Google Pixel C review: Too clever by half

8 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Google Pixel C Review: A Really Nice Android Tablet, But Not a Productivity Powerhouse.

The Pixel C was announced alongside the company’s latest smartphones back in September, and briefly previewed, but now the 10-inch displayed device has hit Google’s online store. 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. But in September, the company surprised us all when it announced its Surface competitor, the 10.2-inch Pixel C Android tablet with its optional Bluetooth keyboard.

Google’s quirky Android tablet, unveiled as an also-ran alongside its latest Nexus phones, looked misguided: It’s basically the same concept as Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Apple’s iPad Pro — a tablet that moonlights as a laptop — except this one is smaller and runs Android. 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. My first impressions weren’t in its favor, taking the $499 tablet and its $149 optional keyboard out of the shipping box, I tried putting them together. 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. At a time when interest in tablets are waning, the first Android tablet wholly built by Google is a powerful, compact and elegantly built device that Android users will love.

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. At that price, though, you could also get a relatively decent laptop without having to make the kind of tradeoffs that come with using Android with a keyboard.

Eventually I just checked the reviewer’s guide, which explained the technique: You align the bottom of the tablet with the top of the keyboard, then pull the top of the tablet while holding the keyboard firm. The 32GB is the same prize Apple charges for half the storage in an iPad Air 2, while the 64GB is exactly the same price as an Air 2 of the same size. The new tablet is also notable for its signature accessory, a $149 Bluetooth keyboard that essentially converts the device into a diminutive notebook computer. You can now buy it in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Ireland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland.

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. It’s debatable what constitutes a “full size” keyboard these days (Google claims it is), although the Pixel C’s Enter and Tab keys are very much on the small side.

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. 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. The brain-teasing keyboard connection and the screen’s ridiculous aspect ratio (it’s actually the square root of two) certainly emphasize this device was created by nerds, but that doesn’t make it bad.

The screen — the most important feature on any tablet — is outstanding: It measures 10.2 inches (the iPad Air is 9.7 inches), and the display is ultra-high-res at 2,560 x 1,800 pixels. The reason you’d buy Google’s convertible tablet is as an everything device — something that lets you motor through work just as well as it lets you binge through YouTube videos.

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. Its specs—including an Nvidia Tegra X1 chip and 2560-by-1800 display resolution—give it more than enough computational and graphical oomph to keep up with the needs of its operating system, Android 6.0 Marshmallow. 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. 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?

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. That would be ideal for a split-screen view, but while this feature made a short appearance in some of the Marshmallow betas, it didn’t make it into the final release. Most business services — from Slack to Trello to Evernote and more — have full-featured and well-supported Android apps, and Google’s home-grown suite of Drive, Docs and Sheets are virtually indistinguishable from the desktop.

The situation is certainly better than it once was—you could buy a Pixel C and never feel starved for good software, especially if you already own an Android phone and have favorites, be they from Google or other developers. First was the lack of simultaneous multi-tasking; even though the tablet runs the latest version of Android (version 6.0.1 Marshmallow), you still can’t run two apps side by side, like you can on many Samsung devices.

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. 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 screen.

When I read a Financial Post article about Husky Energy considering cutting spending in Alberta, I was able to look up different elements in the story by activating “Now on Tap” by pressing and holding the home button. 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. 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. 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.

To see how Google likes to go a little bit overboard with the Pixel line, just look at the four microphones it built into the tablet — all of that just to make sure it can hear your “OK Google” commands. 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 have the same complaint about most chicklet-style keyboards, and except for their size, Google’s keys here aren’t actually all that different from those on an Apple keyboard. 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. The Pixel Chromebooks were meant to show what you can build when you don’t cut corners to keep the price down — the C is meant to showcase what that would look like for a high-end Android productivity tablet.

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