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I bought my mom a Chromebook Pixel and everything is so much better now

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Sometimes less is more

This is The Divergence, a weekly column from The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel, exploring the spaces around modern technology.

My mother loves Steve Jobs so much she got a little teary when I gave her a Chromebook Pixel for Christmas. She didn't open the box for almost 10 minutes, because the idea of having a tech product that didn't come from Jobs bothered her so much.

It's not Apple that my mother reveres; it's Jobs. She's a physician who cried when she read the Walter Isaacson biography because she was so frustrated that Jobs didn't seek medical treatment sooner. And she has stubbornly hung on to her iPhone 5S even though it's obvious that a larger-screened phone would be better-suited to her needs; she's cranked up the iOS font size so much that the thing looks insane to use. But she hates the design of the iPhone 6 and 6S, particularly the antenna lines on the back. "They made it so ugly," she frequently says to me. "Steve Jobs liked sleek things."

I have no idea if that is true, but I'm definitely hoping the iPhone 7 hides the antennas better.

My first instinct was a new MacBook, but it felt wrong

Anyway, when my mom asked me for a laptop so she could more easily use her hospital's medical records system while traveling, I instinctively went to order her the new Retina MacBook. It's small, beloved by my Verge coworkers who have them, and it is indeed sleek as hell.

But then I thought about having to support a new Mac from across the country. My parents are brilliant — they're both doctors — but everyday computer tasks frequently spiral into troubleshooting nightmares. Things are frequently broken so deeply by the time they get to me that I have no idea how any piece of tech could end up so messed up. But whatever: I can repay their extreme patience in raising me by fixing their computers and phones.

But the more I thought about buying my mom a new Mac, the more I came to believe it was a terrible idea. New Macs (and new Windows PCs, for that matter) are complicated. They mix interface metaphors with wild abandon, and they're stuffed full of software my parents would never need. (Or that I would want to support: thinking about walking my mom through iTunes filled me with dread.) When it came right down to it, what they needed was a great desktop-class web browser that could connect to her hospital's Citrix system, a killer display, and a nice keyboard. They have iPhones and iPads for their app needs and an iMac at home for whatever else might pop up. Why overthink it?

The problem: most of the Chromebooks on the market feel cheap. They're generally marketed as secondary computers, so they're made to be inexpensive, and that means almost all of them are made of cheap-feeling plastic. There's nothing wrong with that, but I needed to pass the sleek test. The only viable option was Google's own Chromebook Pixel, which is an amazingly beautiful machine that's ridiculously expensive by most normal standards, because it's a thousand-dollar computer that just runs Chrome. It sounds insane: most tech products that cost a thousand dollars do many, many more things than simply running a web browser. I spent weeks tossing the idea around every chance I got, just to see if it would ever sound less like I was slowly going crazy.

A thousand-dollar computer that just runs Chrome sounds insane

"Should I buy my mom thousand-dollar computer that just runs Chrome?" I would idly wonder to anyone within earshot. I posted a forum thread to solicit opinions from Verge readers. I drove my friends and family insane with my indecision.

And then I bought my mom a Pixel. And it was one of the best technology purchasing decisions I've ever made.

First, the Pixel is indeed very sleek. And telling my mom that it was Google's computer, and that vanishingly few people would ever have one, certainly upped the cool factor. Eventually she opened the box, and eventually she started using it.

And then a totally unexpected combination of things happened that sold her on the Pixel completely: first, she realized she could just touch the screen and even pinch-to-zoom instead of using the trackpad, and second, she opened up Apple's iCloud.com website, which basically acts like a huge iPhone on a touchscreen computer. It's actually really great, a totally unheralded part of the Apple ecosystem.

"Oh!" said my mom. "I have access to all my Apple stuff too."

We were off to the races. It's a month later and she loves the thing. It's not fighting her, or asking her to learn anything new, or foisting complicated new products on her. There are no apps to update, and no new versions of the OS to install every year. It's just Chrome, doing its thing. And because it's still a thousand-dollar laptop, it's incredibly fast. (Apparently the secret to making Chrome run really well is to totally dedicate a 2.2GHz Core i5 and 8GB of RAM to it.)

By doing so much less, the Pixel encourages my parents to explore so much more

So now my mom has a computer that doesn't ever ask her to update software or try to kick her into other apps (and other user interface patterns) and away from the web. She has access to all of her Google accounts (of course) and she has access to all of her Apple stuff in a way that actually tracks much more closely to her experience on iOS. When she asked me how to get music, she actually answered her own question before I even started to speak. "I'll just use YouTube," she said, confidently. Within a day or two, she and my dad had started watching entire old Bollywood movies on YouTube, something they'd never tried to do on their iPads or iMac. By doing so much less, the Pixel encourages my parents to explore so much more.

And she uses the touchscreen constantly. It is her primary input method; she hates trackpads. When I was still planning to buy her a MacBook, she insisted that I buy her a mouse as well. I might still buy her one for the Pixel, because there's a lot of clicking to be done on her work system, but the touchscreen is letting her get around the web extraordinarily well. It has completely changed my opinion about the value of touchscreens on laptops.

Her work system is basically the only hiccup — there's a version of Citrix Receiver for Chromebooks, but it's up to individual systems administrators to actually enable and support it. My mom has had real trouble logging into her hospital system; it works, but inconsistently. We're working on it; it appears to be getting better but still fails out from time to time. But she loves the Pixel so much she's willing to accept the bumps; I've offered to swap the Pixel out for a MacBook but she doesn't want one because it doesn't have a touchscreen. (And there's just no way I'm putting a Windows PC in the mix; a whole new OS is just a lot of change when the goal is to simplify.)

Google has some snags to clear up if it wants to make more hardware in the future

There was one other notable snag: the first Pixel we got was misconfigured from the factory, and still in a testing mode. I couldn't reset it and knock it into the normal settings, no matter what I tried. (I went so far as to try and reflash the software from a USB stick.) It still worked and she used it for a few days while a new one shipped to us, but it was running old software and couldn't be updated. If I hadn't noticed the screen going to an ominous bootloader for a half-second when we first turned it on, we would have never caught it and it would have been an ongoing security risk. Google's phone support was great and promptly replaced the unit, but this was a big mistake. If Google wants to make more hardware in the future — and all signs indicate that it does — it has to tighten up these sorts of slips.1

If Google really is serious about making its own hardware, a $700 riff on the Pixel would be a fascinating product. It would instantly be the best computer to buy for anyone who doesn't really want to screw around with tech.

What if instead of always talking about more, we put more value on doing less?

When we talk about laptops still being popular and important, we tend to talk about things like the precision of the mouse and the power and flexibility of a desktop operating system. We talk about all the things they can do better than a phone or a tablet. We talk about more. But it's worth talking about the power of technology that strives to do less — much less. The thousand dollars I spent on a Pixel didn't buy my mom crazy extensibility, or the ability to run powerful apps like Photoshop or Excel. It didn't even buy her that much storage. But it did buy her a beautiful, well-designed product. And most importantly, it bought her focus, and the ability to spend her time using her computer instead of trying to learn how to use it.

That's a lesson I think Steve Jobs would have liked very much.


Verge Reviews: Chromebook Pixel

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