Chromebook Pixel review: A luxury laptop for life in the cloud

We take a deep-dive look into Google's new Chromebook, which has high-quality hardware and an amazing touch-based display. But at $1,300, is it the laptop for you?

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Limited local storage but lots of cloud-based space

The Chromebook Pixel has a 32GB solid state drive (SSD) -- 64GB, if you opt for the LTE model. That's more internal space than other Chromebooks but notably less than other comparably priced laptops. The reason: Chrome OS, as I'll discuss in a moment, is focused primarily on the cloud; the local storage is designed to be more of a giant scratch drive than anything.

Google does include an entire terabyte of cloud-based Google Drive storage for three years with all Pixel purchases. If you were to pay outright for that amount of Drive storage, it'd cost you $50 a month or $1,800 over the course of three years -- more than the cost of the computer itself.

(After the three-year period has elapsed, any files you've stored will remain in your account and accessible to you, but your available free space will drop back down to the standard 5GB mark.)

If you really need more local space, Chrome OS has plug-and-play support for external hard drives and USB flash drives; there's also the integrated memory card reader for a more permanent sort of attachment.

A cloud-centric software experience

What most sets the Chromebook Pixel apart from traditional laptops is its cloud-centric Chrome OS software experience. Rather than utilizing local programs, Chrome OS revolves around the concept of Web-based applications -- so instead of using Microsoft Office, for instance, you use Google Docs. Instead of Photoshop, you use a cloud-based image editor like Pixlr.

Despite its cloud-centric nature, the vast majority of Chrome OS functionality does work fine with or without an active Internet connection. It's not a locked-down or nonfunctional type of computing environment; it's just a very different approach to computing than what most of us are used to.

The benefit of the cloud-centric system is that everything -- your data, applications and entire environment -- is always synced and consistent from one device to the next. Chrome OS also eliminates many of the hassles of traditional computing, such as cumbersome setups and installation procedures, annoying and time-consuming software upgrades, the need to mess with complicated drivers and the need to worry about virus infections and protection.

The platform is constantly updated, too, with fresh updates arriving on your system seamlessly and indefinitely -- without any interaction on your behalf -- every few weeks. That, combined with the cloud-centric nature of the system, means a Chromebook generally gets faster over time instead of becoming bogged down and poky like traditional computers tend to do.

I've covered Chrome OS in great depth elsewhere, so I'll refer you to my previous coverage for a more thorough look at what the software's actually like to use. In short, I'll say this: Chrome OS isn't for everyone. If you need specific local programs for your work or aren't comfortable with the concept of cloud storage, it probably isn't the right fit for you.

If you find yourself spending most of your time on the Web and in Web-based apps, though -- as a growing number of users do -- you may find Chrome OS to be a refreshing change that gives you the parts of computing you like without the annoyances that usually accompany them.

(It's also possible, by the way, to configure a dual-boot setup with Linux and Chrome OS on the Chromebook Pixel -- though it's something only advanced users should attempt.)

Bottom line

With the Chromebook Pixel, Google set out to build a premium laptop experience -- and in most respects, it succeeded. The Chromebook Pixel is a beautifully designed laptop with outstanding hardware, a phenomenal display and an interesting form of touch support that promises to open new possibilities for the way you use a laptop.

That experience, however, doesn't come cheap. The Pixel's starting price of $1,300 puts it in the same league as systems like the $1,500 MacBook Pro with Retina display, which are far more versatile in the types of programs they can run and functions they can perform.

Of course, more functionality doesn't necessarily mean a better experience. Chrome OS is designed for people who don't need local applications or a traditional PC environment -- and eliminating those elements allows some attractive benefits to be added in. Ultimately, it all comes down to what works for you.

If you're interested in a cloud-centric computing experience, the $249 Samsung Chromebook remains the most advisable starting point to consider. By its nature, a premium product like the Chromebook Pixel isn't designed for mainstream appeal -- and the lower-priced alternative offers many of the same basic benefits at a fraction of the cost.

If you're sold on the Chrome OS concept and want the best of the best, though -- and can justify dropping $1,300 on a device -- the Chromebook Pixel will give you a cloud computing experience like no other. It's life in the cloud at its most luxurious, and any Chrome OS convert will be thrilled with the comfort it provides.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Google-focused insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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