The Case for the Chromebook Pixel

Yesterday Google announced their latest branded hardware product, the Chromebook Pixel. Chromebooks have been inexpensive, lightweight laptops running a special Google operating system based on the Chrome browser. Instead of using native applications like a Mac or PC, or even an Android tablet or iPad, Chromebooks only access web applications. That makes them fast, simple and generally secure.

Until today’s announcement though, Chromebooks had one major flaw — all of them had low resolution screens. The “Pixel” in the new Chromebook’s name refers to it’s new 2560 x 1700, at 239 PPI high resolution screen. That’s in comparison to the 1280 x 800 screen on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook which I’ve been using since last spring.

Since I’m such heavy user of Google’s cloud tools like Gmail, Calendar and Drive, the Chromebook has always felt natural to me. The lightweight feel and the long battery life more than made up for any challenges caused by a lack of “native” apps. When the I saw announcement about the Pixel, giving me more CPU speed, 1 TB of Google Drive cloud storage (for 3 years),  and a much improved touch screen (previous generations lacked touch screens) I was quick to cheer it’s arrival and plan my order.

My enthusiasm was quickly assaulted by feedback and articles arguing against the Pixel.

Reading articles like Gizmodo’s “Every Reason Not to Buy the Google Chromebook Pixel” and GearLive’s “3 reasons why you shouldn’t buy Google’s Chromebook Pixel” made that case that the Pixel was a bad idea, badly implemented. Lots of people are arguing they don’t know anyone who would, or should, by a Pixel. Even a poll in Seattle’s own Geekwire was running 84% again the Pixel (as of this morning).

I disagree (and I’m not alone).

Yes, it’s too expensive (for now)

Ok, yes it’s expensive. The cheapest Pixel is $1299, the version with 4G LTE and twice the local storage is $1449. That’s about 3x what the current generation of Chromebooks is selling for.

Gizmodo thinks that the Pixel is so overpriced that they brought back the <blink> tag to highlight their displeasure. They argue that the whole concept behind a Chromebook is a simple, “just the essentials” laptop. Spending almost $1500 for that browser based experience is too much

But let’s think about the price for a minute. The Pixel comes with 1 TB of Google Drive storage for three years. That’s normally $50 per month, or worth $1800 over the three years. Now we see you’re paying $0 for the laptop, and getting $600 off your terabyte of cloud storage. Buy a big Google Drive and get a laptop thrown in for free! [correction — I originally had the pricing at $50 a year, when it’s $50 a month.]

Now do we really believe that this is the long term price for “high end” Chromebooks? The original Chromebooks came in at $500 and are now down to $250. Downward price pressure for hardware is almost an inevitability.

The Pixel screen is pretty but…

Another argument against the Pixel is that the high resolution screen, while beautiful, has a 3:2 aspect ratio instead of the more common 16:9 or 4:3. My YouTube and Netflix HD videos will have black letterboxing in full screen! So what?

Most videos are viewed in place, not full screen and video is not the most common data type on the Internet. Web pages tend to grow vertically, not horizontally. We scroll up and down the screen, not side to side. The Chrome operating system is designed for having multiple browser windows, with multiple tabs open on the screen. The 3:2 ratio is a good compromise for creating and viewing web pages and web apps.

No, I wouldn’t rather have a MacBook Air

The rest of the argument against the Pixel is about applications, arguing that for close to the same price you could get a MacBook Air, a Windows 8 PC or even a Surface Pro. Chromebooks aren’t supposed to be for “serious” work, and you should spend the money on a “real” laptop, operating system and apps.

Having used a MacBook Air and a Surface RT, I would still want have a Chromebook Pixel. The MBA is a great machine, but depending on how you use it battery life can be a problem. It lacks a touch screen and requires you to keep most of your files in the cloud because of it’s limited local storage (just like the Chromebook). The Surface is a nice machine but suffers from the current weirdness of the Windows 8/Windows 7 UI transition even if you can run “regular” apps on it. The Chromebook keyboard is as good as the MacBook Air and beats the Surface Touch keyboard hands down.

There are some real advantages to the Chrome OS as well. It’s fast, boots almost instantly, is simple and intuitive. There’s less to manage and to configure. It’s not a panacea and certainly not the right choice for all applications such as video editing, Photoshop, or 3D design.

Playing the long game

Let me wrap this up by reminding everyone that Google is playing a long game, with multiple pieces on the board — Chrome OS, Chromebooks, Android, Nexus, Google Glass. I see the Pixel as a high end play and a positioning leader for the enterprise and their Google Apps/Drive business. While the Gmail, Calendar and Apps experience today is the same on a Mac or a Pixel, with the touch screen I expect Google to eventually roll out Pixel touch optimized responsive UX designs for their apps.

In April 2010, just after the release of the iPad people were complaining about it’s price, features and connectivity. In February 2013 people are doing the same thing about the Pixel. While I don’t think the Pixel will be the truly revolutionary device the iPad has become, I think that this may be a case where Google knows something that the wise sages running product review sites don’t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s