Why Google bothered to make the Chromebook Pixel

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As someone who already owns and loves a Chromebook, I've been trying to wrap my head around why Google dedicated R&D, manufacturing and marketing effort to the Chromebook Pixel.

The Pixel is clearly not a cheap, simple portal to the Web in the mold of other Chromebooks. It has frilly features like a touch screen with a Retina display-matching 2560-by-1700 resolution, an anodized aluminum chassis, and a trio of noise-canceling microphones.

The glamor doesn't stop there, though. The Pixel's outer beauty is matched by some beastly (for a Chromebook) hardware specs. It boasts an Intel Core i5 processor that thoroughly out-muscles the low-end Celeron chips found in most other Chromebooks, and 32GB of storage that's far more than what's necessary for Chrome OS.

That's a lot of polish and performance for an operating system that revolves around a web browser. And at a starting price of $1,299, it's hard to imagine the Chromebook Pixel selling well. Google already has a hard enough time selling the world on cheap Chromebooks, let alone super-expensive ones.

So why does the Chromebook Pixel even exist? The answer lies in the device's "For what's next" tagline.

Maybe it's a statement

Previously, Chromebooks have been a simplicity-focused response to Windows PCs. They boot up faster. They're more secure. They don't have a deep set of system options to master. And, for the money, the hardware is in many cases better designed than the build quality on similarly priced Windows notebooks.

Samsung Chromebook and Chromebox
Samsung's Chromebook and Chromebox.

Look at Samsung's $250 Series 3 Chromebook, a device that's as thin and light as an Ultrabook, but at a third of the price. Anyone who runs a spec-by-spec comparison with a cheap Windows machine misses the point, because that's not what Chromebooks are about. Chromebooks are about serving their single purpose—getting on the Web—extremely well, and many of them are better at this task than comparably priced Windows machines.

The Chromebook Pixel seems to be taking this philosophy and aiming it at the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Like the MacBook Pro, the Pixel has a gorgeous display (but with touch) and a premium design, but for $200 cheaper, and with a lifetime of software upgrades at no extra cost.

Is the difference in price worth the sacrifice of installed applications? Not for the vast majority of people, and especially not at this price level, where people are buying machines for serious work. But as always, Google is banking on the chance that a growing sliver of people spend all their time in a browser anyway. This is the first attempt to appeal to that audience—and probably won't be the last.

“Certainly, there's some element to it that it's a statement device—that there are those who are ready to embrace a web-centric workflow,” says Ross Rubin, Principal Analyst at Reticle Research. “Some percentage of those customers are going to want to do so on a premium device, and this just extends the range of Chromebooks available at different price points.”

Even if Google doesn't sell many Pixels, its mere existence opens the door for Chromebooks that eschew the usual Celeron CPU paired with a chintzy plastic case. The low end has already been established, and the Pixel lays claim to the high end. Now, let's see if other manufacturers take Google's bait and try to flush out the middle.

Maybe it's an experiment

The two most interesting elements of the Chromebook Pixel are its touch screen and its high-resolution display. There's a problem, however: Most of the Web isn't designed for either of those.

The Chromebook Pixel, then, could be a way to help usher the Web into the age of touch and high pixel density. I imagine Google will push to get the Pixel into the hands of developers and try to nudge them toward making high-resolution, touch-friendly Web apps. (I'll be surprised if there isn't some sort of promotion or giveaway at Google's IO conference in May.)

Touch screens and high-res displays are clearly the future for computing, and it behooves Google to have the open Web be part of it, rather than being relegated to second-tier status behind native apps. The Web is still where Google makes the bulk of its money, after all.

Maybe it's about merging Chrome OS and Android

A Chromed-out Android mascot stares out over the Google campus.

There's been plenty of chatter lately about whether Chrome OS and Android will merge into a single operating system.

“Particularly in supporting touch, it further blurs the line between Android and Chrome, and perhaps arguably brings us a step closer to a day when those two operating systems may come together, as Google has previously indicated they may,” Rubin says.

I have my doubts. Linus Upson, Google's vice president of engineering, has said that mashing laptops and tablets together doesn't make much sense. But he also said that Google's goal is to have a consistent user experience across devices. As the two operating systems share more features over time—such as Google Now notifications—touch is a way of adding more consistency between the two interfaces.

What it isn't: An actual bid for higher sales volumes

You'll notice that I didn't say that the Chromebook Pixel is Google's play to make beaucoup bucks at retail. Even if the Pixel is destined to play a crucial role in the future of Chromebook design, the merging of Google's dualing operating systems, or the very role of the open Web itself, it won't play a crucial role in actual stores. At $1,299, the Chromebook Pixel is a stunning paragon of what's next, but it simply isn't priced to sell.

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