Chromebook Pixel vs MacBook Pro Retina comparison review

Chromebook Pixel

The Google Chromebook Pixel laptop is an interesting machine, that runs Google's Chrome operating system, previously only seen on lightweight netbook alternatives, on a fully powered high-end laptop with a touchscreen display.

Moving away from Mac OS X, or even Windows, is a challenge for many people but asking £1,049 at the same time may be beyond ambitious. Chromebook Pixel runs Google's Chrome operating system, which is largely built by the online company and designed to work at its best with an internet connection. Unlike the Mac OS X and Windows operating system, Chrome runs applications through Google's web browser and the cloud.

In the US two Chromebook Pixel models are available, a Wifi only model for $1,299 and a 4G LTE enabled edition that is expected to ship in April for $1,449. The 4G edition will include 100MB data per month for two years.

Only model is being sold in the UK the Chromebook Pixel WiFi model. And it's costing a hearty £1,049. That kind of money puts the Chromebook Pixel, combined with its Retina-display screen puts the Chromebook Pixel firmly up against Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina display. And since Apple reduced the price of the MacBook Pro with Retina display to £1,249.

See: Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display review

Our sister site ComputerWorld was first to take shipment of a Chromebook Pixel. JR Raphael says: "The Pixel feels substantial in your hands, and it's no surprise: The laptop is made from anodized aluminum, giving it a high-end, luxurious vibe. The Pixel is 11.7 x 8.8 x 0.64 in. and weighs 3.4 lb. It's noticeably heavier than the aforementioned Samsung Chromebook, which weighs 2.5 lb., but that's what happens when you trade a plasticky construction for a more metal-based build. The Pixel doesn't feel bulky or uncomfortable to hold; it just feels solid and well-constructed.

Chromebook Pixel vs. MacBook Pro Retina: Build quality & design

Chromebooks have always had terrific keyboards, and the Chromebook Pixel is no exception. The laptop manages to improve upon previous models with a re-engineered bedding that results in the keys feeling stronger and more resistant beneath your fingers. The keyboard is also backlit, with an intelligent system that adjusts the lighting based on both the ambient lighting and what you're doing; when you watch a full-screen video, for instance, the keyboard lights slowly fade down and then remain off until you're finished.

Chromebook Pixel Keyboard

So where are the speakers? They're artfully hidden beneath the keyboard, so you never actually see them -- but boy, do you hear them. The Chromebook Pixel has some of the best-sounding speakers I've experienced on a laptop, with loud, crisp and relatively full-sounding audio.

Last, but not least, is the trackpad, which represents an enormous improvement over past Chromebook devices. The Pixel's trackpad is made from etched glass, and the effort put into its design does not go to waste. The trackpad feels fantastic under your fingers -- soft and smooth -- and it's accurate and responsive. The pad supports both tapping and clicking; it has support for a limited range of gestures, too, such as a two-fingered movement to scroll horizontally or vertically in a page.

The design and build quality of Apple's MacBook Pro should be beyond doubt. The Unibody-style MacBook was first introduced on the 17-inch model in 2009 was impressive right from the get-go and Apple has only improvied things since.

Macworld's Roman Loyola wrote of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display:"Apple actually made the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro smaller than the current 13-inch MacBook Air. The Retina is 12.35 inches wide; the Air is 12.8 inches. The Retina is 8.62 inches deep; the Air is 8.94 inches. The Air, at 0.68 inch thick, is still thinner than the Retina, which measures 0.75 inch thick. For comparison, the 13-inch non-Retina MacBook measures 12.78-by-8.94-by-0.95 inches.

The 13-inch MacBook Air (2.96 pounds) is still lighter than the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (3.57 pounds). The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is nearly a pound lighter than the 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro, which feels like a boat anchor compared to its Retina brethren.

If you thought the 13-inch MacBook Pro was still too heavy and you decided to go with a MacBook Air, that may not be the case anymore, depending on your tolerance for the weight."

Chromebook Pixel vs MacBook Pro Retina: Display

No two ways about it: The 2560 x 1700 display is the star of the Chromebook Pixel show. The 12.85-in. LCD packs a whopping 239 pixels per inch - 4.3 million pixels total -- which Google proudly proclaims to be the highest pixel density of any laptop available today. (Yes, even higher than Apple's Retina-display MacBook Pro - though at these levels, most people probably couldn't detect much of a visible difference between the two.)

The MacBook Pro with Retina display is a different proposition. The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro has a 13.3-inch LED-backlit screen with a native resolution of 2560-by-1600 pixels, so it's slightly larger than the Chromebook but both are Retina-displays. (See What is a Retina display, and are they worth the money?)

The Retina display is an in-plane switching (IPS) panel, which allows for a wide 178-degree viewing angle. The display also has less glare than the non-Retina MacBook Pro; Apple says it has reduced glare by 75 percent. While we didn’t gauge the exact amount of glare, you can see a noticeable difference, for the better.

Chromebook Pixel display

Chromebook Pixel vs MacBook Pro Retina: Connections

The left side of the Chromebook Pixel has a charging port, a Mini DisplayPort, two USB ports (USB 2.0, unfortunately -- a minor chink in the Pixel's armor), and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side, meanwhile, houses an SD/MMC memory card slot and a SIM card slot for the LTE-enabled model. Curiously absent is a dedicated HDMI port; if you need that functionality, you'll have to pick up a generic Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter.

The connectors on the side of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro mirror that of its 15-inch sibling. One side has a MagSafe 2 connector, two Thunderbolt ports, a USB 3.0 port, and a headphone jack. The other side has another USB 3.0 port, HDMI video-out, and an SDXC slot. Also, each side has a set of three air vents that also output low-frequency sound.

Chromebook Pixel vs. MacBook Pro Tech Specs

Google describes the Chromebook Pixel as a high-end laptop for "power users living in the cloud." As such, the system boasts a 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000) and 4GB of RAM, giving it significantly more horsepower than any other Chromebook model.

Apple offers two standard configuration models of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. Both models have a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost pushes that up to 3.1GHz), 8GB of memory, and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU. The £1449 model has 128GB of flash storage, while the £1699 model has 256GB.

The 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3L onboard memory cannot be reconfigured to add more memory. The memory is built into the motherboard instead of using slots and RAM modules. It’s 8GB, and that’s it, unlike the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, which comes standard with 8GB and can be customized at the point of purchase with 16GB of memory. The 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro and the 13-inch MacBook Air support a maximum of 8GB of memory, so it seems that the 13-inch frame has space limitations that prevent more memory from being installed.

Apple doesn’t offer much when it comes to build-to-order options. You can upgrade the processor to a 2.9GHz dual-core Core i7 (with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz). Flash storage upgrades are also available to 512GB or 768GB, so you need to decide at the point of purchase if you want more storage.

Chromebook Pixel case

Chromebook Pixel vs. MacBook Pro Retina: Experience

Of the Chromebook Pixel, JR Raphael has this to say: "With the Chromebook Pixel, Google set out to build a premium laptop experience -- and in most respects, it succeeded. The Chromebook Pixel is a beautifully designed laptop with outstanding hardware, a phenomenal display and an interesting form of touch support that promises to open new possibilities for the way you use a laptop.

That experience, however, doesn't come cheap. The Pixel's starting price of $1,300 puts it in the same league as systems like the $1,500 MacBook Pro with Retina display, which are far more versatile in the types of programs they can run and functions they can perform.

Macworld's Roman Layola says this of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display: "Who is the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro for? It’s ideal for professional users who want a large, yet compact digital workspace that doesn’t sacrifice a lot of processing performance. The MacBook Air is still the choice for users for whom weight is a top priority—traveling business users or students who need to write papers in-between treks across campus. However, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro isn’t that much heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air, so if you are a demanding user who works on location, you won’t feel like you’re sacrificing much portability with the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. The non-Retina MacBook Pro costs less than the Retina model—and it may be preferred over the Retina MacBook Pro because of its FireWire and gigabit ethernet ports, and its SuperDrive. During the unveiling of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, Apple Senior VP of Marketing Phil Schiller said that the 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple’s best-selling Mac. And with good reason: People love the combination of performance and portability that the 13-inch MacBook Pro provides. The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is poised to continue the legacy of Apple's mighty little laptop.

Macworld contributor Andy Ihnatko said of Chromebook Pixel in the Chicago Sun-Times: "I think Google’s doing something culturally-important with this product: they’re delivering a premium computing experience at a budget price point.... Is it as good as a $1500 MacBook or Lenovo? Hell, no". But Ihnatko points out that "there are countless buyers ... for whom the difference in price between a $250 Chromebook and even a mid-priced laptop is the difference between Having and Having To Do Without." We're inclined to agree: the Samsung Chromebook for £229 makes sense if you're after a decent laptop experience at a low price that with a somewhat experimental operating system. Paying £1,049 to work in Chrome OS instead of Mac OS X or Windows is tougher to understand.

OUR VERDICT

We like what Google is attempting with Chromebook, although it seems to make more sense on the entry-level laptops, where it presents a vialble alternative to running a low-spec PC with Windows, or attempting to navigate a Linux operating system. What we're less sure about is why you'd get a Chromebook Pixel over a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air or any decent PC running an established operating system, which is what Google seems to be offering here with the Chromebook Pixel and its £1,049 asking price. There seems to be no clear benefit and a considerable downside. Andy Ihnatko calls it "puzzling" and we're inclined to agree. Unless you have a vested interest in the Chrome operating system, beyond paying £229 to experiment with it, we'd say go for the MacBook Pro with Retina Display without a shadow of any doubt.

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