Google’s new Chromebook Pixel: Improved in all the right ways

Two years ago, I bought a Chromebook Pixel, spending $1,449 on the LTE edition. It’s still one of the best purchases I’ve ever made although it wasn’t the most “perfect” laptop as it fell short in battery life.

Aside from the high price — a poor value for those who feel Google’s Chrome OS software isn’t capable enough for them — the original Pixel suffered from mediocre (at best) battery life with a run-time of around 5 hours per charge. With the newest Pixel announced on Wednesday, that problem is solved with help the latest Intel Core i5 and i7 processors.

Delivering on desires

Here’s what I said last month to expect from Google’s new Pixel; almost exactly what it delivers in the new model, which now starts at $999 directly from the Google Play Store; that’s the model Google loaned me for this review.

Little to no change on the outside of the laptop. There’s little there that needs an update or refresh. The trackpad is as good as the best of them out there, the keyboard is excellent and the overall design is thin, even if it’s not sleek.
The same 2560 x 1700 resolution touchscreen display. Again, this is one of the best features of the original Pixel and it still stands up against current screens. I wouldn’t mind if Google opted to lose the touch capabilities in a lower-priced model, though.
The biggest upgrade we’ll see is in the processor. Instead of a third-generation Intel Core i5, Google can use a fifth-gen Broadwell chip. That would provide a slight performance boost, even though the Pixel may not need it. More importantly, it would allow the Pixel 2 to overcome one of its few disappointing attributes: poor battery life. The chip change, along with any battery improvements, could let the laptop run for nine hours or more on a charge. The original Pixel topped out around five hours.
Google will likely carry over the same connectivity options from the original Pixel but upgrade the capabilities due to available technology. Expect the Wi-Fi to include 802.11ac support, and the Bluetooth 3.0 of the existing Pixel will surely be 4.0 in the new one. I’d expect an LTE edition like Google offered two years ago, although I’m not sure it will use Verizon as its partner again. I could see T-Mobile make a play here, if not AT&T. Early evidence of the Pixel 2 suggested reversible Type-C USB ports as well.
I don’t see Google adding more local storage to the Pixel 2. The Wi-Fi model comes with 32GB while the LTE version doubles the storage. It could add more, of course, but the intended audience for this device doesn’t really need it, particularly with Google Drive integration and offers of free space. I received 1TB of Drive storage for three years with the Pixel I bought, for example.

Indeed, the latest Pixel brings most of these internal advances along with a more reasonable price. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to see any external difference between the new and old Pixels; thankfully, Google kept the same design and materials, with a few small advancements.

For $999, you get a Wi-Fi model — there’s no LTE edition this time around — with 2.2 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory (that’s double what the original edition offered), updated wireless chips, 32GB of local storage and a few other extras. Open your wallet up to spend $1,299 for the LS model — that’s “ludicrous speed” and you jump to a 2.4 Intel Core i7 chip, a whopping 16GB of memory and 64GB of flash storage.

Performance and battery life are excellent

The combination of new processors and generous memory capacities lead to a fast overall experience and the ability to dozens of tabs open without any performance degradation. Boot time is near instantaneous, for example. And regardless of task I throw at it, the new Pixel handles it with ease, whether that’s doing something in the browser or running either a Chrome or Android app. (Yes, there are some Android apps ported over to Chrome OS and you can even port your own like I’ve done with Skype.)

Running an Octane benchmark, where a higher score is better from the suite of JavaScript tests averaged 23,617 in Guest mode; a boost over the 21,627 average on the first model. The SunSpider test, which also indicates JavaScript performance, returns a spritely 196.8 millisecond result on the new Pixel; a lower score is better here. This too is better then first Pixel, which averages 323.3 milliseconds in my testing. And this performance is roughly double what the best lower-costing Chromebooks provide.

The far bigger deal here though is the battery life improvement. By moving ahead two chip generations, Google says the Pixel can last for up to 12 hours on a charge. I’ve tested that claim and find that the laptop does live up to it for the most part. If you’re going to watch videos all day on that gorgeous 2560 x 1700 touchscreen, you can expect less time on a charge. But for my typical usage of writing, researching, occasional YouTube videos, email, and other web-centric activities, I found that I could easily stay away from the charger for 11 hours or more. It gets better though.

Just like my Motorola Moto X phone, the new Pixel has a quick-charge capability, which I appreciate. Plug in for 15 minutes and you get 2 more hours of laptop use; handy at the airport or some other locale where you want to “top up” quickly. Fully charging the new Pixel from a dead battery takes just over 1.5 hours.

Get ready for USB Type-C

Related to charging the device is the new reversible Type-C USB port. Actually there are two of them and they each pull triple duty, working for power, external video output and data transfer. I’ve already found it convenient to be able to charge the Pixel from either the right or left side, depending on where I’m working.

Some are bemoaning this new USB port — the new Apple MacBook has one — because of dongles and adapters. I understand but know this: The computer industry is quickly moving towards Type-C USB ports so fighting it isn’t likely to get you anywhere. Instead, for now, consider the benefits of a single port with multiple purposes and the relatively low costs of the adapters: Google is selling Type-C to Type-A converters for $12.99 while Type-C to either HDMI or DisplayPort will cost you $39.99. You still get a pair of standard Type-A USB ports on the Pixel as well as an SD memory card reader.

I noted that on the outside, the new model looks just like the old one. That’s a good thing in my opinion.

The Pixel retains its etched glass trackpad, which is among the best on any laptop I’ve used. The keyboard is stellar to use, still has Chrome OS shortcuts on the top row and intelligently disables backlighting after detecting your hands aren’t on the keys for 30 seconds. The display looks the same as before but has a better color gamut and adaptive backlighting to save power. Audio sounds great from the speakers under the keyboard. The newer webcam is a wide angle sensor; good for conference calls and Hangouts, for example. And that lightbar on the front lid now acts as a power indicator: Tap it twice with the laptop closed and the four LEDs will show how much juice the battery has.

All in all, Google did everything I had hoped for in a refreshed model of the Pixel: Updating internal components, solving the battery life challenge, boosting the number of tabs you can have open and reducing the price. That said, the Pixel isn’t for everyone.

Who is the new Pixel for?

Even at the lower price of $999, this laptop is aimed for those seeking a premium Chrome OS experience for most or all of their computing needs. I’m squarely in that target audience as nearly everything I do is an online activity; Chrome OS does have a growing number of offline uses as well. For people like me, this is a compelling purchase and will likely suit your Chrome OS needs well for some time to come.

If you’re not in that target audience, a Chromebook costing one-third the price will surely suffice. That purchase will do the exact same things for you; it just won’t be nearly as fast, efficient or look as nice; that 2560 x 1700 resolution display is still an big differentator even though there are now more Chromebooks with 1080p displays.

Lastly, if Chrome OS isn’t going to be your primary platform, the Pixel isn’t for you, nor is any other Chromebook. There’s nothing wrong with that; you should always buy the right tools for your tasks. Mine just happen to fit very nicely in the new Pixel, making this almost a dream machine for most of my needs.

Note: Due to the unexpected and sudden closure of my old site, I’ve written this here without any editorial assistance. Any inadvertent errors are mine and I apologize in advance if you spot them.

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