Can Google’s Chromebook Compete with Windows 8 Devices?

Can Google’s Chromebook Compete with Windows 8 Devices?

Lost in all the hub-bub over Google’s crazy-expensive new Chromebook Pixel are two interesting facts. One, Microsoft Office still matters, and big time. And two, super-high-resolution screens are even more important to computing devices than they are to television sets, and this is a revolution Microsoft needs to join, pronto.

If you’re not familiar with Chromebook Pixel, it’s a study in contradictions. It runs Google’s ChromeOS, which is basically just the Chrome web browser plus a few low-level services (photo acquisition from cameras, USB storage, and so on). ChromeOS is free, so to date, all Chromebooks have been super-inexpensive (and borderline useless), with the most popular being a Samsung device that retails for just $250. In fact, this low-ball pricing was the only reason ChromeOS devices existed: There will always be a market for cheap computing hardware. But the Pixel, with prices of $1300 to $1450, isn’t just expensive, it’s crazy-expensive. It’s like paying for a BMW and receiving a bicycle.

With the exception of one part we’ll get to in a moment, the Chromebook Pixel is a joke from both software and hardware perspectives. On the software end, ChromeOS is incredibly limiting compared with Windows, Mac OS X, or even Linux, because, well, it’s just a web browser. And on the hardware end, Chromebook sports a weird 12.5-inch square (non-widescreen) display, an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and just 32GB or 64GB of storage. It gets 3.5 to 4.5 hours of battery life in real-world use, depending on whether you have the 4G version.

But there is one thing about the Chromebook that impresses. That unusual screen also offers an HD+ resolution of 2560 x 1700, or 239 PPI (pixels per inch), which explains the name Pixel. Like the Apple MacBook Pro Retina, which offers a resolution of 2560 x 1600 (227 DPI) or 2880 x 1800 (220 DPI), depending on model, or the Apple iPad with Retina display (2048 x 1536, 264 DPI), this super-high-resolution display is the obvious selling point. It changes everything.

Now, on a Chromebook, of course, this advantage is more than offset by the general uselessness of the rest of the system. But the point is made: At this density, individual pixels visually disappear, even when you squint hard at the screen. That means that curved edges are truly curved, and not pixilated in anti-aliased steps, as they are on normal screens (assuming of course that the underlying imagery is of sufficient quality). More to the point, it means that text is perfect, and even more so than with Microsoft’s ClearType technology, which is hampered somewhat by the fact that there are no truly super-high-resolution Windows devices.

In fact, one of the issues with Windows today is that the desktop environment in particular doesn’t scale well to high resolutions. And this is why you won’t find a portable Windows 8 device with a resolution higher than 1920 x 1080. A few years ago, this was impressive. But in today’s world of 4K HDTVs and Pixel/Retina Windows competitors, not so much.

(Surface head honcho Panos Panay claims that Microsoft will fix this resolution scaling issue in a coming update to Windows 8. It’s not clear what he means by this, or when that update will ship, but I’m betting it will be part of “Blue,” which is essentially Windows 8 Service Pack 1, now due in late 2013.)

On the software side, however, Chromebook Pixel betrays an enduring Microsoft advantage. For all the hype around Google Docs, Google’s cloud-based office productivity solutions, Pixel is an explicit admission from Google that simply can’t compete with Microsoft Office. And that’s because Google has revealed that it will make a free version of QuickOffice available on all Pixel devices when the locally installed software is completed in the next few months. QuickOffice, of course, is an old-school Office alternative, an office productivity suite that today is available on Apple iOS (iPhone, iPad) and Android devices. It has two key advantages over Google Docs: Much better compatibility with Microsoft Office documents and 100 percent offline usability.

Google has been working to incorporate offline capabilities into its Google Docs solutions, and some ChromeOS web apps already take advantage of this functionality. But the reality is that ChromeOS works best online and that Google Docs is good only for simple documents and simple needs. QuickOffice, which Google acquired last year, is required to fill the gaps. I mean, how could the company justify a $1300 web browser otherwise?

What would be nice, of course, would be a modern Windows 8 device with Pixel/Retina capabilities combined with an updated version of the OS that fully supported those resolutions: Beautiful, crisp text in everyone’s favorite office productivity suite would be of course the best of both worlds. For now, we need to compromise one way or the other: great resolutions with sub-standard office solutions (Google Docs/QuickOffice or Office:Mac) or middling resolutions with the superior Office products.

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