Earlier today, Google took the wraps off of its latest Chromebook machine, the Chromebook Pixel. The Pixel is by far the most premium Chromebook that we've seen to date: it has a Retina-like high resolution touchscreen display, a powerful Core i5 processor, and an upscale metal chassis. It also has a similarly upscale price of $1,299. But hardware and price aren't the only unique aspects of the Pixel — where earlier Chromebooks have been made by a variety of manufacturers, including Samsung, Lenovo, Acer, and even HP, the Pixel is the first model to be designed entirely in-house by Google and carry just a Google logo.
Google has been designing (or helping to design) consumer hardware ever since 2010's Nexus One smartphone. Since then, it has developed that line into an assortment of Nexus smartphones and tablets, not to mention the one-off Nexus Q multimedia device. The company has also been involved in the design and development of various Google TV products that have been met with limited success.
But what's different about the new Chromebook Pixel compared to the Nexus line and Google TV products is how the company is positioning the product. The Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 — the newest devices in the Nexus line — feature premium hardware at aggressively low prices. At $299 unlocked, the Nexus 4 undercuts competitors like the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III by a significant amount, and the $399 Nexus 10 offers a high resolution display and lots of internal storage for $200 less than the comparable iPad. Additionally, Google has launched Chromebooks with prices below $250, including the ARM-powered (and simply-named) Samsung Chromebook.
This is an entirely foreign strategy for Google
The Pixel is different, however. The Chromebook's $1,299 price is more than Apple asks for a 13-inch MacBook Air, and significantly more than what you pay for your average Windows 8 Ultrabook, even when considering a model with a touchscreen. Apart from the high resolution display, the Chromebook doesn't really do anything more than those computers — and many would argue that since it's little more than a juiced-up web browser, it can do significantly less. Additionally, it doesn't offer a significantly faster processor, it isn't thinner or lighter than other laptops, and its five hours of expected battery life is little more than average for an ultraportable laptop. It's been suspected that Google subsidizes the price of its Nexus devices to hit their low price points, but it doesn't really look like it's doing the same with the Pixel (or that it's materials are just so expensive that this was the lowest price Google could get to even with subsidizing it).
High-end features add up to a distinctly premium feel
Since Google isn't branding the Pixel with a manufacturer's name, it's hard to tell who is exactly behind the construction of its upscale hardware (and for the record, Google wouldn't tell us when we asked). But from our experience with the device, we can say that the Pixel isn't using your average, off-the-shelf components. The display features an impressive 239 ppi — more than even the vaunted 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina — and the aluminum chassis is very well put together. While most most Windows 8 Ultrabooks use the same, usually disappointing, commodity trackpad, Google has developed a glass trackpad with a textured finish that is really unlike anything else we have used. All of this adds up to a distinctly premium feel, a high-end aura that Apple has enjoyed with its computer hardware for years. Until now, Chromebooks have not exactly enjoyed that status — most of them have featured very plasticky, utilitarian designs with so-so hardware designed to function, not evoke emotion.
Is Pixel the halo product Chrome OS needs?
Is that enough for Google to convince people to spend over five or six times the amount that they could get other Chromebooks for? Does the Pixel act as a halo product to lure people to the Chromebook kiosk (or Google store) where they'll end up buying the $250 model? Or will the Pixel attract new computer customers that might be considering a MacBook or Windows 8 computer but don't need all of the bells and whistles that come along with them? That's hard to say; Chromebooks haven't really made much of a dent in the market yet and it's not clear that the average consumer is ready to move their life entirely to the cloud as Google wants them to do. But the Pixel does mean one thing: it's a vote of confidence (some might even say arrogance) on Google's part that Chrome OS is a legitimate mobile computing platform and shouldn't be relegated to just secondary use cases and bargain bin specials. It's clear that Google wants the Pixel — and by extension, Chromebooks — to be in the same serious conversations as the best from Cupertino and the army of Windows 8 laptops, but we'll just have to see if it gets there.