Not long ago, Chromebooks – laptops that run Google’s Chrome OS – looked like a doomed product category. With the rise of the tablet, who needed a laptop with a glorified web browser for an operating system? Well, as the Chrome Web Store has evolved and Chromebook prices have dropped, the machines appear to be doing quite well ... So well that Google is now releasing its own high-end model, the Chromebook Pixel.

High-end hardware, budget software

The Chromebook Pixel is an odd blend of professional-grade hardware and entry-level consumer software. It still runs Chrome OS, which shuns the traditional desktop operating system and relies on the cloud. The Chrome OS experience revolves around an offshoot of the Chrome web browser.

Chrome OS does, however, offer many browser-based apps. Popular mobile apps like Angry Birds, Google Maps, and Cut the Rope are all supported. But you can forget about Microsoft Office (Google hopes you’ll use their Docs service), Photoshop, and anything even resembling hardcore gaming. Its software selection is similar to – but distinct from – what you might expect from an Android tablet.

However, the Chromebook Pixel’s hardware competes more with premium laptops like Apple’s MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The Chromebook Pixel sports a high-res display (2,560 x 1,700 squeezed into 12.85 inches), an Intel Core i5 chip, and 4 GB of RAM. The Pixel’s display actually has a slightly higher pixel density than Apple’s Retina MacBook Pros.

The Chromebook Pixel only offers 32 GB of flash memory in its solid-state drive (SSD), but one of Chrome OS’ hallmarks is that it doesn’t require much storage. The search giant also throws in 1 TB of Google Drive cloud storage (it’s free for three years).

Who is it for?

Google’s marketing pitches it as “a laptop that brings together the best in hardware, software, and design to inspire future innovation.” This positions it as a laptop equivalent to Google’s Nexus phones and tablets: a guidepost for manufacturers to signify Google’s intentions for the platform.

But – apart from Chromebook manufacturers – who is the Pixel for right now? That’s a tougher call. It costs a pretty penny (it starts at US$1,300), so it’s competing squarely with Apple’s MacBooks and various Windows Ultrabooks. But Mac OS X and Windows are infinitely more evolved (and professional-friendly) than Chrome OS. At its current price, it’s hard to see huge numbers of consumers choosing the Pixel – despite its terrific display.

Perhaps Google isn't looking for huge numbers right now, and is more concerned with lighting a beacon for the future of Chrome OS.

A new direction?

Chromebooks have done well lately, but those are 100 percent budget laptops (like Samsung’s $250 11.6-inch Chromebook, listed as Amazon’s best-selling PC). With the Pixel, Google is catering to an entirely different crowd. It will be interesting to see how Google evolves Chrome OS alongside this bold hardware move.

The Wi-Fi-only, 32 GB Chromebook Pixel is available starting today from Google Play. It’s also available in an LTE-enabled 64 GB model, which ships in 6-7 weeks.

Source: Google via AllThingsD