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Google Pixel C review: Too clever by half

A funny thing happened on the way to inventing the future of touchscreen computing: everybody is botching it.
Google is the latest company to try to rethink how we interact with computers, designing and manufacturing a tablet and keyboard combination itself for the very first time instead of leaning on a partner to do it. The result is the Pixel C, a beautiful Android tablet that’s just slightly bigger than the iPad Air 2.
Google probably would never admit it, but putting its own hardware team in charge of this year’s Android tablet makes a statement: everybody else has been doing it wrong. That doesn’t just include Android tablets like the Nexus 9 or Samsung’s Tab series, but also Apple’s iPad Pro and even Microsoft’s Surface line. The iPad Pro is massive with a gangly keyboard and all the limitations of mobile software, and the Microsoft Surface has only recently begun to resolve its fundamental identity crisis between laptop and tablet. They’re good, but they're over-engineered solutions to problems we’re only beginning to have.
This tablet is the Pixel hardware team’s response. It’s a simple, well-considered, uncomplicated glimpse into what a tablet computer ought to be. “Get on the train,” it says, “this is the future.”
Except, well: Google’s Android and developer relations teams never even got to the station.

Pixel C Review

Let’s start with the hardware, and I won’t make any bones about it: I love it in all its squarish simplicity. The Pixel C is slightly bigger than the iPad Air 2 in every dimension (including weight), but not so much that it should give anybody significant pause. Even though both tablets share the same basic materials — glass and aluminum — they look and feel totally distinct.
The Pixel C has straight, squared off edges — you can trace the design language straight back to the Chromebook Pixel. But it isn’t a slavish port from laptop to tablet. It’s designed with slightly curved edges and dual speakers. There are no creaks or weird misaligned ports and buttons like we often see on Android tablets. Google’s Pixel team has only ever made beautiful-looking hardware, and the Pixel C is no exception.

The 10.2-inch screen is beautiful too, at a resolution of 2560 x 1800 in a screen with an uncommon aspect ratio: 1:√2. That’s the same ratio as a standard A4 piece of paper, which means that the Pixel C’s screen feels capacious whether you’re using it in landscape or portrait mode (it also has implications for multitasking, maybe, someday — more on that later).
Like those Chromebook Pixel laptops, paying for the design and materials of the Pixel C isn’t cheap. It starts at $499 for the 32GB version, and it’s another $149 for the Bluetooth keyboard that’s meant to go along with it. From a certain perspective, that may not seem like too much — an iPad Air 2 with only 16GB of storage costs $499 as well. But Android tablets typically don’t cost this much.

Pixel C Review

The battery is good enough — which doubtlessly accounts for some of the 0.27-inch thickness — and so this tablet just lasts and lasts. In our battery test of refreshing web pages, it topped out over 11 hours. In real-world use I never plugged in the USB Type-C charger until the next morning, even after using it all day.
The specs are also huge: 3GB of RAM paired to the latest Nvidia X1 64-bit processor. That all seems good, but something is amiss with performance on the Pixel C. There are inexcusable pauses and latency, especially when launching and switching apps. My hunch is that the Android team still hasn’t figured out how to take real advantage of all that power out of Nvidia’s silicon (the Nexus 9 seemed to similarly underutilize its processor). Whatever the reason, it’s a miss. A bad one.

Pixel C Review

Hardware that looks good is easy to come by. But what’s genuinely new and interesting about the Pixel C is the optional Bluetooth keyboard accessory. It’s a $149 gadget that is more gadgety than any mainstream piece of consumer hardware I’ve used in years.
It attaches to the tablet with magnets, closing it up into a sealed little flat box in a mode that Google calls "sunny side down." When closed, the tablet wirelessly charges the keyboard. You can attach the keyboard to the back with more magnets — that’s "sunny side up." But what you want to do with a keyboard is type, and there again you have yet more — and more powerful — magnets.

There’s a small hinge at the top of the keyboard that latches on to the back of the Pixel C, letting you pull it up to any angle you might want — and it sticks there too, because that hinge is as sturdy as it can be without being obstinate. The Pixel C automatically detects whether the keyboard is attached and knows whether or not to show you the on-screen keyboard.
The system is clever. Actually, it’s too clever by half.
The Pixel C came with a cheeky little how-to card that explains how it works and, well, it needed it. I’ve watched no fewer than five Very Smart People who hadn’t seen it before struggle to figure out how to work the thing. Does it open like a laptop? Nope, you slide it out. Do you set the tablet on top of the keyboard to make the hinge pop up? Nope, you have to lay it flat or slap the two things together in the right position.

Pixel C Review Pixel C Review

Once you get it, there is something kind of satisfying in that gadgety way of slipping the two things apart and reattaching them (but take note, it only works in landscape mode). When they’re together, you get a little laptoppy-looking thing that’s sturdy and won’t come apart or flop around at all. Surface and iPad Pro: take note.
But because this is a 10-inch tablet, there’s not enough horizontal space to fit a full-sized keyboard. The Pixel team’s solution was to excise less-used keys like brackets and the tilde, which means that the keys you use most get to be bigger. Like any diminutive keyboard, it takes a minute to get used to. But once you do, you can really fly. The key travel is plenty deep and there’s a little three-dot menu you can hit to bring up a symbol keyboard on the screen. (Google also tells me that there are hidden, secret keyboard combos for some symbols, only a few of which I’ve discovered).
You can definitely get used to this keyboard and even learn to love it — I did. Except, well, something is amiss again: missed and repeating keypresses. The Pixel C seems to just have a stutter-step in the Bluetooth connection from time to time. When it drops, nothing registers for a few seconds. When it returns: fffffffffffffffffffffff (literally and figuratively).


Bad Bluetooth connections and rogue latency are the sort of thing that could be improved with a minor OS update — or so I’d like to hope. But Android doesn’t need a minor OS update to get up to snuff on tablets, it needs a major one. And that update needs to be combined with an all-out campaign to woo developers to update their apps to truly support tablets.

One big problem is that most of the apps I use on Android tablets still aren’t truly optimized for tablets. Most apps are comprised of wide, wasted expanses of open space that are technically designed for any screen size but actually aren’t utilizing all this screen real estate. That’s problematic with third-party apps, but it’s unforgivable from Google’s own apps. Hangouts, the perennial forgotten child of Mountain View, is a mess on this device. Even Google Docs (presumably the app best suited to this keyboard) feels more like a phone app than something I can do real work in.
It gets worse with third-party apps. The Pixel C wants to be used in landscape mode, but too many apps assume that they’re on phones. Popular apps like Slack, Twitter, and many more toss you into portrait mode even when the keyboard is attached.
Complaining that Android is lacking tablet apps is old hat, but that’s not even the biggest problem here. No, it’s that Android and the Pixel C have a hair-on-fire screaming need for some kind of split-screen solution. Microsoft, Samsung, and Apple have all figured this out, but there’s not any kind of solution inside Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Heck, the √2 aspect ratio of the Pixel C’s screen is basically designed to be split in half, yet there’s no option to do so here.

Pixel C Review

I’ve spent the past month or two on a sort of casual quest to try to move into this weird and woolly future of computing — the kind with a touchscreen and mobile-style apps and new form factors. I tried various Microsoft Surfaces, which had too few apps and fiddly keyboard designs. I tried the iPad Pro, which also had a fiddly keyboard and an unconscionable lack of support for multiple users. And now I’ve tried the Pixel C.
The pieces should have been here, but there are just too many flaws. Occasional performance skips and Bluetooth connection issues aside, the Pixel team has built a really nice piece of hardware. It simply engenders affection — you pick it up and you want to love it. The keyboard setup is a little weird at first, but when put together, it feels sturdy and much less of a hassle than what you’ll find for iPads or Surfaces. Plus, Android supports multiple users where iOS doesn’t. It has more mobile-style apps (albeit without proper tablet support) than Microsoft.
THE PIXEL TEAM HAS MOSTLY DELIVERED SOMETHING REALLY GOOD, THE ANDROID TEAM HAS NOT
But the performance issues, the lack of apps, and the lack of split-screen functionality show that, right now, Android isn’t really even trying to participate in that future. Simply put: the Pixel team has mostly delivered something really good, the Android team has not. Android may not be Google’s answer for the next generation of computing on a tablet. Maybe that will have to wait for whatever weird hybrid ChromeOS / Android thing that Google is supposedly working on.
The future of tablet computing just isn’t here yet, on any platform. So I bought an iPad.
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