Should you buy a Chromebook Pixel, Surface Pro... or a laptop (or two)?

Should you buy a Chromebook Pixel, Surface Pro... or a laptop (or two)?

Summary: Early adopters are hotly debating the pros and cons of Google's and Microsoft's latest client devices, but most buyers will be better off with tried and tested designs.


Both Google's Chromebook Pixel and Microsoft's Surface Pro have been generating a lot of coverage and comment recently. But should you swap your laptop for either?

The Chromebook Pixel looks most like the laptops it means to rival: it's a sleek 1.52kg clamshell device with a proper, backlit keyboard and a high-resolution (2,560 x 1,700-pixel) 12.85-inch screen. By contrast, the sturdy 903g Surface Pro is primarily a 10.1-inch tablet that can be rendered Ultrabook-like with the addition of a keyboard cover (the conventional-keyed Type Cover), which takes its weight up to 1.13g.

Chromebook Pixel (left) and Surface Pro (right): plenty of coverage and comment, but is a laptop better value for money? (Images: Google [Chromebook]; Charles McLellan/ZDNet [Surface Pro])

Neither device is exactly affordable: the Chromebook Pixel costs $1,299 with Wi-Fi-only and $1,449 with Wi-Fi and LTE connectivity, while the 128GB Surface Pro with Type Cover costs $1,129. The trouble is, despite the cost, both devices are compromised in some way.

The Chromebook Pixel, for example, is essentially a thin client running the cut-down Chrome OS rather than a full-fat operating system. This basically limits you to web-based apps and services (which do include 1TB of Google Drive cloud storage for three years).

That said, if you want to do a bit of tinkering, you can get the Chromebook Pixel to run Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS, giving you access to many more applications. It's an expensive way to run Linux though.

On the hardware side, longevity for the Chromebook Pixel's 59Wh battery is quoted at 'up to five hours of active use', although we haven't had the opportunity to test this yet.

Turning to the Windows 8-based Surface Pro, it'll run the full panoply of Windows Store and legacy desktop apps, but is bulky and heavy for a tablet, doesn't work well in clamshell mode thanks to its (non-adjustable) kickstand and floppy-hinged keyboard cover, lacks a desktop dock, lacks a mobile broadband option and has very poor battery life (4-5 hours at best, if you keep the screen brightness down).

How about a laptop or two?

Of course, aficionados of each platform will defend their positions, but most ordinary buyers are probably wondering what else they can buy for a similar outlay. The answer is: quite a lot, including a 128GB 11inch MacBook Air, a 128GB 14inch ThinkPad X1 Carbon or two 320GB HD 14inch Dell Latitude E5430 laptops.

I'm all for manufacturers trying out new form factors and styles of mobile computing, and there will always be early adopters willing to explore them. But when money's too tight to mention, it's usually better to stick with tried and tested solutions until the kinks have been ironed out of the cutting-edge products.

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Tablets


Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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  • There are no pros to the Chromebook

    But you are right, a Surface is definitely not the way to go for most people.

    A Chromebook just isn't the way to go for anyone.
    x I'm tc
    • Wow

      That is an ignorant statement.

      A large group of users could actually do very well with a Chrome book.

      Owning one, I can tell you it gets quite a bit of use.
      • Name one.

        You can buy a Mac, Linux or PC laptop and run Chrome on it, as well as so much more.

        No, the Chromebook is an absolutely worthless piece of junk. Like an RT tablet. There is simply no reason for it to exist at all.
        x I'm tc
        • Never used one

          Obviously you havent used one. The main point isn't that you can get something that does more. There's always a bigger, better machine. The point of the Chromebook, at least as I see it, is to:
          have *enough* functionality (which for a large chunk of people it does),
          to be affordable (it certainly is!),
          easy to use (it's the simplest OS, anywhere),
          require no maintanence (it auto updates),
          be secure (no exploits found, no successful attacks against the OS have ever been made despite the reward). Need I go on?

          Can you buy a Windows laptop for $250? Yes. Is it fast, smooth, dare I say sexy-looking, has long, long battery life, virus-free, easy to maintain, etc? Nope. A Windows 7/8 netbook is *none* of those things. To get something that decently outperforms the Chromebook, you must pay twice as much or more.

          Does it lack functionality? Yes. Do most people ever use what it lacks? No.
          • Technology is supposed to move forward, not backward

            The fact is the Chromebook does less for similar pricing or in the case of the Pixel, FAR more money. ChromeOS is an appliance that runs a web browser. Paying more for less is a very difficult selling point.

            As for your virus claims, answer the following two questions

            1) Is there such a think as an completely 100% safe computing device that connects to the internet. (I'll answer this one for you, no there isn't).

            2) If a device running ChromeOS were to get infected with malware... HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?

            There is a difference between feeling safe and actually being safe.
          • Fully agree on the Pixel

            I don't really understand the positioning on that but the other, more sensibly priced chromebooks are positioned at the cheap end of the market. They can handle most of what the AVERAGE home user wants for a lower price. However they're far from limited to that one usage scenario. They can handle a fair amount low-end 'real-work' but at a lower price point.
            I do agree on the rest of your comments though, nothing is secure once you hook it up to the world wide virus depository.
            Little Old Man
          • FAST, cheap, and simple

            We own 2 desktops (windows/linux), 2 laptops (windows/linux), 4 tablets (android), and two ARM samsung chromebooks. My kids love them. My wife, who is a windows user, and our 10 year old daughter made a presentation recently on a chromebook and loved it. My daughter brought the chromebook in and the other kids reviewing her presentation kept asking about the computer, they loved it. She was not on the net and it all worked perfectly. Recently netflix added support and I must say the video is smooth. :)

            Nothing is safe, but recently during the pwn2own Chrome OS wasn't hacked.
            Now is a chromebook safe, nah, but it is safer than windows or a mac on a general network, sure. It is a pure end user device.
          • I bought a Chromebook because for a $100 this is a no brainer

            Chrome books are for us poor people who are too poor to be Microsofties.
          • Affordable?

            "to be affordable (it certainly is!)"

            Most Chromebooks - yes.

            The Chromebook Pixel - no.

            A lot of people are going to have a hard time justifying that sort of expense.

            Most of your description (easy to use, little maintenance, secure, etc) could be fulfilled by a MacOS or iOS product. You can even get a retina screen with that, which has similar DPI to the Pixel.

            "Can you buy a Windows laptop for $250? Yes."

            Last I checked, this article was about laptops in the $1000+ range. The Chromebook concept may work okay in the $200-$400 range, but not in the $1000+ range.

            A $200-$400 machine doesn't have high expectations. You have to cut back in something, be it performance or features - and ChromeOS clearly lacks in features. But that's acceptable for a cheap machine.

            A $1000+ machine, however, is not expected to have all of those tradeoffs, which makes ChromeOS a poor choice for such a machine.
          • Let me answer your answer with an answer

            > easy to use (it's the simplest OS, anywhere)
            Windows is very easy to use. My 98 year old grandmother is on Windows.

            > require no maintenance (it auto updates)
            Weird, my copy of Windows auto updated last night. I must be special.

            > be secure.
            Windows is secure. In all my years (since the 8088 days...never had an 8086) I have never been infected with a Virus or Trojan. I don't do or not do anything special. It just isn't a problem.

            Furthermore, since Google is a spyware company, the Chromebook is "hacked" out of the box.

            In other words, sorry, but, no dice. Chrombooks are junk. Period.

            And yes, I have used one. A few, actually.
            x I'm tc
        • Bull


          Many students could make good use of it. By your statement it is obvious you haven't used one.

          My Acer can dual boot Ubuntu if I want.

          Here again are a few examples of what it can do.

          Secure shell
          MS Office 365
          Google Office (offline)
          E-Mail (offline)
          Image editing
          Instant Messaging
          Social Media
          Games (Offline)
          Web development
          Video conferencing
          Oh and remote desktop apps as well.

          Seriously, the chrome book can be very capable for $200 and I have plenty of storage in mine (320 Gigs).

          Just because it isn't running Windows or OS X does not mean it isn't a earthly piece of equipment.
        • dinosaur

          Maybe you should get out more and get with the program. Just because our old doesn't mean you have to think like a dinosaur. Chromebook is difficult for the senior citizens like I'm tc to understand.
          Dijana Marina
      • Wow...ingorant indeed Slick

        Unless you work for Google, the pixel makes no sense at all whatsoever. if you can afford to spend that much...i'd rather use a pen and paper and spend $2000 on a cartier pen!
        • Get Real

          Ed get real, he said no Chromebooks and the Pixel does make sense if you see Chrome maturing and becoming more full featured!
      • Chrome OS has 0.02% web share worldwide and falling.

        It made it to 0.03% but is falling down to a reasonable value between 0.00% and 0.01% soon.

        Now mind you, this is for an OS that can only live on the web. 0.02% is sad. From Dec 2010 till Mar 2013, these things have captured 0.02% web share usage. That is about 0.5% of the iPad in the same time. So about ~500,000 units in 2+ years assuming a person with a device that runs local applications is on the web as much as a person with a device that can only be on the web have similar web usage patterns.
    • Re:

      Wrong. My Chromebook replaced my regular laptop almost immediately after buying it. Lol. The Chromebook has a huge amount of appeal, it's just it's advertised/pushed as much as MS products. And strangely without much advertising it's still the best selling laptop on Amazon, 3 months running...hmm. Funny, it's almost like it's a great buy or something.
      • correction

        Correction: Its *not* advertised like MS products.
      • Ad Blocker

        Can the ChromeOS Chrome Browser work with Ad Blocker Plus, so no ads show?
    • A mindlessly idiotic post

      "A Chromebook just isn't the way to go for anyone"

      You REALLY need to get out more. There are all kinds of people is this world with all kinds of needs and tastes.

      But of course, you know best what they should buy.

      There is only one way to describe you:

      • Chrome book is a useless device, get over it.