February 26, 2013
Who would’ve bet that Google would be the first company to release a competitor to Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display? Certainly not me. For whatever reason, other ‘brands’ seem reluctant to compete with Apple in this new class of notebook computer. Sony, Asus, and Lenovo all have notebooks at similar prices, but none have a high density display and none have only solid state storage.
But why? Why have some of the biggest technology companies been unable to compete with Apple, especially considering the display itself doesn’t contain any Apple intellectual property. The answer is found when reading any reviews of Google’s Chromebook Pixel.
On the surface, Google’s Chromebook Pixel is a highly impressive piece of hardware. The industrial design is attractive and distinctive, the build quality is up there with the best, and as a bonus the ugly Google logo is nowhere to be seen. But almost all of the reviews mention the same three problems: price, battery life, and the operating system.
I believe £1049 (or $1299) is a reasonable price for hardware like the Pixel, but the value proposition is poor when compared with a MacBook Pro. The Pixel runs an OS that is essentially just a very good web browser. While Chrome OS is improving, I think it’s still a few years too early for most people to use as their main or only operating system. Mac OS X is a better OS with more flexibility, and is found on computers costing about the same amount for similar or better hardware.
If another manufacturer were to offer a high DPI laptop, they’d have to use Windows 8. The new Metro side of Windows 8 scales well with Retina displays, but the old Windows desktop has never supported high DPI displays, and I don’t think it’s about to.
The final piece of the puzzle is battery life, something that’s always suffered when using bleeding edge technology. Chromebooks started off as low cost, big battery laptops, but with the Chromebook Pixel, Google has run into a technical hurdle they can’t surmount to get anywhere near the 8-10 hours their prototype Chromebook CR-48 did. Reviews have found it gets around four hours, which is about 25% less than a 13” Retina MacBook Pro, which has a 20% bigger battery. Considering the Pixel uses a slower, lower power CPU either the display uses a lot more power or Chrome OS is inefficient on x86 CPUs.
I doubt battery life would be much better if the Pixel ran Windows 8. Apple has such a head start in this area due to their experience with integrating hardware and software, that if any competitor were to release a product right now, it would have to compromise performance, weight, size, price, or battery life.
Google are currently the only company that is willing to take on Apple and welcome in the brave new world of notebook computing. I see no mention of the actual manufacturer or whether Google are making a profit on it (I think their margins are very slim). This is just a hobby for Google like the Apple TV is a hobby for Apple, but it’s nice seeing someone else skating to where the puck is going instead of where it is.
If you’ve read this far, you should probably follow me on Twitter at @weiran
Written by Weiran Zhang who lives and works in Nottingham. You should follow him on Twitter.