Apple and Google are no strangers to competition. Ever since Google created Android to grab a slice of the smartphone pie, the two have been fierce rivals. Never before, though, have they competed in the laptop arena. Yet Google’s new Chromebook Pixel is bumping heads with several of Apple’s MacBooks. Read on, as we compare the Chromebook Pixel to the MacBook Air.
Note that we’re focusing on the mid-2012, 13-inch MacBook Air (Apple also sells the machine in an 11-inch model). We’re also focusing on the standard MBA models, leaving the pricier built-to-order upgrades out.
You may be surprised that the MacBook is larger in every dimension – including thickness. But that’s only measuring the thickest point of the Air; its tapered design makes it much thinner on the whole than the uniformly-thick Chromebook.
The MacBook Air is about 12 percent lighter than the Chromebook Pixel.
This is the Chromebook Pixel’s killer spec. Its 12.85-inch display has about the same pixel density as Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. It’s much sharper than the MacBook Air’s 1,440 x 900 screen.
Like many Windows 8 Ultrabooks, the Chromebook Pixel sports a multitouch display.
Both laptops rock dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 chips.
Likewise, both devices have integrated Intel graphics.
The Pixel also matches the MacBook Air with 4 GB of RAM.
This is the first of the Chromebook Pixel’s (enormous) Achilles' heels – 32 GB of storage is a piddly amount for an expensive laptop. The pricier LTE version ups that to 64 GB.
The Pixel’s cloud-centric Chrome OS doesn’t necessarily require more than 32 GB of storage, but that opens its own can of worms (see Software section below).
Apple has yet to add mobile data to its MacBooks, but Google sells the Chromebook Pixel in a (more expensive) LTE-capable model.
The Chromebook Pixel has a higher-capacity battery, but it’s also driving a much denser display. Google estimates five hours with typical usage, while Apple claims the MBA will last for seven hours with similar use.
Nothing out of the ordinary here: a couple of 720p front-facing cameras for video chat.
For all of the Chromebook Pixel’s nice hardware specs, this is the category where it all falls apart. One day, Chrome OS could be an outstanding, mature operating system. That day isn't today.
Our smartphones and tablets have vaulted us into an app-centric world. Chrome OS has apps, but they’re all browser-based. In fact, the entire operating system is basically a (slightly-expanded) Chrome web browser.
There is some decent stuff in the Chrome Web Store (Pixlr, Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, a full suite of Google apps), but the apps – and the operating system as a whole – look rudimentary next to Windows and Mac OS X. No Microsoft Office, no iTunes, no Photoshop. Forget about hardcore gaming or using an alternative web browser.
Chrome OS was designed for budget laptops, and sold to customers whose needs center primarily around the web. To pay more than a MacBook (see below) for a Chromebook – at this point – would be insanity.
The future could be bright for Chrome OS. Right now, Mountain Lion eats it for dinner.
If you looked at hardware alone, this category wouldn’t look bad. The Pixel is cheaper than Apple’s Retina Display MacBook Pros, while offering a similar display. US$100 more expensive than the Air doesn’t sound bad, right?
... but here comes that software again. Paying $1,300 for a Chrome OS-based laptop – no matter how sweet the hardware – is like buying a pimped-out gaming rig that runs Windows Phone 8. The hardware matches the price, but the software is a deal-breaker.
There is probably some extremely-limited, niche audience for the Chromebook Pixel. Its terrific display alone will attract a number of customers.
All we ask is that you fully understand the software situation before throwing down for the Chromebook Pixel. Chrome OS has lots of room to grow, but buying an expensive device for its someday potential isn’t a good idea. Software can make or break a device, and – for the time being – Chrome OS isn’t there.
To see how the MBA stands up to a Retina laptop with much more mature software, see our MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro with Retina Display comparison.