptop is unique, and it absolutely appeals to the type of users who might have been Mac adopters during the 1990s and early 2000s. These buyers are your Chromebook platform advocates. Enthusiasts are the best evangelists.

They are elite, even though I insist that’s not my reason for buying Pixel (again). But I won’t complain about being part of this special group, which embraces contextual cloud computing while Apple and Microsoft preserve their legacy systems.

In rethinking Chromebook Pixel, while writing this post, my reason not buying new (besides budget considerations) is clearer: Fear that updated configurations might release soon after I purchase. If my experience using this laptop over the last 48 hours is any lesson, value and benefits are as good today as they were 24 months—if not better.

That reflects Google’s design philosophy, which acknowledges two things:

  • For PCs (but necessarily other device categories), Moore’s Law has reached its inevitable end, and today’s hardware isn’t that much improved in 18 months—or even three years.
  • A robust, stable hardware platform, improved with ongoing and regularly-released software updates, offers better benefits than the archaic approach Apple and Microsoft take with OS X and Windows, respectively.

My wife wants a Pixel, too, because she so loves the screen’s quality and touch’s utility. I’m on the lookout for another. Call me crazy. You won’t be the first. What’s that line from Apple’s last-Century “Think Different” campaign: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes”. I’m a Chromebook Pixel user, and I think differently.