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Chromebook Pixel review: Sweet touchscreen may justify Google's $1,299 laptop

Chromebook Pixel
Rosa Golijan / NBC News

There's something magical about the Chromebook Pixel's display. You're so drawn in by its crispness that you want to press your hand against it. And when you finally give in to that urge ... you discover it's a touchscreen.


But does that moment — that instant when you instinctively touch a screen and it reacts the way your smartphone-obsessed brain expects — merit paying $1,299 for a laptop that doesn't run Windows or OS X and is essentially just a hyper-evolved Web browser?

I could certainly justify the purchase to myself, because I live my life online. The only moments I truly leave my browser on any given day involve 10 or so minutes inside a proprietary Windows-only application I have to use for work. Otherwise the browser is it for me — I can even edit photos with Photoshop's online service. And that means Chrome OS, the operating system Google put on the Pixel suits me just fine.

I don't mind if my applications reside on the Web and my data lives in the cloud, but that doesn't work for everyone. Some need software that doesn't have a Web version, some are without data connectivity too often, and so on. The Pixel isn't for those folks — they can stop reading right here.

Those who prefer swimming in the open Web need to know about the Chromebook Pixel though.

Have I mentioned the screen? There's no photo I can offer that could do justice to the Pixel's screen, but if you've tried a newer iPhone, iPad, or an Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display, you'll understand. There are 239 pixels per inch (ppi) on the Pixel's 12.85-inch display — which works out to about 4.3 million pixels — so many that your eyes can't easily differentiate the individual glowing dots. (For comparison, bear in mind that the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display offers 227 ppi, the latest iPad has 264 ppi and the iPhone 5 checks in at 326 ppi.)


A Retina display on a laptop makes sense, but do people really also want multi-touch? Apple's late co-founder said no.

"We've thought about this years ago. We've done tons of user testing on this and it turns out it doesn't work," Jobs explained while a mockup of a MacBook Pro with a touch-sensitive display appeared on the screen during a press event on Oct. 20, 2010. "Touch surfaces don't want to be vertical."

"After a short period of time, you start to fatigue. And after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off." Jobs added. "It doesn't work. It's ergonomically terrible."

Jobs was right — I tried using just the touchscreen, no trackpad, and I nearly apologized to my weary limbs — but Jobs, with all due respect, was also wrong. Using the touchscreen in combination with the trackpad is a fairly pleasant experience. There are moments when touching the screen feels natural. Tapping through photos, scrolling through documents, scrubbing through video, and so on. Once you get acclimated to the fact that your laptop now responds to touch the way a phone or tablet might, you instinctively reach out at certain times. Otherwise, you just stick to the trackpad. It's a great balance.

Mind you, neither the Web nor the browser-based Chrome OS have become finger-friendly overnight. Buttons and links are still itty-bitty. It's a trackpad-and-mouse world and the Pixel just lives in it. I must admit that I have inadvertently scrolled or selected something while simply trying to point out an item on my screen to someone.

Thanks to my habit of alternating between lotions and hand sanitizer, every phone I handle is left with so many smudges on its screen that you'd think it was attacked by a sticky-handed toddler, but, strangely enough, the Pixel's screen seemed to be impervious to smudging during the time I used it.

Like a sneaky gray kitten, the Pixel runs so quietly that you might forget that it's there. And even more importantly: No matter how many tabs or windows are open, the laptop runs smoothly.

The keyboard will feel familiar to those who, like me, are used to Apple's. It is a bit firmer though, in the most satisfying of ways. (And yes, like other Chromebooks, the Pixel's Caps Lock key is replaced by a handy-dandy Search key.)

The Pixel's speakers are surprisingly loud and clear. You wouldn't expect the speakers on a laptop of this size to pack quite so much oomph. The rest of the laptop's body is equally impressive. The Pixel's got an anodized aluminium alloy body and it keeps vents, screws, and speakers as hidden as possible. No distractions — just a slick, clean exterior hiding a dual-core 1.8GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of solid state storage (64GB if you opt for the LTE-enabled model), a 720p webcam, and all the usual laptop guts.

"If you love the Pixel so much, why don't you just marry it? You could be Rosa Golijan-Pixel," someone out there is shouting at this point. Like I said, buddy, this laptop's certainly not for everyone. Are you able to live in the browser and cloud?

And if you are sold on the Chrome OS, does having a touchscreen with an high pixel-density valuable justify the Pixel's high price? After all, Acer's Chromebook, with its dated hardware and clunky exterior, sells for a budget-minded $199.

Starting at $1,299, the Chromebook Pixel is considerably more of an investment. And you can step up to an LTE-enabled model with 64GB of solid state memory for $1,449. Both models come with one terabyte of Google Drive cloud storage for three years and 12 free GoGo in-flight Internet passes. The LTE-enabled model also comes with a free 100MB of data through Verizon Wireless per month for two years.

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