One month with the new Chromebook Pixel: Still impressive for my needs

Out of the box, Google's new Chromebook Pixel impressed. After 30 days of nearly full-time use, it gets even better if Chrome OS and a few tweaks can work for you.
Written by Kevin Tofel, Contributor

My, how time flies. I've been using the latest Google Chromebook Pixel for a full 30 days, thanks to a review unit loaned to me by Google. Back in 2013, I spent $1,449 for my own Pixel with integrated LTE and after a month of using the newer model, I'm convinced that Google fixed the few things wrong with the first edition while keeping the great keyboard, trackpad and high resolution display.

Chromebook Pixel keyboard and glass trackpad

Right off the bat, this year's model is a little lighter on the wallet. I've been testing the base $999 model with 2.2GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory and 32GB of local storage. You can also spend $1,299 to double up on memory and storage capacity, plus get a chip upgrade to a Core i7, but I don't see the need for most people to do so. The less expensive model has never left me wanting for more performance in the past month.

The biggest difference I see between the 2013 model and the latest Chromebook Pixel is in the battery life. Instead of the roughly five hours of run-time on a single charge I've been living with for two years, this new Pixel hasn't yet failed to get me through a full day of use.

It helps that the latest Intel Core i5 is at least two generations removed from the chip inside the 2013 Chromebook Pixel. The processor is far more efficient this time around, allowing me to routinely get 11 to 12 hours of use on a single charge. But it gets better in real-world usage thanks to the included quick charge capability of the new laptop. Plug in for 15 minutes and you'll get a whopping two additional hours of battery life, for example. From a fully dead battery, you can re-charge the new Pixel in about one hour and 40 minutes.

I've been using the quick charge feature as part of my daily routine, in fact. Typically, I'll end my day with a good 25 percent charge left on the Pixel and often plug it in overnight. If I forget, all is not lost.

I've found that I can generally get through the morning with a quick charge while having a cup of coffee or small bite for breakfast. Even if I skip that and run down close to lunch time, the Pixel quickly recharges during my mid-day meal; sometimes, I get a full charge during lunch and of course, I'm good to through the rest of the day if not the next morning. The point being: You don't have to worry about charging this device nightly if you have some spare charging time here and there throughout your day.

Of course, that scenario requires you have the Pixel charger, which brings me to the USB Type-C ports. If there were only one of these, I surely wouldn't be enjoying the laptop as much as I have. Wisely, Google included two USB Type-C ports; one on each side of the Pixel. It makes all the difference in the world since these ports are multi-purpose: They can accept or provide power (you can charge a phone or tablet from them), support data transfers and let the Pixel use external displays.

USB Type-C port on Chromebook Pixel

You'll need adapters for several of these functions, but that will change over time as the industry moves towards Type-C USB ports. Aside from that, however, it's a treat to have one port serve numerous purposes.

Even better is the ability to charge the Pixel from either the left or right side; I appreciated this depending on where I was working with it and where the nearest outlet was at the time. That second USB port came in handy in my home office as well; I have a 28-inch UHD monitor with 3840 x 2160 resolution on my desk and I often connected the Pixel to it with a DisplayPort adapter over the past month.

Even with the integrated Intel graphics inside, the Pixel easily powers the external display and the excellent 2650 x 1700 laptop screen at the same time. I'm not a two-monitor kind of guy though, so I tend to close the Pixel which enables dock mode, showing the Chrome OS environment only on the larger, external display.

I haven't had any problems with this method; it requires both a Bluetooth mouse or trackpad and keyboard. The only minor issue I have with this setup is that Chrome OS icons in the shelf -- the taskbar, if you will -- don't scale well on the external monitor; they're quite small.

The new Pixel handled every task I've thrown at it over the past month with ease. Granted, what I do on a computer is likely to be different from what you do. As a writer, I spend most of my time in various Chrome tabs for research and write my content either in an online content management system or in Google Docs, depending on if I'm on- or offline. In the latter case, I use Docs without a connection -- yes, you can run some apps offline within Chrome OS -- and later synchronize them to the cloud or copy and paste them into the browser.

I've also done some light photo editing on the Pixel. For basic cropping and minor adjustments, the native Chrome OS tools are fine. If I need to do more advanced edits, I tend to use Pixlr. Photoshop is an option as well but you don't install it. Instead, Adobe has a streaming version in beta for Chromebooks.

Media consumption has been a treat, mainly thanks to the high-resolution display of the Pixel. I've spent hours watching HD videos from YouTube, Google Play Video, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and more. The 3:2 aspect ratio of the Pixel's display is better suited for web browsing so there are some bars above and below most widescreen content. Some reviewers noted issues with the Pixel's speakers but the unit I've been using doesn't exhibit any issues. Using headphones is a preferred option though; I tend to listen to music nearly all day while working.

There's more to mobile computing than content consumption and web browsing though. And Google's Chrome OS is admittedly more limited than Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X. However, it takes about 10 minutes worth of effort to have an instance of Ubuntu up and running on a Chromebook. You can run Chrome OS and Linux separately, or you can use a free Chrome extension to run Linux within a Chrome OS window. Either way, the Pixel runs the two platforms together without any noticeable lag.

You can also get around some limitations by running Android apps on a Chromebook. I've been doing that on my old Pixel since September; Skype is a key title that I converted for use on Chrome OS. Not every Android app will work on Chrome OS just yet but even the addition of Skype on the new Pixel is a big help to the experience.

So too is the native Chrome Remote Desktop feature. That's what I've used on the Pixel for any other things I need to do that are beyond the scope of Chrome OS. A perfect is example is a Computer Science with Java class I'm taking at my local community college as a guest student. I could install Java on the Linux platform of the new Pixel, but I had already purchased a low-cost Windows laptop before the class; the $229 HP Stream 13.

Java coding on a remote computer

Since I've used the HP for Java coding and other homework assignments in Word since January, I really didn't want to transition those tasks to a new laptop or to Google Docs. Instead, I remotely access the HP Stream on the Chromebook Pixel for my coding and homework. This gives me full access to any Windows apps installed on the HP laptop over Wi-Fi at home or mobile broadband on the road. I've been using my phone as an LTE hotspot with the Pixel on the road; it works fine but I miss the integrated LTE the old Pixel has. Note: Office Online -- now with Dropbox integration -- also works well on the Pixel.

All in all, I've become more impressed with the new Chromebook Pixel the longer I've used it. The laptop is a strong performer -- easily twice as fast as most other Chromebooks -- and can last all day on a single charge. Even when there's some app or activity that's not ideally suited for or not supported on the Pixel, there are options to help me get work done.

That being said, if Chrome OS doesn't work for your particular needs, then this same device at half the price is still an understandable "no sale"; there's nothing wrong with that. ZDNet's Matt Miller realized his Surface Pro 3 is a better fit for him, so he returned his Pixel. Chrome OS isn't for everyone, but it meets my needs and the new Pixel often exceeds them.

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