Google Pixel C Review: Tablets in Transition

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Demo – Google’s new Pixel C launching in Canada today, from $649 – with video.

The wait is over for Google’s new Pixel C Android tablet that goes on sale today starting at $649 in Canada with the keyboard adding another $199 to the price tag.No, it’s not locked in its room with a bad case of acne, listening to “Teenage Wasteland.” But, like many tablets, it is in a desperate search to figure out who it really is.

“Be together, not the same.” Google has been using that tagline in ads for Android for more than a year now, helpfully pointing out that its mobile operating system has been embraced by vast numbers of companies that use it to build an array of devices aimed at different sorts of people. It’s a fairly steep price in the world of tablets but the Pixel C, the first tablet Google has designed for its Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system, is a sleek and elegant device that conveys the care and attention that went into its design and production. With the C in the name standing for convertible, Google’s new tablet jumps squarely into the hybrid camp, giving users a brilliant 10.2-inch display with 308 pixels per inch – one upping Apple’s iPad Air and iPad Pro resolution of 264 ppi. But first, the thing itself: This machine is crafted of solid anodized aluminum with no visible screws, in the mold of Google’s premium Chromebook Pixel laptop. But the fact that Google sees the Android market as a gorgeous tapestry does not mean that it has no strong opinions of its own about what Android devices should be like, or that it wants to hover at a respectful distance while others take care of the hardware side.

You can charge it through the versatile USB-C type connector, an emerging standard that is also on the latest Chromebook Pixel and Google Nexus smartphones. For years, it’s worked closely with major manufacturers on Nexus smartphones and tablets such as the new Nexus 6p and 5x phones, both of which reflect Google’s vision far more closely than any garden-variety Android phone.

And then there’s what I consider to be the standout feature: a near full-size Qwerty style physical keyboard that transforms Pixel C into a slate off which you can get some meaningful work done. But, with a price tag of nearly $850 (if you include the keyboard, which is sold separately), it’s built for the high-end market and will make you wonder — should I just buy a laptop? Both feature similarly posh and attractive aluminum cases; sport colorful lightbars on their backsides that let you quickly monitor remaining battery power; and use USB-C, the next-generation version of USB with a reversible connector, for both connectivity and power. Google puts the battery life at more than 10 hours – I just plugged in a demo model – charging is via a USB Type-C port – so I’ll let you know if the battery lives up to specs.

The new tablet is also notable for its signature accessory, a $149 Bluetooth keyboard that essentially converts the device into a diminutive notebook computer. Moreover, by Google’s own admission, Pixel products are future-looking and designed to “inspire the partner ecosystem.” Google, of course, wants you to buy it. Even though it’s a fraction of the size of a regular sized keyboard, my hands quickly adapted because the full-sized keys are spaced out, and there’s a nice depth that I felt while typing. The Pixel C’s 10.2-inch screen is dinky compared to the iPad Pro and Surface, making it less plausible as a full-time replacement for a conventional computer, and Google isn’t offering a pressure-sensitive stylus for drawing, painting, and note-taking. Granted, Microsoft Surface tablets, which also rely on accessory keyboards, aren’t exactly inexpensive either, and the same can be said for the larger display iPad Pro.

Such keyboards are designed for those times when you don’t necessarily want to use the tablet to consume games, books and movies, but rather when you want to become the content creator, at least when that content has to do with banging out longer documents. The keyboard has an aluminum case, laptop-like keys, and embedded inductive technology that connects to the tablet and charges the battery. (Yes, there is a battery: Google, unlike Microsoft and Apple, doesn’t power the keyboard directly from the tablet.) Rather than propping up the tablet using a kickstand (like the Surface) or folding case (like the iPad Pro), Google built a hinged, magnetic panel into the keyboard.

The magnetic grip is amazingly forceful: You use the contraption on your lap or even pick it up and wave it about without any fear of it falling apart. When closed, the keyboard and tablet are held together by self-aligning magnets, and as with a clamshell laptop the keys are concealed under the cover. Even wrenching the two components apart is a Superman-like feat of strength unless you follow Google’s instructions—you slide the tablet off rather than pulling up. I was able to hold Pixel C by the tablet or by the display without worrying the other part would fall off, even when I held it upside down or shook it up a little. While the main keys are almost full-sized, the shrunken Shift and Tab keys and vertical Enter key are all throwbacks to the days of kiddie-size netbooks.

After some practice, I picked up speed, but missing home and volume shortcut keys had me reaching out to touch the screen more often that I would have liked. Videos and pictures look gorgeous and bright on this display, but I wonder — will users like this relatively small 10.2-inch screen when it comes to productivity? It adds up to an experience that’s beautiful, fluid, and powerful, even though there are no new multitasking features akin to iOS 9’s new split-screen mode.

But there’s a long-standing issue with Android tablets: The developer community has never emotionally bonded with them in the way it embraced the iPad, which now has 850,000 apps. Typing didn’t feel cramped, though the physical “enter” key on the right edge is slimmer and in more of a vertical orientation than I’m used to. It took a few steps to open and close the apps individually in order to do so, and you can’t run apps side-by-side, a feature available with Apple’s latest iOS. While writing in Google Docs, for example, I used the “Research in Docs” function, which created a split-screen where I could still work on my document on top, while searching for information on the second, bottom window. Sure, the single app feature is great for those who want solely to respond to email or focus on writing the great American novel, but those of us with real jobs are stuck with incessantly hitting Alt + Tab on the keyboard to flip through full-screen apps.

And in some instances, such as with FiftyThree’s Paper, there’s no Android version, no signs that one is in the works, and no completely satisfying alternative. That brought up a number of information cards related to the story, including for Husky Energy, its CEO Asim Ghosh and OPEC, which I could then select to look through news, images and Google search results. Microsoft has a similar problem, but in reverse: Too many apps still feel like they were written for a Windows PC with a big screen and a mouse, not a touch-screen tablet. Given that it’s been almost five years since Google got serious about putting Android on iPad-like tablets, though, it’s not like developers haven’t had enough time to take the challenge seriously. Consider the history of Surface: In the three years since the first model shipped, Microsoft has repeatedly bumped up the screen size of new versions.

I’ve said that the Surface Pro’s full-blown Windows operating system lacks the mobile essentials and battery life to make it a stellar tablet, but when the keyboard is attached, it’s a great workhorse.

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