There’s a new Chrome OS flagship in town, the Chromebook Pixel 2. Like the first model, the new king of the Chromebooks prioritizes design and performance above value — the one spec where these curious, browser-driven laptops usually stand out. But this time the high price may be worth it.
The new Pixel has more than a little in common with the new “it” laptop, the redesigned Apple MacBook. Both feature the new USB Type-C connector, which can connect to USB devices, external displays and power simultaneously. Both laptops are also meant to serve as leading examples in the category, pointing the way for future models to follow.
They’re also both pretty damn pricey. The new MacBook starts at $1,299, and the Chromebook Pixel 2 is $999 — or about $600 more than the next most expensive Chromebook.
However, whereas the new MacBook prioritizes minimalism and portability above all, the Chromebook Pixel 2 is all about options and sheer power. It doesn’t just have one USB-C port; it has two, one on each side. And it doesn’t stop there — there are two full-size USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and a headphone jack.
For charging alone, having two USB-C connectors is a huge win for convenience, letting you attach the power cord to whichever side you wish. They also make it easier to charge the laptop while extending to an external monitor. You could even attach a USB hub to one of the regular USB ports at the same time. If the new MacBook is the laptop of the future, the Chromebook Pixel 2 is ready for right now.
The new Pixel has virtually the same design as the first one, with a 0.6-inch thick chassis that weighs 3.3 pounds — not at all “ultra” small and thin, but not a brick, either. The 12.9-inch screen has virtually the same specs as the first model — it’s touch-enabled, has a “retina” worthy 2,560 x 1,700 resolution rated and is at 400 nits of brightness — but this time Google tweaked the color a bit to make things slightly more realistic.
Since value wasn’t a priority in creating this machine, Google was able to add a nifty trick feature: The multicolor LED strip, which showed glowing Google colors on the first Pixel now also works as a battery indicator. Double-tap the chassis around the strip, and it’ll light up to show how much juice you have left.
The brain of this thing is an Intel Core i5 processor — a rocket engine by Chromebook standards — and includes 8GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. That’s plenty for Chrome OS, and it instantly addresses the central criticism of these machines, namely that they’re not really powerful enough for serious users.
The standard Pixel 2 has lots of muscle, but there’s an even stronger kid on the block. If you really want to be the biggest Chromebook on the block, Google actually makes a Chromebook Pixel 2 LS version. Google says the “LS” stands for “ludicrous speed,” and that version packs an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Why would you ever need that kind of power on a Chromebook, which runs and stores most everything in the cloud? I’m sure a developer somewhere will figure it out.
As it happens, virtually all of Mashable’s tools and systems are web-based, so I decided to stress-test the Chromebook Pixel 2 by using it to power a typical workday. I must say, it did phenomenally well, though it had a couple of nagging issues.
The power of Chrome
Right off the bat, though, I could feel the power of machine — a laptop that not only has a state-of-the-art chip, but also doesn’t have the burden of running all sorts of RAM-gobbling apps. Websites loaded noticeably faster than on my year-old MacBook, and it starts up and shuts down in the blink of an eye.
Google promises an ambitious 12 hours of battery life, but I found that’s really a best case scenario. With what I put it through — connected to a USB hub with a half-dozen devices as well as an external monitor, usually with dozens of Chrome tabs open — I ended up getting about 6.5 hours. Not terrible, but I couldn’t exactly leave my power cable at home.
At least it charges fast. The Pixel 2 continues the trend of fast-charging devices — getting two hours of use after just a 15-minute charge — although of course you need the supplied power brick to get that benefit. However, the Chromebook has the side benefit of charging, at least a little, from pretty much any battery or outlet. That USB-C connector has lots of benefits.
My Chromebook workday wasn’t perfectly smooth sailing, however. When it came to editing images, the Pixel 2 had issues with Pixlr, one of the better web-based Photoshop clones. The app ran fine, but I couldn’t save to the Chromebook’s drive for some reason.
There are other Chrome OS image editors, of course, but there will soon be one to rule them all: Photoshop. Announced last fall, Adobe will soon release a streaming version of its signature photo software for Chromebooks. This is full Photoshop, running in the cloud — the Chromebook just becomes a window to the app. I got a chance to try out the beta on the Pixel 2.
Although it’s a little grainy on the Pixel’s high-res display (clearly Adobe is engineering this for mere-mortal Chromebooks), the app performs extremely well. I was able to edit photos, mark them up, add layers and save in whatever formats I wanted. Performance was excellent, which makes sense since the Chromebook isn’t involved at all. For some reason I couldn’t open photos on the device’s actual drive — only Google Drive files — but that quirk will probably be addressed when the app is ready for general release.
I saw varying degrees of incompatibility with other services besides Pixlr, however. Ironically, a Chromecast plug-in called VideoStream didn’t work at all, even though it’s very reliable on Mac and PC, sadly illustrating that just because something works in the Chrome browser doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work in Chrome OS.
I also need to ding Google for a lousy multiple-account experience with Google Hangouts on Chrome OS. I strangely can’t have both my work and personal accounts logged into the app at the same time. It was certainly inconvenient to need a Gmail window open to use Hangouts for the other profile. This should be basic-level stuff.
Most “apps” on a Chromebook are just browser windows, but there are few that run natively. Google+ Photos, for example runs as a separate app, but I was disappointed that it actually had fewer features than the browser version.
Chrome OS also makes up for its “app gap” by being able to run some Android apps, but don’t get too excited. The Android version of Evernote, for instance, is a travesty to begin with, and using the Chrome version is a nightmare. You’re better off just using it in the browser. But using Vine on a Chromebook is kind of fun, and has real benefits since keeping the camera steady on a laptop is extremely easy.
The Chromebook is ready for duty
Despite those speed bumps, the Chromebook Pixel 2 is a joy to use. I’ve honestly never had a faster Chrome experience, even with half a dozen windows — some with well over 20 tabs — spread across two monitors.
The Pixel’s price tag, though, would give anyone pause, and it should. But it makes more sense than it did two years ago: More and more of our lives are migrating to the cloud, and this is the machine that’s immersed in it.
One caveat, though: preference is given to Google’s cloud. You won’t find Apple’s Reminders or Microsoft Office 365 here, even though there are plenty of substitutes and workarounds. As versatile as Chromebooks have become, and will continue to become, there will always be a few app experiences that they simply can’t replicate on the web.
Still, I have to give lots of credit to Google’s new flagship laptop for getting me through a typical workday without frustration. The Chromebook Pixel 2 will perform, and perform admirably, on 95% of what you want. Just be sure to keep your old computer around for the other 5%.
Chromebook Pixel 2
Superb browser experience • Beautiful ultra-high-res screen • 2 versatile and convenient USB-C ports
Some web apps have spotty Chrome OS support • Android Apps are a mixed bag • Obscenely pricey
The Bottom Line
The Chromebook Pixel 2 is the best Chromebook — and the best Chrome browser experience — money can buy. A lot of money.
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