Review: Google Pixel C
It’s important that Google’s new Pixel C tablet is a Pixel, rather than a Nexus. The Nexus lineup has always tried to be best-in-breed, proof that Android can be better than Samsung or HTC lets on. Pixel, on the other hand, proves a point. They built outrageously good—and frequently impractical—hardware to prove how good something could be, if only the software would keep up.
For instance: earlier this year, Google launched the Chromebook Pixel. It costs a thousand bucks, and all it does is run a browser. Other than a multi-colored light on the lid, there’s zero functional difference between the Pixel and a device that costs one quarter the price—and the software’s even specifically designed to run really well on those cheap devices. But the Pixel is awesome, and it propelled Chrome OS forward. It wasn’t so much a ruthlessly capitalistic product as it was two middle fingers to the world. “Oh, it’s just a Web browser? Look how great that can be!” Google seemed to be shouting, “if you pair it with this killer screen and awesome trackpad. And yeah, it lights up. In your face, world.”
Google Pixel C
Nice-looking, nicely made hardware. That screen is beautiful, and that processor is crazy fast. The root-two aspect ratio is a smart one.
Way too small to be really good at multitasking, and too small to be a great keyboard. Android’s never been good for tablets, and it’s not now either. Too many apps don’t work or look good on the bigger screen.
Now Mountain View’s internal pants-kicking team has set its sights on tablets. Specifically, the new breed of Work Tablets that are trying to make their way onto our desks and into our laps. The Pixel C costs $499, and Google’s special keyboard case runs another $149. This tablet attempts to make two statements, separate but related. The first is that an Android tablet can be awesome; the second is that an Android tablet can be a device for work.
But it only actually makes one: Google has a lot of work left to do.
What’s in a Tablet?
The tablet is beautifully engineered, a (slightly boxy) silver aluminum rectangle that gleams when the light hits it just so. The 1.1-pound device doesn’t have quite the same forged-in-the-fires-of-ancient-lands feeling as the larger Chromebook Pixel, which is even sharper and more angular, but it’s unmistakably part of the same family. It’s slick and sturdy, high-end in a way few things not named iPad can match.
It’s every bit as impressive inside, too, thanks to Nvidia’s fast Tegra X1 processor and 3 gigs of RAM. The Pixel C has everything you’d ever want in an Android tablet, from nice stereo speakers (when you hold it in landscape mode) to updated Wi-Fi support. Its USB Type-C port is for charging, but it’ll also connect external devices. The C runs Android Marshmallow, which is generally a terrific operating system. I have some quibbles, like the hilariously tiny power button I can never find in fewer than six tries, and I’m constantly annoyed that there’s no fingerprint reader anywhere, but for the most part Google built an ideal tablet. Meaning, mostly, that you never have to think about anything but the screen.
The C’s 10.2-inch, 2560×1800 screen is as good a screen as you’ll find. That’s nothing to brag about—you can, and should, expect great screens on every device you use. What’s more interesting is its 1:√2 aspect ratio. Rather than Apple’s 4:3 height-to-width measurement, or many other tablets’ 16:9, Google chose to mimic a standard piece of A4 paper. The aspect ratio makes the Pixel C a lot more usable in both orientations. It’s never too wide, and never too tall. You get a little more space for Web browsing or reading without getting giant letterboxes every time you want to watch a video. It feels just right.
Long-term, there are other implications as well. When you fold a piece of A4 paper, the two halves share the same aspect ratio as the whole sheet. Fold them again, all four pieces match. (And so on.) Someday soon, the 1:√2 aspect ratio could let you have two, four, 16 apps open in neat windows exactly the same size. Such multitasking is crucial for the work-friendly tablet future Google imagines, and it’s exactly how a “highly experimental” split-screen mode, buried in Android, appears to operate. But for me, you, and everyone else using Android, none of it works now.
Let’s Get Down to Business
The Work Tablet is Silicon Valley’s new favorite hardware idea—if not to use, then at least to sell you. The Work Tablet is the touchscreen you can take into the boardroom. It’s the one device for everything in your life. You watch movies on it, read books on it, play games on it, do spreadsheets on it, check email on it, draw and write and code and chat on it. Microsoft has the Surface; every other Windows manufacturer has something like the Surface; Apple has the iPad Pro. They’re trying to find a new market for tablets, and trying to figure out what the future of work looks like. Google’s first Work Tablet is the Pixel C.
By itself, the Pixel C is just a tablet. It’s not even a whoa-huge tablet like the iPad Pro. Other than the space-adding aspect ratio, there’s nothing here to make you think gosh, I could use this to get some work done. It only becomes a Work Tablet when you add the $149 keyboard.
Tablet and accessory look great together, both silver and metallic on the outside and black on the inside. And the way they connect is sort of genius: Put the Pixel C down so the bottom of its back lines up with the wide, empty space above the keyboard. With a magnetic thunk, the two pieces come together, and then you just pull the tablet up like a laptop screen. It can sit at almost any angle, and won’t disconnect unless you really, really want it to. When you’re done, flip the tablet face-down and use the keyboard as a screen-protecting cover for the Pixel C. The two parts pair automatically, and if you’ve turned Bluetooth off, it’ll prompt you to reconnect as soon as the magnets collide.
Don’t get too excited, though: The keyboard itself takes some getting used to. The keys are small, because of course they’re small, because you can’t fit a full-size keyboard with a 10.2-inch tablet. The keys themselves are a little mushy and harsh, but they’re fine. The worst part, though, is the layout itself. In order to save space, Google shrunk most of the non-letter keys. Fine idea in theory, but now every time I try to hit Enter, I get the apostrophe instead. Every time I look for Tab, I get Q. And even as I’ve gotten (slightly) more comfortable using the keyboard, Android keeps getting in the way.
Android’s not a good tablet operating system. If Work Tablets are ever going to, um, work, they need proper two-things-at-once multitasking. They need quick navigation and power-user shortcuts. They need more than just a drawer full of apps. Right now, too many apps don’t scale up well (or at all), and even the OS itself acts as if you’re just using a really big phone. When you connect a keyboard, not much changes: You can activate Google Now’s universal search from anywhere, which is handy, but there’s little in the way of navigation or keyboard shortcuts. Even the Alt-Tab app switcher is messy and slow, failing as often as not. Android is terrific smartphone software, but not at all well-suited to tablets. Phones are all about the incoming, the things we need to know about now; that’s why the notification panel is so important to the phone experience. Tablets are about finding what we want, and Work Tablets are about doing what we must. Android sucks at that.
Thing is, I think Google knows. I think that’s why the Pixel C exists in the first place. This lovely hardware shines floodlights on the Android issues Google hasn’t solved, even as it’s talked about tablets so much over the last few years. On the phone side of things, Google’s software has always been better than the hardware it ran on—that’s why the Nexus lineup exists. But the Pixel C is so much better than its software that it’s almost infuriating.
Right now, in a weird way, what the Pixel C really does is make the case for Chrome OS. The multi-window, multi-tab Web browser is just astonishingly better when you’re switching between lots of apps, or trying to do many things at once. File support is better on Chrome OS, and you’re actually using a system and setup you know. If Google ever actually makes good on its promise to bring Android apps to Chrome OS, that becomes the best of both worlds—an interface that works for work, and all the apps you need. If you’re ready to pony up $650 or more for a Pixel C, you’re almost better off spending a grand on the Chromebook Pixel.
More likely, you’re better off buying a Surface Pro 4 or an iPad Pro. Those are the Work Tablets worth owning, the ones that take a touchscreen and turn it into something more powerful and more productive. They have great accessories (with full-size keyboards), and software that understands what people want when they want to work.
A Work Tablet isn’t just a tablet with a keyboard. And right now, even the best Android tablet isn’t a great tablet—not until Google fixes Android. So here’s hoping Google forces every Android engineer to use a Pixel C full-time, starting right now. Maybe then they’ll see the potential, and build an Android worthy of this lovely tablet.
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