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Review: Livin' in the cloud with Google's new Chromebook Pixel

Nice legs – shame about the concept

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It has been well over two years years since Google released its first Chromebook, the CR-48, and set off on a quest to convince the world of the benefits of living in the browser. Last week, the company unveiled its latest attempt to seduce the public – the luxury touchscreen Chromebook Pixel – and gave The Reg a $1,449 LTE-equipped version to try out.

We tried it out, and, well ... read on.

We Silicon Valley press folks are a surly lot, not given to displays of emotion. But when that astronomical Pixel price was announced at Google's roll-out event, there was a lot of excited shuffling about in the press-conference room as we hacks maneuvered to get our questions in.

The biggest of those questions: since Chrome OS has been concentrating on the low-end of the market and hanging out with the kids in education, why is the Pixel leapfrogging into the very big – and pricey – leagues?

Why, indeed?

At this kind of money, Google is going directly at Intel-flogged Ultrabooks and Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air – and they might just succeed in prying away some users of those laptops. After a week of lugging the Pixel around, using it for day-to-day work and trying it out in a variety of locales, we prefer its hardware to an idealized Ultrabook, the MacBook Pro, and in some ways the Air, in terms of design, build-quality, and specifications.

But that's far from the whole story, as "as any fule kno," as the infamous Nigel Molesworth would say.

Google Pixel Chromebook Hero

A browser-based laptop for nearly fifteen-hundred bucks. Say what? (click to enlarge)

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The Pixel has a distinctive angular design with a 16.1mm-thin aluminum case that's unadorned with prominent logos or even port icons; there's just the word Chrome etched on the hinge and behind the keyboard as a reminder of who makes this device.

At 3.35 pounds and 297.7-by-224.6 millimeters in depth and width, it's on the larger and heavier side, but its build quality is superb. There's no give or twisting in the screen, and the laptop sits firmly on either desk or knees upon its little pointy feet.

Inside, our test unit had a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel 3rd-Generation ("Ivy Bridge") Core i5 processor with HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD. Buyers of the $1,299 Wi-Fi-only version, however, get only 32GB to play with. Google says this paltry internal storage space doesn't matter, however, because Mountain View gives users 1TB of cloud storage for three years. Users who prefer local storage, however, might disagree.

For external hookups, there are two USB 2.0 ports on the left of the case, along with a power port, a 3.5mm combination headphone and microphone jack, and a Mini-DisplayPort connector that can run a 30-inch monitor; a USB-to-Ethernet adaptor is also included.

Google says that the USB 3.0 chipset is too bulky for the Pixel's rather slim design, but the lack of an industry-competitive fast external storage connection is enough of a failing that it's a shame designers couldn't figure out a way to squeeze it in.

Pixel Chromebook left view

'Look Ma, no icons!' Left to right: power port, Mini-DisplayPort, two USB 2.0 ports, and audio (click to enlarge)

The keyboard has good key travel, is easy to adapt to (although keys could be larger,) and, like many another laptop, has an backlighting system that makes the Pixel a dream to use in darkened presentation rooms. The touchpad is fantastic – finely grained, silky-smooth, and super-responsive.

Over on the unit's right side you'll find a a full-sized SD card slot and SIM card slot. Inside are 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n antennas and Bluetooth 3.0. On booting, the Pixel is very quick to establish an internet connection – much faster than many tablets we've tested – and the range and speeds of the connections we managed were impressive.

Google Chromebook Pixel: right side

Over on the Pixel's right side you'll find an SD/multi card reader slot and the SIM garage (click to enlarge)

When you're out and about, the LTE model we tested comes with a Verizon connection that includes 100MB a month free downloads, along with a dozen Gogo "Inflight Internet" airline Wi-Fi coupons. If you want more online flight time, there's the choice of a $10-per-day connection or $20-50 monthly plans, and Google is in talks with mobile network operators in the UK and elsewhere for similar deals.

That 100MB download total isn't a lot when you need to use the cloud storage on a regular basis, and this makes the cellular connection more of an emergency-only connection – unless you're flush with funds, of course. It's also not a guarantee of a signal: Verizon's network is large, but there are large swathes of the US where this connection is useless.

The air vent for cooling the Pixel's innards is in the back of the unit under the hinge, which makes the unit look sleeker but does need a little getting used to. After we slipped off to dinner for an hour, leaving the Pixel propped up on bedcovers that covered the hinge, its casing was almost too hot to touch.

Pixel Chromebook light bar

Developers may well have some fun with the color-shifting light bar on the Pixel's lid

Just to show that the Pixel isn't all business, there's an LED light strip across the top of the outer cover which gives a four-color flash on opening and closing – Google's blue, red, yellow, and green branding, of course – and settles into a steady blue glow during use. It catches the eye well, particularly with a four-second light show triggered by the traditional Konami cheat code on two up, two down, left-right, left-right, and b-a button press.

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