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Switched On: Chrome on the range


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

If Chrome OS didn't start out with an inferiority complex living in the shadow of the massive adoption of its cousin Android, and with Eric Schmidt dismissing the hardware that would run it as cheap and interchangeable, the hardware companies that were early to adopt it didn't help matters. Chrome OS arrived on devices that weren't priced competitively against then-popular netbooks.

Since then, though, the Chrome hardware story has been on a steady upswing. Thanks to Acer, Chromebooks broke the $200 price point. Thanks to Samsung, they made the leap to the ARM architecture, enabling longer battery life in a thin form factor. And thanks to HP and Lenovo, Chromebooks have joined the portfolios of two of the biggest names in corporate computing. While it may be nowhere near Android's scale in terms of overall devices, Chrome OS is now offered by three of 2012's top Windows PC manufacturers. That is certainly enough to show up on Microsoft's radar. Into this fray comes the Chromebook Pixel and it has clearly learned from other successful ecosystems.

From Android

Chrome wasn't the first operating system from Google to embrace running on a wide range of devices with an eye toward the low-end market. Indeed, part of the reason Android has been as successful as it has been is its support for a broad range of hardware components -- helpful for pre-paid plans that have little or no subsidy and critical for developing economies. That said, Samsung has risen to the top of the Android market share rankings with high-end devices that pack in a lot of leading-edge technology such as the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note products. These products are required to compete against Apple in the premium segment, something that Microsoft has struggled with in the PC market, and create a general halo effect. Today, of course, Chrome OS can't support the full range of functionality that a Windows PC or Mac can, but the Pixel now offers hardware that can go toe to toe.

From Apple

Many have compared the Pixel's industrial design to that of the MacBook Pro; while both have a chiseled and solid feel, high-resolution displays, square-like power bricks with detachable extension cables and high price points, the Pixel's industrial design is its own. The body has a darker color, sharper corners, a semicircular hinge profile as opposed to the MacBook's drop-hinge design, a contiguous row of shortcut keys above the numbers row that spans the breadth of the keyboard inlay and a Sony-like glowing ring where the AC adapter meets the power port. In addition, as with the original Cr-48 test developer notebook from Google, there are no external markings like the lit Apple logo that graces all MacBooks; Google has instead added a thin line near the top of the lid with a color-changing LED, a design touch that mirrors the underscores for active pages in Chrome OS' taskbar.

From Windows

And then, the Pixel has a feature that Apple has put on no Mac: a touchscreen. Tabling the questions for now as to whether touchscreens are at home on a traditional clamshell or whether their benefit is currently worth the premium on such a device, Microsoft has suffered in the short term from betting big on touchscreen integration that hasn't come together for a few reasons including high device prices and a fractured Windows 8 interface. Pixel certainly suffers from the former, but since it essentially runs one app -- the Chrome browser -- there hasn't been the need for developers to either create a Windows 8-style version of their apps or to try to make their traditional desktop apps more touch-friendly as Microsoft has with Office. There are still issues with web pages that don't have touch-friendly controls, but these are seeing pressure to become more touch-friendly anyway as the Pixel benefits from the momentum of the iPad and other tablets.

DNP Switched On Chrome on the range

The Chromebook Pixel, while lightweight for its size, is far from the ultimate in portability, but given the insufficient and inconsistent progress that Chrome OS has made in enabling offline functionality, broadband remains Chrome OS' oxygen. True, the Pixel includes integrated support for LTE. However, like the lower-end HP device that preceded it, the device shines in an environment like an office, home or campus awash in WiFi, the same kinds of settings in which notebooks in general are most often used.

Oddities remain. Since Chrome OS now integrates the app launcher with the Search feature, pressing the Search key now brings up both; this is the OS' equivalent of Windows' classic "pressing Start to shut down" conundrum. However, if you've largely moved to a web-centric lifestyle and you want a premium notebook experience, the Chromebook Pixel is really the only game in town. Given the increasing range of options for web-based streaming services, its high-resolution display extends the appeal of video entertainment to those who value simplicity, security and ease of management over a breadth of functionality. The Pixel is a showcase, and it's a step forward as the percentage of tasks that can be addressed using web-centric computing continues to creep upward.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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