Google unveils Chromebook Pixel, a high-end, touch-enabled cloud machine: My impressions

IMG_5446Google(s GOOG) today announced Chromebook Pixel, its next-generation cloud computer that is powered by an Intel Core i5(s INTC) processor and comes ready to connect to Verizon’s(s VZW) LTE network is based on its Chrome OS. It will ship in about three months. The device is going to cost $1,499 with LTE and $1,299 with just Wi-Fi and it is available to order on Google Play today and from Best Buy(s BBY) tomorrow morning. The Wi-Fi version will be available in the U.K. as well.

Update: Google said later on Thursday that the Wi-Fi models will start shipping next week.

The Mountain View, Calif-based company has designed and built this new machine to carefully integrate the software, its web services and the hardware in a seamless manner. “About two years ago, we decided to rethink the laptop,” said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Google Chrome. The big idea: re-imagine the laptop for cloud services.

IMG_5444For instance, since the web-oriented machine’s primary task is to use the web, the size of the screen has been modified from 16:9 size to 3:2, a development that is going to delight the fans of classic IBM ThinkPad. The device’s screen is reminiscent of Apple’s(s AAPL) Retina display and is powered by the Intel Core i5 processor and uses SSD flash. It delivers about five hours of battery time. The Wi-Fi version has 32 GB of flash, and the LTE version has 64 GB of flash as storage. “We think our ecosystem will respond with new devices that use touch and Chrome OS,” said Pichai.

IMG_5443“It brings best of Google together — everything is built right in,” said Pichai. Gmail, the Chrome browser and other Google apps are integrated into this device.The device also has built-in QuickOffice, a mobile productivity suite Google acquired in 2012. And the big news: Google Drive will come with 1 TB of storage space. Why? Photos, of course.

If you have photos on an SD card, then the device will automatically find and upload them to Google Plus Photos, a somewhat creepy and evil tactic by Google to goose its Google Plus un-social network. Of course you can share those photos via Google Plus and other Google services — nevermind the fact that we like to use Twitter and Facebook(s FB) and Instagram to share. Pichai said that services such as Twitter and Facebook can write to their hardware APIs to do seamless uploads.

“Web hasn’t had touch and high-resolution screens before,” said Pichai. He argued that opens up whole different opportunities for developers. It goes without saying that the emergence of the iPad has changed our expectations of how we interact and consume information. The new Chromebook Pixel is a tip of the hat to that new reality of today’s computing environment. “In the future all laptops will have touch built into them,” Pichai said.

In a quick hands-on, the device met the claims made by Pichai and his team. The build quality is top notch, reminiscent of Macbook Pros. The 3.3-pound device has a great keyboard and the screen is indeed a good rival to the Retina display. The device is really speedy, but it is the network speeds that will define how one experiences the Chromebook Pixel.

I surfed through a few websites — and clicked on a lot of ads, unintentionally. I used Google Maps and Google Photos and used touch to experience them. I am guessing that there is a growing number of people who want touch on their laptops — I simply use the iPad for all things cloud.

That said, I have some reservations about the device and its positioning. It is hard to pay $1,299 for a device when I can get a better-equipped MacBook Air, which despite its age is a lot more flexible and expandable. Pichai said that he wanted to focus on the high end of the market because they want power users, early adopters and developers to embrace this platform.

A good idea in theory — except that for developers to develop on this platform, Google needs scale for Chromebook Pixel and that means it needs a whole lot of machines in the hands of people. A Wall Street Journal report from Wednesday indicated that Google sold a mere 100,000 of these devices in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Pichai and I argued a bit about the pricing strategy: my belief is that they need to sell a lot more devices so the price has to be much much lower. Pichai argues that one needs to be able to open our mind to the possibilities of a cloud-based machine. He said that one shouldn’t look at the 32 GB of storage, but instead focus on the terabyte of storage space that comes as part of Google Drive.

“The device is for a segment committed to living to the cloud, and who really want a good, high-end laptop, and we believe we have built the best laptop for that experience,” he added.