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Hands on: Google's new US$999 Chromebook Pixel makes big changes under the hood

Melissa Riofrio | March 12, 2015
Two years is eons in tech time, and that's how long we've had to wait for a new Chromebook Pixel, which Google announced Wednesday. Yes, this is a new version of the super-premium, high-priced flagship that debuted to oohs, ahhs, and why?s in early 2013, when most Chromebooks were little cheap plastic things, and desktop applications dominated. Not everyone saw the potential of a high-priced browser box.

Google claims up to 12 hours of battery life on the new Pixel. That's a big jump from before, and Google's tweaked the Pixel's behavior to help goose the number.

For instance, the backlight on the keyboard lights up only when it detects your hands hovering closely over the keyboard or trackpad. If your hands leave for more than 30 seconds, the backlight fades away, even when the Pixel is plugged in. The display also adjusts its brightness based on what's shown onscreen. We'll tell you how the Pixel's battery fared in our tests when we finish our full review.

Here's the last big change: Two USB-C ports, on the left and right sides near the back, deliver both power and connectivity. You can plug in the included USB-C standard power adapter ($60 to buy another) on either side, or one of Google's optional connectors for USB-C to HDMI ($40), DisplayPort ($40), or USB-A (adapter or cable, both $13). The mini-DisplayPort, and dual USB 2.0 ports on the original model are gone; the new model has two USB 3.1 ports, an SD card slot, and an audio jack.  

The other exterior changes are nice, if less noticeable. The display's piano-style hinge is a sturdier design. As a result there is noticeably less flex in the screen — always a good thing. A new trackpad (still etched glass) is bigger and more responsive, at least per Google, though I thought the old one worked fine.

The display changes slightly as well. It's still a 12.85-inch touchscreen with a stunning 2560x1700-pixel resolution and 400-nit brightness. For the new Pixel, Google also improved the color gamut. Most eyes may not notice the difference — to me, both the old and new screens are just plain gorgeous — but we'll tell you more after running some display tests.

So why no tablet functionality — say a hybrid form factor, or a 360-degree hinge? Bowers hedged again: "That's one of a few factors we're going to see more of." But he moved away from tablets to touch, which both the old and new Pixel support. "We're going to see touch become a more important factor."

Think of the Pixel as a dream machine. It's not something everyone will be able to afford, or need. But it symbolizes what the Chrome OS ecosystem could be, and it's a necessary standard-bearer against the competition — high-end MacBooks and Windows systems like Dell's XPS 13. Most likely it'll land in the hands of developers and power users who want to push that ecosystem into the future.

Do you think the Chrome ecosystem needs a flagship like the Pixel? Let us know in the comments. We'll have the full story on this premium laptop in our upcoming review. 


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