Chromebook wars: Pixel vs. Samsung Series 5 550

Is the new Chromebook Pixel better than the previously best-equipped Chromebook, the Samsung Series 5 550? Of course, but is it $850 better?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

On my test machine table, I have Google's brand new Chromebook Pixel. Beside it, I have what had been the fastest Chromebook before it, the Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook. Is the Pixel better? Yes. No question about it. But, here's the real question: Is it $850 better?

With its machined metal case and sharper, brighter display, there's no question that the Pixel looks better than the Samsung Series 5 550. (Credit: ZDNet)

That's not a mistake. The Pixel lists for $1,299. Some people are still reeling from Chromebook Pixel sticker shock.  The Samsung Series 5 550 costs just $449. Yow! All that for a Chrome OS-based laptop which just has the Chrome Web browser running on top of an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution.

Some people are convinced that there's no way that anyone will buy a Pixel. I find it hard to believe myself so I decide to compare and contrast my Samsung S5 550 with the Pixel to see if I could justify the Pixel's price tag.

Chromebook Pixel hands on (photos)

So, let's start with the hardware. The 550 comes with a dual-core Intel Celeron_867 processor running at 1.3GHz. It includes 4 GB of RAM, a 16-GB solid state drive (SSD) and a 12.85-inch screen powered by Intel HD Graphics. The 550 also includes 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-FI, Bluetooth, a Gigabit Ethernet port, an HD camera, two USB 2.0 ports, a 4-in-1 memory card slot, and a DisplayPort for external monitors. That's not much in the way of system resources, but you don't need a lot for Chrome OS. I've used mine for months and I've never felt any lack of power.

The Pixel is a much more powerful machine. For a CPU it uses is a 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 processor, For memory, it has 4 GBs of RAM and a 32-GB SSD for storage. Its display, at 12.85-inches features 2560 x 1700 resolution and 239 pixels per inch, is much more impressive than the 550. It also comes with 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-FI, an HD camera, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a 2-in-1 SD/MMC card reader; and DisplayPort. The one thing that the 550 has that the Pixel doesn't, is a Gigabit Ethernet port.

The Pixel certainly feels faster. To see how the Pixel's higher processor power manifested itself objectively, I threw the most popular Web browser benchmarking tests at both machines.

I started with SunSpider JavaScript 0.9.1, the grand-daddy of JavaScript benchmarks. On SunSpider, where lower results are better, the Pixel wasn't quite twice as fast as the 550. The Pixel scored 480.4-milliseconds to the 550's 776.3-milliseconds.

Next, I tried the pair on Google's latest Web-browser benchmark, Octane. This test is based on Google's earlier V8 test suite. Like SunSpider, it measures JavaScript performance. With this test, higher is better. Once again, the Pixel, with a score of 11,846 was almost twice as fast as the Samsung with its 5,585 score.

Moving along, I tried the two with the FutureMark's vendor-neutral Peacekeeper. Like the others, this test measures JavaScript performance, but it also evaluates HTML5 performance. On Peacekeeper where higher is better, Pixel was, once again much faster than the 550 with a score of 3,753 to 2,142.

On the Mozilla/Firefox Kraken 1.1 benchmark, where lower scores are better, guess what happened? Yes, that's right, Pixel won again. But this time it was more than twice as fast as the 550 with a result of 2,265.5-milliseconds to 4,962.4-milliseconds.

Last, but not least, I tested both on RoboHornet, the newest Web browser benchmark. In this test, higher scores are better, and while the Pixel won comfortably, it didn't blow away the 550 as it had on the other tests, with a final score of 120.68 to 80.61.

For battery life, I found that the Samsung Series 5 550 did better than the Pixel. My 550 managed to last for almost six hours with a single charge. The Pixel came in at just over five hours.

So, if all you were going to judge the two only on strictly specifications, the Pixel is the clear winner... but a winner that you'd pay $850 more for? I don't think so! But, wait, there's more.

The Samsung Series 5 550 is a fine, inexpensive laptop. It feels good and it works well. The Pixel on the other hand, with its machined aluminum exterior, is down-right pretty. It's one of the few laptops I've seen outside of an Apple Store that's actually attractive.

It's beauty isn't just cover deep. The screen is as good, if not better, than the Retina display on a 13-inch MacBook Pro. At first, I didn't think it would make a big difference to me. Then I set the Pixel right next to the 550. Wow. What a difference! It was like seeing a beat-up VW bug next to a 2013 Mercedes-Benz CL-Class. OK, so for work purposes, I can get by with my 550, but again, and with feeling, wow.

The Pixel's screen is a touchscreen, but given its looks, I'd rather not touch it. Fortunately, the broad, sensitive touchpad and the well-spaced keyboard, lets me use the computer without any need to use the touchscreen.

As far as the operating system and application functionality is concerned, the two Chromebooks are identical. They both run Chrome OS -- what else could they? If you like Chrome OS, as I do, you'll love the Pixel for its other features. But, as far as what you can do with one, there's nothing fundamentally you can do with the Pixel that you can't do with the Samsung's $249 ARM-powered Chromebook.

The Pixel does come with one extra, added feature though, besides its good looks, that may influence some buyers. It comes with a terabyte of free Google Drive cloud storage for three years. At $49.99 a month that's an $1.800 value. Hmmm...

OK, so no, in and of itself, the Pixel is not worth $850 more than the Samsung Series 5 550, but if you need serious cloud-storage -- I mean if you want to move all your small business' files to the cloud -- then the Pixel is actually a bargain. You'd pay $499 more over those three years for that same storage.

So, while for most Chromebook users, the Pixel, despite its great looks, isn't worth the money. But if you're ready to use Google Drive for most of your storage needs, then yes, the Pixel is actually a bargain. Who knew?

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