For May 2013 I decided to try making a Chromebook Pixel my primary laptop. So how did it go? Well, the short version is that I’m still a happy Pixel user, almost three months after my one month challenge started.
Previously, I was using a Thinkpad 420s running Goobuntu. In fact, I’ve been using Thinkpads since 1998, when I got my first one in grad school. Before I talk about the Pixel, here’s what I like about Thinkpads:
- Thinkpad keyboards have been the best in the industry. Great depth and just-right resistance. I especially liked the Thinkpad’s dedicated back/forward buttons for web browsing, located right near the arrow keys. Unfortunately, Lenovo has moved to “chiclet” style keyboards and dropped the back/forward buttons in newer Thinkpads.
- Thinkpads have a red rubber TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard. TrackPoint pointers are faster and more precise than trackpads or even mice for me, since you don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard. I didn’t think I could use a laptop without a TrackPoint.
- Thinkpads have a consistent power connector that doesn’t change very often. Most Google conference rooms have Thinkpad and Mac power connectors, so you don’t have to haul a power cord around with you.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a black magnesium case that’s not as cold on your lap when it wakes up as aluminum.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a 1600 x 900 widescreen. Until retina-type displays came out, that was one of the highest-resolution laptops you could get.
Okay, Thinkpads are great machines. But what’s not to like?
- Battery life. When I kept my screen pretty bright, I only got 2-3 hours of battery life.
- Heavy. I didn’t notice until I started using the Pixel, but my Thinkpad 420s was 5.2 pounds. That’s pretty darn hefty for a laptop these days.
Overall though, I was very pleased with my Thinkpad and expected to return to it after the 30 day challenge was up. After all, I’ve been using Thinkpads for 15 years.
Then the Chromebook Pixel surprised me. The main thing you need to know about the Chromebook Pixel is that the screen is phenomenal. The resolution is 2560 x 1700 and 239 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 227 ppi for a Macbook Pro with retina display. To demonstrate the screen, the Pixel comes with an app called TimeScapes which is drop dead gorgeous. The screen is also a 3:2 aspect ratio, which seems weird for a few days but is actually much better for web browsing than a widescreen display because more of a web page fits on the screen.
The Pixel also comes with a terabyte of Google Drive storage for three years and 12 free Gogo wifi passes for airplane trips. And if you’re worried about the Chrome-only, cloud-only aspect of a Pixel, you can install Linux on it. Even Linus Torvalds likes it.
Okay, but how did it work over 30 days? Better than I expected. I was 12 days in when I realized I’d probably keep using the Pixel after the challenge was over. Let’s run down what’s good and bad:
- The screen. So nice. Although I don’t understand why they made it so glossy. Screens should be matte, in my opinion.
- Incredibly easy to set up. I use Chrome Sync to sign into Chrome, so basically I just logged in and all my settings, bookmarks, and extensions showed up like magic.
- No configuration. I spent most of this past January reconfiguring several new computers, so “no muss, no fuss” is a big plus.
- The battery life is better. More like five hours, so I’m not constantly looking for a power adapter. If Google puts a Haswell chip in the Pixel, the sucker should go practically all day.
- The trackpad works great. The physical texture of it is silky-smooth, and I never saw any of the glitches that affected the CR-48. Sometimes I do accidentally click when I’m touching the trackpad just to move the cursor, but that’s hard to get right.
There were a few times I missed a regular laptop though:
- John Dvorak’s blog got hacked, and I wanted to send Dvorak a snippet of code that I fetched from his server, but the Pixel doesn’t have wget installed of course. You can do SSH, so I could have SSH’ed into another computer to fetch the page, but I didn’t bother.
- At one point I was trying to download a list of my books from Good Reads in comma separated value (CSV) form so I could upload the file to My Library on Google Books. The Pixel didn’t know what to do with a .csv file, which surprised me since Gmail and Google Drive seem to handle them fine. I suspect that this is a temporary “slip between the cracks” sort of thing, since it looks like Google is working on editing Office docs on Chrome OS. There have been a few times that I’ve downloaded a file and just wanted a simple text editor to tweak 2-3 characters in the file though.
- When you have a ton of tabs open using a lot of memory, clicking back on a tab that had been unused for a long time could cause the tab to reload. If you had unsaved work in the tab, you might lose it. This got better (but not perfect) over time. I’m not sure if Chrome OS got better, or I just got more careful with my tab management though.
One thing that annoyed me (selecting large blocks of text was slow when you had to scroll) was fixed when Chrome OS updated to a newer version. I have faith that other tiny annoyances–scrolling a page with two fingers doesn’t work for some reason when your cursor is over a tab instead of a web page, for example–will also be fixed. At the same time, I haven’t fully adapted to the touch screen and dedicated search button and don’t use either as much I could. But in general, the Pixel seems like it will just continue to get faster and better over time, not slower and cruftier like most machines.
So is the Pixel perfect? Not completely, but most of that (glossy screen vs. matte, trackpad vs. TrackPoint, chiclet vs. regular laptop keyboard) is a matter of personal preference. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, I understand the decision to get a MacBook Pro with Retina display so you can run native apps. But I’m not in the Apple ecosystem, and I actually like a machine that discourages me from keeping too much data locally.
A lot of people poke fun at Chromebooks saying that they’re not much use without a WiFi connection. Personally, I believe that practically any computer is not much use without a network connection. Chromebooks are getting better at working well offline, but I have to say: the Pixel I’m using has an LTE option for when WiFi isn’t available, and I didn’t need to use the LTE connection on the Pixel any time in the last three months. Especially when you take the Google Drive storage and 12 internet passes into account, the Pixel is quite a good deal for a premium laptop. I’m going to keep using it.
This is getting long, so I’ll close with an anecdote. My Dad visited earlier this month. I gave him a Samsung Chromebook as a loaner for his visit and he’s been using it happily. He logged into his Gmail account in Chrome and his bookmarks and other Chrome settings just showed up. Dad’s laptop back home is about 5 years old, so we stopped by the Apple store. I was going to outfit him with a top-of-the-line MacBook; since he goes for years between upgrades, I wanted him to have a laptop that would last as long as possible. But after noticing the price, he balked. “Matt, we can buy ten Chromebooks for that much money,” he told me. We’re still discussing it, but the $250 Samsung Chromebook does everything he needs. I think more and more people will discover that’s true for them as well. I’ve been surprised how well the Chromebook Pixel works for me.