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Pixel C Review: Beautiful Mess

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Pixel C Review: Beautiful Mess

Tablets failing to conquer the mobile computing space has left tech giants scrambling to find what consumers really want in-between their smartphones and desktop computers. The overwhelming answer, in the last several years, has been the hybrid tablet device.

In the last several years, Microsoft has refined its Surface line into a collection of hybrid tablet-laptops with enough power to run full Windows, making productivity a legitimate feature and the Surface Pro a true competitor for the traditional laptop. But the right balance is still a mystery. Microsoft’s Surface brand is often considered to be lacking in the tablet department, working best when attached to a keyboard and on a desk. In 2015, two other tech behemoths followed Microsoft, releasing tablet devices aimed at a professional demographic, but with importance placed on not losing the personal quality tablets offer.

The first, Apple’s iPad Pro, was met with the usual anticipation that comes from a new product line out of Cupertino. The massive iPad did little to define the hybrid market, however. It runs iOS, which means there are limitations for productivity, and the consensus was that, despite Apple trying its damndest, the fancy new hardware simply worked best when used to consume content.pixelcbuild.jpgThe second, this time from the minds in Mountain View, is the Pixel C. There are several aspects of the Pixel C that are fascinating, but the most interesting is that it’s the first tablet designed and built entirely by Google. Rather than partnering with a hardware manufacturer, like it did with HTC for the Nexus 9 and Asus for the Nexus 7, Google chose to go it alone, and it selected a hybrid tablet for its first solo mission. That points to the importance of the form factor. It’s clear tech companies, and the biggest among them, no longer see the hybrid tablet device as a niche, but a significant player in the future of mobile computing.

Hardware
pixelclights.jpgThe biggest asset of the Pixel C is, without a doubt, its hardware. Both in design and build quality, the Pixel C is magnificent. It’s aluminum build screams premium, bringing Android tablets to the same level as the iPad after spending much of their existence being considered inferior in build quality. The darker grey, perhaps you’d call it gunmetal or graphite, in particular is striking. In a sea of aluminum devices that are bright and shiny, the look of Pixel C is muted in all the right ways.

It’s a minimalist design through and through, a no-fuss tablet if there ever was one. The only “branding” visible are the always-on multicolor lights at the top of the device, which not only display the Google colors, but serve as a quick way to check your battery level. When you double tap the outer casing, between one and four of the lights illuminate, giving a rough estimate of how much battery your tablet has left. While not a flagship feature, it’s a nice little wrinkle carried over from other Pixel devices that separates the experience of using the Pixel C from other tablets. pixelcmics.jpgOn the top is an array of four microphones, which in theory allows the user to say “Okay Google” from virtually anywhere and have their tablet respond without issue. In my experience, the Pixel C is on par with the Nexus 6P in terms of recognition and accuracy, and the added microphones do seem to make a noticeable difference in terms of range.
pixelcbuttons.jpg
Also on the tablet’s frame are the device’s only buttons, the power being on top like the microphone with the volume rocker on the left hand side. While the buttons are well-built and tactile, their size is befuddling. Not out of line with other tablets, but the fact that any 10-inch device has a power button only marginally larger than a grain of rice is puzzling. It could often be difficult to locate quickly, and always felt like it took more effort to turn the device on or off than it should have. The volume rocker, simply for being two buttons in one, fared better but also could stand to be larger.

An area with little complaint is the Pixel C’s display. Google notes that the device has been given the Pixel moniker for a reason, and here the company is not wrong. The 10.2-inch LCD screen comes with a 2560×1800 resolution with 308 PPI and 500 nit brightness. It is incredibly sharp and bright, so much so that I often used it on the lowest setting and it was still too bright. The 500 nit capability does help when in sunny situations, which is needed given the screen’s immense reflectiveness. Still, there were often times my eyes felt strained and I had to put the tablet down lest my head turn into a bowl of soup. pixelcscreen.jpgOtherwise, the screen is ideal. It makes every activity more enjoyable and immersive, from video and gaming, to writing and note-taking. The aspect ratio is an odd ?2, which is supposed to make the screen optimal for being split in half, a mind-boggling fact (more on that later). Though an unusual ratio, it doesn’t hinder the experience. The tablet is clearly designed to be used in landscape, but it also fares well in portrait.

Another positive are the tablet’s side-firing speakers. While they don’t rival a good Bluetooth speaker and lack some clarity, they are loud and certainly better than what you’ll find on most tablets, even ones in more premium price ranges. Unlike the speakers, the cameras equipped on the Pixel C are nothing to get excited about. Both the 8MP rear and 2MP front cameras are fine by tablet standards but in almost every scenario you will inevitably have a far better option in your pocket and should never choose to use a tablet’s.pixelckeyboard.jpgThe Pixel C’s peripheral keyboard, which Google is very proud to note was built from the ground up to work with the tablet, is also a well built and clever piece of tech. It shares the anodized aluminum look of the tablet, making the two a visually perfect pair. Typing on the keyboard is satisfactory, the keys have similar response and travel to that of a Macbook Air, but the former is considerably more cramped. That isn’t much of an issue when typing on a desk, but does make the feat more difficult when on your lap.

The real feat of the keyboard is how it’s designed to connect and work with the tablet. The two attach via ridiculously strong magnets that make the entire package feel solid and well thought-out. Once connected, the keyboard allows the screen to angle between 100 and 135 degrees, essentially any setting you’d get from a traditional laptop and any you’d feasibly need. pixelchinge.jpgWhen you’re not using the tablet, you can connect the two (with the tablet screen down) in a way that makes the device look like the most stellar netbook in history. Cleverly, when the keyboard and tablet are connected this way, the accessory charges off the tablet’s power. Initially I was worried this would affect the Pixel C’s battery life, but nothing during my testing point to that being a real issue. In fact, battery life is quite solid. On heavier days, I would have to charge the tablet after 6-7 hours of screen-on time, but when using the device as a pure tablet it would last several days before needing a trip to the USB-C charger. Because Google opted for USB-C here, as it did with its latest Nexus devices, the Pixel C charges fairly quickly, so you’ll never be long without it.

In another clever move, Google made the tablet so that it immediately recognizes when the keyboard is attached and will switch from an on-screen keyboard to the peripheral without any hassle. In my experience, this works as advertised most of the time, though there were frustrating occasions when the tablet failed to recognize the keyboard and I was caught in an awkward limbo. But initial pairing was never the real issue. pixelckeyboard2.jpgDespite looking and feeling fantastic, there is something with the keyboard, particularly the Bluetooth connection, that Google simply failed to get right. Attempting to do any sort of serious typing on the Pixel C was a nightmare. Over my lengthy time with the device, whenever I tried to use it to get real work done (when I say “work,” I’m referring to nothing more complicated than typing an article like this one in Google Docs) was infuriating.

As a writer, I need my machine (whether it be tablet, laptop or smartphone) to allow me to spew words in real time. The Pixel C’s keyboard could not do this. At first I thought it was my eyes playing tricks on me, making extra spaces appear where they actually were not. But the more I used it, the more I realized that my eyes were telling the truth. Every time I attempted to type on the Pixel C I would endd up with somethinng that looked li ke this. Not the most blatant of issues, but annoying enough to drive an editor up the wall.

The Pixel C got in the way of that simple task so often that I never came to rely on it in any serious way for work, which is one of the primary reasons for the device existing. An Android tablet built from the ground up with a keyboard peripheral so you can use it as both a media consumption device, and to get work done.

The keyboard’s shortcomings are sad, and point to Android’s unpreparedness to handle the accessory as a whole in its current iteration, but beyond that the Pixel C’s hardware is a shining beacon that is unfortunately overshadowed. This is the best hardware an Android tablet has ever had, and it’s impressive that Google was able to make a device so beautiful and striking on its first attempt.

Software
pixelcsoftware.jpgThe Pixel C, despite bearing the name associated with Chrome OS devices, runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow. It’s a phenomenal OS for smartphones, but still in 2016 fails to deliver a solid experience on the tablet side of things. Many apps, in fact most that I used, look identical to their smartphone counterparts, just scaled up. It works in some situations or is, at the very least, usable, but the amount of wasted space is noticeable. Even in Google’s own apps, most notably Hangouts, screen real estate is often squandered.

More baffling, though, is that Google released this tablet with software that in no way takes advantage of the keyboard, or has any sort of feature that positions the device as being a workhorse. Multitasking is the same as it is on the phone, which is to say not real. There is no split window feature, even though Samsung has offered it on its skin of Android for years and Apple introduced the concept to iOS in late-2015. pixelcapp.jpgIt’s hard not to imagine what this device could have been if it ran Chrome OS, as it was reportedly supposed to. A Pixel C running Chrome OS likely would not have been a perfect device, and would have shared similar issues with Microsoft’s line of Surfaces that are often knocked for not performing well as tablets, but it would have certainly been more interesting.

Years from now, the Pixel C may be remembered as the first sign of the eventual merging of Android and Chrome OS, which many have posited is in the cards. Right now, it’s a beautiful machine that was released half-baked. It’s almost as if Google couldn’t figure out an elegant way to employ Chrome OS, or some hybrid software, on the Pixel C and decided Android was a safe fallback. But, if anything, the Pixel C highlights how far Android still has to come to be a real mover in the tablet market. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that Google has plans for features like split window in the works, as noted in the Reddit AMA with the Pixel C team, but decided to release the device before those features were ready.pixelcbrowser.jpgPerformance, similarly, was an odd, frustrating experience. Despite stellar specs, the Pixel C packs the NVIDIA Tegra X1 processor, Maxwell GPU and 3GB of RAM, the device often stutters or fails to register taps. I thought it would potentially be fixed with a software update, and it still could be, but the one I received during my time with the device did not remedy the issue.

When using the tablet as just a tablet it’s mostly a pleasant experience even with the lack of proper apps. Performance is better, or at least the hiccups are less noticeable, when you’re not focused on work, the screen is phenomenal and you can get a 32GB variant for the same price as the 16GB iPad Air 2.

The problem is that the Pixel C has not been marketed, and was clearly not built, with the intention of being the most beautiful Android tablet. It was meant to play in the same ballpark as the iPad Pro and Surface Pro, but simply cannot. The largest reason for that is the software, and its inability to make work the focus.

Verdict
pixelccompact.jpgGoogle did a magnificent job building the Pixel C from a hardware perspective, but that’s only half the battle with smart devices. Android, while being a sophisticated and gorgeous phone operating system, still has much ground to gain in the tablet market. The Pixel C in particular is supposed to be a device that can fit in the area between smartphone and computer, but its software doesn’t allow that to ever become a reality.

When you factor in price, it’s hard to recommend. The keyboard peripheral shelling is an extra $149, bringing the total up to $649 for a 32GB option. Even at $499, you’re paying hundreds of dollars more for wonderful hardware, with a software experience that is no different than on a budget Android tablet.

Still, if you’re an Android devotee looking for a tablet you’ll use purely as a consumption device, the Pixel C is not a bad choice, just be prepared to spend iPad-level money. If you’re looking to use it the way Google intended, you’re in for a frustrating ride.

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