Lightbars and Ludicrous Speed: A Review of Google’s Chromebook Pixel

I’ve always wanted a Pixel. Ever since the first iteration was launched in 2013 I’ve been drooling over the high-end concept device from Google, meant to showcase Chrome OS and its possibilities. But the price tag was always a barrier. A very large barrier.

At the time, I (and many others) believed that $1300 USD was just a bit too much considering the limitations of Chrome OS. I’ve since changed my mind, and will go into why I changed my mind towards the end of this review.

For now though, I’m going to take a few minutes to talk about my experience these last 6 days. The Pixel (2015) comes in two varieties: One model comes with a core i5 Broadwell processor, and 8GB of RAM, the other an i7 with 16GB of RAM (Google calls this model “Ludicrous Speed”).

I am using the i5 model.

Design:

I’m going to open with this device’s most striking feature: design. This device is nothing if not aesthetically beautiful. The first thing you may notice when opening the device is the shiny metallic color, and the light bar. The shiny metallic color is due to the fact that the device is actually made of metal. It’s not made of cheap plastic like you might find on…every single Chromebook besides the Pixel. It’s not heavy, so-to-speak, but it’s no featherweight either. On the podcast Chromebooks Today, I described it as having an “appropriate amount of weight”. Craig Tumblison on the other hand, is convinced that he would lose a toe, were he to drop his Pixel on his foot.

The light-bar is fascinating. During normal operation, the light-bar glows a steady blue, red, yellow and green. While the lid is closed, the light-bar is off. If you double-tap next to the light-bar, it will light up green, telling you roughly what your remaining battery percentage is. For example, if you were at exactly 75% battery life, when you double-tap next to the light-bar, 3 out of the 4 bars will light up bright green. If you had, say, 85% battery life, 3 bars would light up bright green, and the fourth would light up rather dim. 70% would have 2 bars bright green with a third dim.

You get the idea.

Something else you will probably notice fairly quickly is the unique aspect ratio of the display. It’s a 3:2 ratio, rather than a 16:9. This makes the screen almost square. Because of this, the 12″ sleeve that my Acer C720p Chromebook previously lived in is barely big enough for this device. Luckily, it does fit, it’s just a pretty tight squeeze.

One thing I love about the design of this device, is the dimensions. The top half, or “lid” (you know, the part that houses the display panel) is the same height all the way around. This is also true for the bottom half (the top half is thinner than the bottom half). I prefer this look over the typical ultra-book or Mac look, where it’s thicker towards the screen and gets thinner as it gets closer to you. The Pixel looks kind of “boxy”, and I like it.

Boxy makes it sound thick, so I should mention that it’s only 16.2 mm high.

Keyboard

The keyboard is of course laid out like any other Chrome keyboard. What I love most about this keyboard, is that it is a backlit keyboard, which is great for folks like me who like to write with the lights off while watching Netflix. If you’ve ever hit Ctrl V when you meant to hit Ctrl C, you know what I’m talking about. Backlit keyboard is a huge feature.

Typing on the Pixel is pretty good. I’m not sure it’s much different from typing on my Acer. I maybe have a few less typos with the Pixel, but it’s hardly significant. It’s way better than typing on the keyboard that shipped with my Asus Chromebox. That thing was garbage. I’m pretty sure most of my typos on this device are my fault. I’m not missing keys or getting double hits.

Something I noticed while searching for possible skins/cases/covers for my new Pixel, is that the keyboard “area” is a bit different from the previous Pixel. On the previous Pixel, all the function keys were wider, and were touching each other. On the newer version, there is a gap between each one. Otherwise, no other noticeable differences.

Display

The display is stunningly awesomely totes amaze-balls. As far as I know, it’s the highest resolution you can find on a laptop, at 2560×1700 it’s slightly better than Apples retina display on their high-end laptops.

I’ve watched a few HD videos on YouTube and they are gorgeous. I was able to get up to 1440p on this YouTube video in fullscreen mode before my internet modem started weeping gently in the living room.

The Pixel scales the operating system so that it looks normal, as opposed to the Toshiba Chromebook 2, which also has a pretty nice display but does zero scaling. If you have time, you can hit up your local Best Buy and you’ll see what I mean. The icons on the Toshiba are super tiny. Thankfully, this is not the case with the Pixel.

Performance

This thing is a beast. I’ve had several Chromebooks, most with Intel celeron processors and 2GB of RAM. Then I splurged on a Haswell generation i3 Chromebox (the aforementioned Asus) with 4GB of RAM. Now I’m rocking the Broadwell generation i5 and 8GB of RAM and I’m LOVIN it. This thing never lags. Never stutters, or hangs. I had one tab crash. Not sure why, although it was Google+ which brings down even the most beastly of machines. Sometimes 8GB of RAM just isn’t enough for Google+. But besides that no issues. I absolutely love this machine. My next project is to install Crouton (already done) and install Steam and start playing some games. With only 32GB of local storage (64GB on the i7 model) I’ll probably have to store the games on an external drive, but that’s no biggie.

Speakers

There has been some buzz on the interwebs regarding the new Pixel’s speakers. Craig Tumblison mentioned on Chromebooks Today that they were fine for the most part, but he did notice some distortion when the volume was turned all the way up. I notice this as well, if you put your ear close you can hear a tiny amount of distortion at certain points, although it was very hard for me to detect. Overall I’m pleased with the speakers on this device. Pretty much everybody is saying the OG Pixel was better, but I don’t have one so I can’t speak to that. My Pixel’s speakers are better than my Acer. I don’t know how much of that is due to the speakers being located behind the keyboard on the Pixel and how much is due to the speakers themselves.

I also noticed that there’s pretty much zero bass on these speakers. When listening to music, I definitely choose to use headphones.

Battery

So, the battery life on this thing is amazing, especially considering how powerful the processor is. The previous Pixel boasted about 4 hours of battery life. This one boasts 12 hours. That wasn’t a typo, I meant to say 12 hours. I don’t know if I’ve gotten 12 hours, but I do know I haven’t charged it for a couple days. You can also get 2 hours of use out of a 15 minute charge, which is pretty amazing.

Ports

The Pixel comes with an HDMI port, headphone jack, SD card slot, 2 standard USB ports, and 2 USB type-C ports, one on either side.

The USB type-C ports are pretty cool. Not only are they able to be plugged in “upside down” (meaning there is no right way up) they are also multi functional. These ports transfer data, media, and power. They’re also small enough that you could start seeing them on mobile phones soon. Wouldn’t it be nice to charge your laptop and your smartphone with the same charger?

Is it worth it?

As promised, I’d like to take a minute to defend the rather high price tag. At $999 for the i5 model, and $1299 for the i7 model, price is certainly a barrier for many people considering this high-end concept device. The typical reasoning that I hear (and for awhile actually believed myself) is that it’s silly to spend so much money on such a limited device. The idea is, since you can’t put Microsoft Office, or iTunes, or Photoshop on the device, it’s not worth putting that much money into.

But here’s my counter argument: So you have yourself an inexpensive Chromebook for your “light” computing/browsing. You also have a Windows/Mac machine for “heavy lifting”. Ask yourself this question: which device do you spend most of your time on? You might be surprised to discover that the majority of your time is spent on your Chromebook. So, is it really that unreasonable to want the best possible experience on the device you use most often?

For me it was an easy choice. I don’t use Windows anymore. I’m all Chrome OS. But I think even people who still use Windows/Mac for photo/video editing and other such tasks would benefit from spending some money on a high end Chromebook. And if $1000 is just too much regardless of your workflow, but you still want a better performing device I totally understand that. You might want to consider the Acer C910 which also sports a Broadwell i5 processor for half the price of the Pixel.

This is a guest article by James Welbes.

James Welbes is an avid user of Chrome OS and a huge advocate for the platform. As a former Google Specialist, and the owner of 7 Chrome devices over a span of about 3 years, James has had plenty of experience with Google’s cloud-base computing devices.

James can be found supporting Chromebook users as a Rising Star on Google’s Chromebook Central or his own side project, Chromebooks Support. He’s also a co-host on the weekly podcast dedicated to Chromebooks, called Chromebooks Today

In Category: Reviews

James Welbes

James has been a Chromie ever since 2012, when he accepted a temporary position as a Google Specialist, educating customers about Chromebooks in his local Best Buy. Since then he's converted his home to 100% Chrome OS, and has owned over half a dozen Chrome OS devices over the years. He currently uses the 2015 Google Pixel at home, and an Asus Chromebox at work.

Show 16 Comments
  • Dennis Lockhart 09/04/2015, 2:00 am

    James, Thanx for your insights, I’m saving up for one as we speak (type ;).

    • Dinsan 09/04/2015, 8:45 am

      Same here 🙂

    • James Welbes 12/04/2015, 12:25 am

      I’m still saving up for mine!

      • Dennis Lockhart 12/04/2015, 2:43 am

        Wait a doggone minute – I thought that was your review??? 😉

        • James Welbes 12/04/2015, 4:04 am

          haha. It was. I was just joking that I haven’t paid this thing off yet =]

          • Dennis Lockhart 12/04/2015, 8:57 am

            You got me 🙂
            I’m hoping this fall, or maybe Santa will bring me one.

  • pixelstuff 09/04/2015, 9:07 am

    I think the real issue isn’t just not having Office, iTunes, and Photoshop, but that you don’t have Microsoft Office, iTunes, Photoshop, Acrobat, Premiere, YNAB, KeePass, Filezilla, Steam, Blender (or any 3D modeling software), Icon Editors, IP Camera Finder Utilities, DVR remote clients, alarm panel utilities, network scanner / mapping utilities, mail merge in the word processor, and a whole slew of games … and practically any new cutting edge software experiments.

    If you can’t afford to buy multiple $1,000 devices then a Chromebook has way to many shortcomings as if you were using software from the 80s and 90s.

    But I think you hit the nail on the head when you labeled it a “concept device”. And that makes all the difference. Kind of like a concept car where you spare no money to explore what is possible.

    • James Welbes 12/04/2015, 12:25 am

      You just named a bunch of things that very few people use. Several of them have perfectly good alternatives.

      Office has many free, online alternatives
      iTunes – Google Music, Amazon Music
      Photoshop – Pixlr
      Filezilla – sFTP Client, CodeAnywhere, Cloud9

      Clearly there are limitations, but those limitations are becoming fewer and fewer each day. I am 100% Chrome OS. I don’t use Windows/Mac/Linux. There are many people like myself who can get away with going all Chrome, but there are still many others who cannot.

      For those who can get away with it, the Pixel is an amazing device.

      • Kaoxt 23/10/2015, 9:51 am

        Do you find the LS version worth the extra money? Not sure if 16gb is ever even needed.

        • James Welbes 23/10/2015, 9:54 am

          I don’t know since I don’t own the LS, but i can tell you mine is plenty fast/responsive. I honestly don’t think the LS version would be worth the extra cash.

    • Jeremy 18/04/2015, 9:23 am

      I totally get where your coming from. I really wish that ChromeOS would build in an Ubuntu chroot with a user accessible way to install full linux apps and run them within the ChromeOS window manager. I run Ubuntu under crouton to get access to almost every app you mentioned, but it doesn’t make for the most ideal situation. Still, I can more than get by with the combination of ChromeOS and Ubuntu.

  • Nir Galon 09/04/2015, 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the review! I think it’s a no brainer for these who use Linux.

    I use Ubuntu (exclusive for the past 2-3 years) and I’m searching for a new laptop. I want one with linux kernel support from the start, and my only 2 choices (that I know of) are this (the pixel) and Dell. They both top notch, but the new Dell XPS 13 is more expensive. So, I think I’ll go with the Pixel, is sound like far better choice (for the spec/price).

    I’m pretty much live in the cloud already so I think 64gb will be enough (but if not, 64gb SD card will do the trick).

    And I would really appreciate if you can write about your experience with Crouton.

    • James Welbes 15/10/2015, 7:41 am

      So six months later and I’m finally seeing some of these comments..ha!

      You probably wouldn’t find my experience with Crouton interesting. I first installed it so I could play Armor Critical, which requires Java. Then I really wanted to play magic online on Steam but it’s not available on Steam for Linux, so I tried installing Wine, and installing Steam for Windows, but I could never get it to work.

      For what it’s worth, Crouton is really easy to install and Ubuntu worked as you would expect. But I really have no use for it.

  • Pamala Conant 10/04/2015, 8:11 pm

    ok here is my thing, first of all I love my chrome book other than I can’t hear without turning way up. but my problem I am having is when I download something of the same thing (for instance) I sale it works and I want to put all that stuff in one file but it just goes to download and I can’t get one file for it or like certain pics I want in one file can someone help me? I just happen to run across this page so if you can help me can you email me please? pamalaconant@ymail.com

    • James Welbes 12/04/2015, 12:21 am

      Hi Pamala,

      I don’t quite understand what you’re saying. You might want to hop on over to Chromebook Central and ask your question there, and we should be able to help you.

      • Pamala Conant 12/04/2015, 3:14 am

        thank you I finally got it all figured out except the volume.. I was getting frustrated on making files cuz i sell IT WORKS product and i wanted it seperate from other stuff but thanks for replying

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