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

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.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

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.

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