Linux and the Chromebook Pixel

Google recently released its first Google laptop. It took the world by surprise, while there was a leak a few days before the device was still far from confirmed and even further from expected. ChromeOS is used in many low-end laptops, Chromebooks have pretty much become the successors of netbooks.

However, the Pixel is different: instead of being akin to netbooks it’s more like a high-end ultrabook, a new category of its own.

I’ve argued before that Linux has yet to have a significant impact in the desktop operating system market not because it traces behind in any significant way technologically but rather because it lacks the support from OEMs. Google and its new role as a laptop vendor could change this.

Look I know about System76, is just its laptops are nothing interesting hardware-wise and it lacks a relevant distribution channel and market force. I also know some big OEMs offer Linux… if you find the correct place in their webpages (never on a physical store) and ask for it explicitly. The only true consumer laptops sold with Linux are Chromebooks, but their extremely low-end nature means they don’t stand a chance of truly taking over the market.

So here’s the question: Is the Chromebook Pixel the device Linux needs? 
Let’s start by looking at the specs.

Internal hardware

It’s a high end ultrabook, not the highest in the market, but you find a pretty standard Dual Core Intel Core i5 at 1.8 Ghz with the usual integrated Intel 4000 and 4 GB of DDR3 RAM. You won’t be playing any high end games in this machine but I’m sure you can play most games in low settings as its common ground for ultrabooks.

Internal storage? Google has decided you don’t need any significant amount of it, and that you’re going to be better served by 1 TB of Google Drive for 3 years, only a small 32 GB SSD (and it’s a relatively slow one) or 64 GB if you go for the LTE model. Thankfully, it has an SD/MMC card reader just in case you realize that’s not much.

You also get two USB 2.0 ports, which is very disappointing in the age of USB 3.0 but tolerable, Dual-band WiFi 802.11n and a 720 front facing camera. And that’s about it. Is not the most powerful machine out there, just good enough, the incredible part is not in the internal specs.

A beautiful piece of hardware

This device is seriously gorgeous. There’s only a handful of devices that I think match Apple’s Macbook Air and Macbook Pro lines in design, build quality and pure aesthetic sense. The Chromebook Pixel not only matches them, in my opinion, it surpasses them.

A unibody piece of anodized aluminum, no visible vents, extremely thin (16.2mm/.62″) and very lightweight (1.52 Kg/3.3 pounds), with a thin light bar that serves no purpose other than looking great. Deprived from any stickers, all its branding reduces to a subtle word:

And when you open the lid things get even better.

The best screen in any laptop

Finally, it happened. A company decided to stop the nonsense of shipping screens with the right aspect ratio to watch movies in laptops and instead picked a sensible ratio for a personal computer. Unlike the competition, senselessly sticking 16:9 (or 16:10, in Apple’s case) screens in their computers, Google went with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Which is far better for everything that is not looking video, and even when looking at video its only sin is having black bars surrounding movies.

The Pixel earns its name because of its high resolution display. Unlike smartphones and tablets, laptops have been mostly stuck with panels that are severely outperformed by screens in 400 dollars tablets and even pocketable devices. Google joins Apple in rebelling against the trend with its 12.85″ 2560 x 1700 display, reaching 239 ppi. All of these things mixed with very good viewing angles and a screen brightness of 400 nits make for what is the best screen in any laptop.

Google’s amazing screen is accompanied by a keyboard and trackpad that have been praised by all the press and people who got first hand experiences with the Pixel.

So far so good. The Chromebook Pixel seems what Linux needs to shake the market and finally enter with force. It is the right hardware, but there’s a problem.

ChromeOS: The wrong software

Unlike full fledged distributions like Netrunner or Ubuntu, with plenty of native software from simple note editors to advanced video editors, ChromeOS is barely more than Google Chrome. Now, I want to be fair, Google Chrome is my favorite browser, Google’s interface design is actually top notch, among the best I’ve seen, their Aura Window Manager is really good (if not nearly as customizable as KWin) and the dock is good too . In other words the browser is good, the window manager is good, and is pretty.

ChromeOS comes with a few actual applications, like a very bare bones photo editor and file manager, and you can use some web applications offline, like Google Docs and GMail. While this may be enough to compete in the $300 dollars and lower market, the Pixel costs $1,300 in its cheapest form.

However, it can’t do one thing that a $300 netbook or Chromebook, or any laptop, can’t do. You want to use an advanced photo editor like The GIMP? Sorry, you can’t. You want to use a full featured alternative to Microsoft Office? Sorry, there’s only Google Drive. I suspect people spending $1,300 in their personal machine expect to do more with it than just browse the web and have webpages pretend they’re applications. Again while Linux adoption rate isn’t a technological problem that shouldn’t be confused with “you only need a web browser”.

Google, blinded by its love of the cloud, only ships the base model with 32 GB, which is a laughable amount. Yes, it inclues 1 TB of cloud storage… storage Google knows you won’t use. Let me be very clear, if you only need a web browser for your computing tasks then you don’t need 1 TB of storage, cloud or not.

What, beyond its beautiful design and screen, does this laptop has to offer? Windows and Mac OS X run Google Chrome just fine, and therefore have access to anything ChromeOS has access to, plus a lot of powerful applications. If you’re a Linux enthusiast you don’t care about the operating system that ships with computers, you’re going to replace it anyway, but we’re not the market.

Sadly ChromeOS has nothing to offer to any normal customer buying such an expensive device. I simply don’t understand why Google doesn’t make good use of the ecosystem that the open source community has built around Linux for all these years, we now even have Steam, a dream come true for many.

I can only imagine how this laptop would’ve done in the market if it had included out of the box a bigger drive and a real Linux distribution. My hunch is that it would’ve done better than it will with Google’s oversimplified operating system.

Some images courtesy of Engadget.


4 thoughts on “Linux and the Chromebook Pixel

  1. I have been using Linux for quite a while. I started Linux in the late 1990s when I was looking for something that would make my 486 and Pentium 2 better. I tried NeXTSTEP, but also wanted to use something that had a chance of being updated. In those days, all I wanted was my own server so I could hook into it with my Thinkpad 701C (via dial-up).

    I see ChromeOS as a form of Linux that can please both the casual and the hardcore user. On the one hand, the guts are there, so the hardcore user can switch on developer mode and install whatever Linux they like. Things like crouton even allow ChromeOS to run Xfce on a different virtual terminal. On the other hand, ChromeOS provides an easy way for the average user to take advantage of Linux they would care about: security. ChromeOS (not in dev mode) is much more secure than the average computer without any tasks to perform to keep it secure aside from turning it off and on.

    Before getting the Pixel, I had already moved to SaaS for many tasks and created webapps locally to do anything SaaS was not ready/too expensive for. As a result, I haven’t even removed ChromeOS from the Pixel and don’t plan to.

    To me, ChromeOS is a serious work OS and not a toy. To others it may be a toy, but to each their own in this. Even without other servers to use, software like GIMP can be run (on small images) through services like RollApp. Subscribing to a service like EC2 provides even more Linux options.

    I considered a Surface Pro due to being able to install whatever you like and the possibility of tablet use. Then, I tried one… I couldn’t get over the physical size of the device, the kickstand angle, the funky keyboard… it seemed halfway designed to be sleek and fashionable and halfway designed to be propeller-hat clumsy.

    Anyway, regarding Linux, laptop brands would mess it up if they tried to preinstall linux. For example, Dell’s “Dellbuntu” is bad about updates. ChromeOS, in contrast, is maintained and updated on a quicker release cycle than “regular” Linux.

    • Well, while it may seem like we disagree, we don’t.

      I believe ChromeOS is fine for people who are not tech savvy and just need a few basic features. And it works for hardcore Linux users, because any machine works for a hardcore Linux user (as long as there’re decent drivers). 

      The problem is the regular consumer buying $1,300 laptops probably does more than browsing the web, and is relatively tech savvy, but not interested in workarounds or setting up Crouton or installing alternative Linux distributions, some are designers, some are writers, some are scientists, some are engineers, some are journalists, etc. and all of them need more than a web browser, and they shouldn’t be looking for workarounds once they get home with their new laptop, they should be able to install and buy whatever they need, just like they can on machines running other operating systems. 

      Having said that, I was also considering buying a Surface Pro or a Chromebook Pixel, since I don’t live in the US I haven’t had the pleasure of testing the Surface Pro , but having read your thoughts I think I will go with the Pixel.

      Thanks for the feedback and sharing your experience.

      • Yes, I really liked the Surface Pro as a base device, it just didn’t fit for the kind of device I wanted to work on. I really wanted a laptop form factor and the Surface type keyboard is exactly the same width as the Pixel… but it didn’t feel like a “real” keyboard. Instead, it felt clumsy which was strange considering it wasn’t smaller or arranged in some odd fashion, just clumsy. Maybe this is just me… but I suspect anyone who is a good typist has the same experience.

        Another thing I didn’t like is the 16:9 ratio. 16:9 is not good for desktop but it was especially not good for portrait mode as a tablet. It seems to be expected that users use the Surface as a landscape tablet which doesn’t make much sense to me as I almost always use tablets portrait unless I have to use them landscape. The weight is also not great for a tablet.
        The viewing angle of the Surface when propped with the kickstand also makes it weird to put it down somewhere and start using it. This also results in the screen being so low that it is uncomfortable to look at. I didn’t test it with my adjustable laptop stand which might work. I also considered just mounting it to my desk.I don’t like the way the Pixel feels slippery when I sit down for a quick session, but at least it somewhat stays put. In contrast, the Surface is basically impossible to use as a “laptop.”I am sure that many people love the Surface Pro form factor, it just didn’t fit my preferences.

  2. Great hardware, I would really like Google to build on the crouton initiative so we have the capability to install a linux desktop and apps from the linux multiverse. Particularly if they had refined it to work seamlessly with the hardware, and with the sort of detail they have done in android and are working towards in chrome os. The Pixel would be a lovely machine to use then…ach, but I’m dreaming!

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