Can Chrome OS Mature Fast Enough to Justify a Chromebook Pixel?

Chromebook Pixel

Google on Thursday unveiled the Chromebook Pixel, the latest in its line of unique laptops powered by the company’s browser-based Chrome OS. But is this powerful piece of hardware a waste on an immature operating system, or can Google expand Chrome OS's usefulness before the Pixel's hardware is obsolete?

When first released in June 2011, the Chromebook series of computers was meant to entice customers based primarily on cost and speed, with prices starting at around $200 and a simplified operating system allowing for fast boots and application launches. At the same time, however, Chrome OS-based products relied on network connections for full functionality and, while usable to certain degree in offline mode, could be frustrating for those used to traditional Windows and OS X computing environments.

With the Pixel, Google is moving to position the Chromebook as a cutting-edge powerhouse, rather than the next line of cheap netbooks. The company has packed the product with a dual-core Intel i5 CPU, HD 4000 graphics, 4 GB of RAM, up to 64 GB of local storage, an all-new anodized aluminum chassis, and, perhaps most impressively, a 12.85-inch 2,560-by–1,700 resolution touchscreen display that, at 239 pixels per inch, is the highest resolution consumer laptop display on the market.

But it starts at US$1,299.

I applaud Google for, in many ways, pushing the limits of technology in certain areas more than Apple or any other company. But is the Chromebook Pixel, a device that has limited offline functionality and that cannot (yet) run most professional apps, going to sell at all for $1300 ($1450 if you want built-in LTE functionality)?

Upon its introduction, many compared the Pixel to the MacBook Air, but, due to the roughly equal display resolutions, a more appropriate comparison is the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (rMBP). Starting at $1499, the rMBP offers a faster processor, more RAM, more internal storage, better advertised battery life, and full offline capabilities, including access to an established platform that can run professional applications such as Photoshop, Lightroom, and Final Cut Pro.

The Chromebook Pixel, however, has lots going for it. For $50 less than the rMBP, Google gives its high-end Chromebook touchscreen capabilities, LTE support, and free online storage up to 1 TB. Further, those who’ve gotten their hands on the Pixel universally report that it’s gorgeous, while the rMBP, while still attractive, is basically the same design Apple introduced in 2008.

Samsung ChromebookThe Samsung Chromebook

The problem, however, is when you actually want to use the thing. Admittedly, I haven’t tried the Pixel yet but I’ve had ample opportunity to use both the Samsung and Acer Chromebooks, which both ran the same versions Chrome OS that the Pixel will contain at launch.

These products are definitely interesting, but while using them I found myself limited to basic word processing, email, and web browsing activities. Although the number apps for Chrome OS is growing steadily with the increasing adoption of the Chrome browser on other platforms, I felt constrained during my days using Chromebooks; at no point did I have access to Photoshop, Aperture, Final Cut Pro, or third-party apps that I rely on like Scrivener.

I, and the many others who have used Chromebooks, accepted this constraint as a fair trade for the responsiveness, portability, and, most importantly, low price of the product. While Chrome OS may one day be robust enough to completely supplant traditional offerings from Apple or Microsoft, I cannot see that happening within the useful life of the Pixel.

Chrome OS DesktopThe Chrome OS Desktop (via Laptop Magazine)

Some users, especially those already entrenched in Google’s services, may not need anything else beyond what the Chrome OS offers. Why then would they choose a $1300 product over a cheaper Chromebook or, alternatively, a high-end Windows- or OS X-based product that could do everything the Pixel can, and more?

On the other hand, I and others should also note that Google is not thinking about competing with Apple or Microsoft. At least, not publicly. Although roundly accused by Apple and its supporters of stealing the ideas behind iOS for its Android mobile platform, Google has of late begun to operate seemingly it its own direction. The company’s Google Glass project took nearly everyone by surprise when it was announced last year, and the rapid evolution of Google’s online services, such as Docs and Drive, have changed users’ perceptions of what software and services can be.

Therefore, perhaps it’s more appropriate to think of the Pixel not as a competitor to current laptops and tablets, but rather as one of the first in an entirely new category of devices. As Sundar Pichai, Google’s senior vice president of Chrome, told the crowd at the Pixel’s launch: “We really wanted to step back and say, ‘For a user who lives in the cloud, what is the best computer we can design?’” The answer to that question, Mr. Pichai revealed, was a complete “rethinking of everything that’s possible with a laptop.”

As I mentioned above, I applaud that effort on Google’s part. Apple fans know well just how dramatic an effect pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking can have on entire industries and, I dare say, entire societies. The concern, however, is that Google’s bold move is premature. Chrome OS or its progeny may indeed take over mobile computing in the future, but such an eventuality is both far away and far from certain. Until then, despite its beautiful hardware, I fear that Pixel purchasers will be waiting a long time to get their money’s worth out a product that may be both a bit ahead of its time and still too young.

As Forbes’ Jean-Baptiste Su characterized it: the Chromebook Pixel as it is today is practically “a $1,300 Web Browser!”