Google is back with yet another Android tablet. The latest hardware effort, the Pixel C, comes from an odd place inside Google: the Pixel team. Usually a “Pixel” is the latest, fancy high-end Chromebook, but with the Pixel C, the traditionally Chrome OS-centric team decided to make an Android tablet. It’s not just a tablet, though, there’s also a clip-on keyboard base making it a Surface-style convertible.

While the Pixel team brings a great all-aluminum body and minimal design, our unit had a ton of quality control issues. The touchscreen frequently failed to register taps, and scrolling was unreliable. The keyboard also frequently disconnected from the tablet, which caused typing to go crazy. Many have wondered what was taking the Pixel C so long to come out, and we wonder if issues like this contributed to the late launch. While our review unit didn’t come in a retail box, as far as we can tell, we tested a retail unit.

Even on paper, the Pixel C doesn’t seem like a great idea. The company keeps iterating on hardware for an iPad competitor, but hardware was never really an Android tablet’s big problem. The problem has always been software—mainly, the lack of tablet apps and the lack of an OS that really takes advantage of a big screen aren’t fixed by new hardware. While we’ve seen hints of a split screen mode that would greatly help things, it’s not present here. That makes the Pixel C tough to recommend when iOS and Windows are both much more capable on large screens.
Design and build quality

Rather than something like the Nexus line, which is made by an OEM with design input from Google, the Pixel line is produced totally in-house (as much as anything is built in-house anymore) by Google. The Pixel team definitely knows how to build a premium body. The whole device is glass and aluminum. And like other Pixel devices, it takes a very minimal approach when it comes to branding and hardware design. The only things that interrupt the wide rear panel of aluminum are the camera, which is tucked away in the top-right corner, and a light strip that serves as branding and as a battery indicator.

The light strip has four sections. Whenever you open or close the tablet, the light strip turns into the google colors: blue, red, yellow, and green. With the tablet closed, you can knock on the back twice to have the strip light up to indicate the battery level. Each of the four sections represents an additional 25 percent of battery charge.

The tablet’s double tap gesture can be tough to master at first. Most people seem to expect it to be a touch sensor, but we’re pretty sure it’s accelerometer driven—you need to impart force to the tablet. Just knock on the back (anywhere on the back) like you’re knocking on a door, and the battery indicator will light up.

The glass and aluminum make for a very solid, premium-feeling device. It’s a night and day difference from the HTC-built Nexus 9, which had a loosely fitting plastic skin that would actually deform with just a light touch. The Pixel C’s build quality can stand up to an iPad, but it is 80g heavier and 0.9mm thicker than an iPad Air 2. You do get a slightly larger screen and a much bigger battery, though.

The 10.2-inch, 2560×1800 LCD is one of the best displays you can get on a tablet. The 308ppi beats the usual ~265ppi you’d normally get from a Surface or iPad, and it looks gorgeous. Google has been all over the place when it comes to the display aspect ratio on its tablets. Early Android tablets like the 2011 Motorola Xoom went with a 16:9 display, the same aspect ratio as TV shows and YouTube content. With the 2014 Nexus 9, Google decided the iPad is where it’s at and mirrored its 4:3 aspect ratio. Now, with the Pixel C, we’re on a 1:1.414 (or √2) aspect ratio.

The aspect ratio is close enough to a 4:3 iPad or the Nexus 9 that most users won’t really notice. The one cute addition 1:1.414 has over 4:3 is that when you cut it in half—like say, for a split screen interface—each half is still 1:1.414. There is no split screen mode on the Pixel C, though.

Our only complaint about the display is that the touchscreen on our device just doesn’t work. Taps frequently go unnoticed, which makes navigation and typing on the touch screen very error prone. Scrolling is unreliable, too—swipes meant for scrolling were often interpreted as taps, which led to us accidentally opening things when we wanted to scroll past them. The high error rate makes using the touchscreen an exercise in frustration. If we were given more time with the device, we’d try out a second unit to see if this issue exists in a different model, but with the quick turnaround from receiving a device to embargo, all we can do is list the issues our unit had.

You’ll find nice extras and ports all over the side of the Pixel C. Side-facing stereo speakers are embedded on the left and right side—or top and bottom if you’re holding the device in portrait. The speakers are high enough up on the tablet that you don’t cover them while naturally holding the device, which is nice. In landscape, the left side houses the fancy, reversible USB Type-C port at the bottom, and on the top of the left side is the volume rocker.

Along the top is the power button, and then there’s a whopping four microphones. When the device was first unveiled, the conjecture was that somehow the microphone array would improve Google’s voice commands, but our device doesn’t support Google’s always-on voice recognition. This is something Google could patch in later, but for now the voice commands only work when the screen is on. In our testing the voice commands worked great, but they weren’t any better than what you would expect from a smartphone.

The Keyboard

Unlike most of the convertible tablets out there that have a semi-flexible screen cover/keyboard, for an extra $150 the Pixel C has a rigid keyboard attachment. The keyboard follows the same design motif as the main tablet—the 5.5mm attachment has a rigid aluminum bottom with four rubber feet, while the top houses the keyboard and a plastic surround.

The keyboard attaches to the tablet entirely with magnets. The “cover” mode works about the way you would expect; just stick the keyboard on the top of the tablet screen, and the magnets will align it to the screen to keep it secure. When closed, the matching top and bottom make it look just like a tiny, 10-inch traditional laptop. The only thing we dislike about the cover’s closing mechanism is that it only goes on one way. Spin it 180 degrees and it won’t securely attach to the tablet. The keyboard can also attach to the non-screen side of the tablet, and here it will work in either orientation.

We’re guessing the one-way closing orientation has to do with how the keyboard charges. There is a very tiny battery in the Pixel C keyboard, but you’ll never have to plug it in. Just close it on the tablet, and the keyboard will wirelessly charge from the tablet’s battery. There’s no way to see the keyboard battery level, but Google says it will last a month.

The most interesting part of the Pixel C keyboard is how it attaches to the tablet in “laptop mode.” The top quarter of the keyboard has a magnetic flap on a stiff hinge that connects the tablet to the keyboard. The magnets are strong enough that top and bottom will never accidentally disconnect. The only way to really separate the two is to “break” the two halves apart by trying to bend the “laptop” past 180 degrees, which will stop the magnetic bond. It feels a bit like you’re angry at the tablet and are trying to snap it in half, but it works. With only the bottom 25 percent of the tablet attached to the keyboard, it does wobble a lot when you tap it, which is disappointing.

(One more tidbit regarding the magnets: there are actually so many magnets in the Pixel C that the tablet will securely attach to a refrigerator door, giving you an instant smart fridge. The magnets are so strong it’s a bit of a struggle to remove the Pixel C from a flat metal surface.)

Google says the keyboard is “full size,” and for the most part—namely the number and letter keys—that’s true. All of the extra keys like tab, shift, enter, and backspace have been truncated, though. The full-size main keys mean that even for a total Pixel C newbie, the keyboard is easy to jump in front of and start using (expect only minor hiccups for the truncated keys). Ultimately the smaller “extra” keys aren’t a big deal either; they’re easy to get used to after a few hours.

The keyboard keys have 1.4mm of travel, which feels about the same as a MacBook Pro or Surface Pro keyboard. The hinge will allow the tablet to stand anywhere from 180 to 100 degrees in laptop mode—so from completely flat to almost completely straight up. That covers just about every angle we would want on a laptop. The whole assembled contraption can be used on a lap without much awkwardness. While most of the weight is in the top tablet part of the device, it’s balanced well enough that it won’t tip over on its own (it feels close, though).

The Pixel C keyboard wants you to “never worry about pairing again” and has a whole separate background app dedicated to pairing and unpairing the Bluetooth keyboard. The user never has to set anything up or connect the keyboard. We found the connection to be unreliable, though. The Bluetooth connection only kicks in when the keyboard is attached to the tablet in laptop mode. There is a magnet or some kind of contact connection that makes the Pixel C swap between the hardware and software keyboard, which it accomplishes by killing and reconnecting the Bluetooth connection. Bluetooth is supposed to be wireless, but Google turned it into some kind of contact-dependent connection with the Pixel C keyboard.

The problem with this is that the connection between the tablet and keyboard on our review unit is not very good. The keyboard would frequently disconnect from the tablet, which makes the software keyboard pop up on the screen. If this happened in the middle of typing, this connection hiccup would either cause a ton of input lag, make a key get virtually “stuck,” or lose a bunch of input. We would frequently have things like the backspace or enter key get stuck, resulting in either a ton of text getting deleted or a bunch of whitespace being entered.

Part of it might be that without a trackpad you are constantly switching from the keyboard to tapping the screen, which probably puts stress on the magnetic connection. Most of our keyboard problems seemed to happen while tapping the screen or shortly after tapping the screen. The shoddy keyboard connection made the device feel possessed while typing. It’s a frustrating experience.

But assuming the connection issues go away, we could live with typing on the Pixel C keyboard. The layout can be adapted to and the key travel is fine. We still prefer typing on a real laptop keyboard because they are backlit, which works in all lighting situations. And we’d also really like a trackpad, so we don’t have to constantly switch from the keyboard to the touch screen.

The software

The problem with any Android tablet was always going to be the feeling that Google doesn’t care about tablet software. The Pixel C is just running a regular build of Android 6.0.1 with no real improvements to the large screen interface. You’ll be getting a phone operating system blown up to a 10-inch screen. It can display one app on-screen at a time, and chances are that app will be a stretched out phone app. Android on a tablet is currently the antithesis of “productivity.”

Google has made one small change to the OS for tablets on the Pixel C—the bottom navigation bar has changed yet again. The previous layout had centered back, home, and overview (recent apps) buttons, but the Pixel C puts back and home on the left and overview on the right. This reminds us a lot of the old Honeycomb layout used on the Motorola Xoom and other devices, which had the navigation buttons on the left and the status icons and notifications on the right. We guess the goal is to make it easier to tap the buttons with your thumbs while holding the tablet. Android tablets needed a completely new interface, though, and swapping a few buttons around isn’t it.

On Android today, nothing is built from the ground up for tablets. Every single interface piece is designed for phones first, and then at best you hope it “scales well” for tablets. Most apps fit into three categories. There’s Google’s favorite, the “card app,” which displays individual chunks of content in a rectangular card. With card apps, the only difference between the phone and tablet interface is that the cards are arranged on a wider grid. A phone interface will often be two or three cards wide, while a tablet will display five or six cards. Filling the entire screen with content while neglecting any kind of multi-pane interface for navigation is, at best, a mediocre interface for tablets.

The bane of every Android tablet user is the “stretched out phone app” which is just an app that instead of being tall and skinny stretches horizontally for miles. Some apps consist entirely of this “style” of interface, but almost every single Google tablet app uses a stretched out phone interface on at least one part of the UI. Usually you’ll find it in the settings, search results, or any type of list.

A new entry of late is the “pillarboxed phone app,” which is made by designers that see the above issue and say “No problem! We’ll put big margins on the left and right of the screen! It’s a tablet app now!”

None of these really takes advantage of a tablet’s larger size. We want to see design more akin to a desktop app, like a multi-paned interface with navigation on the left, content in the center, and maybe something on the right. Gmail and Chrome are really the only good examples of good Android tablet apps made by Google. These apps are better (not just bigger) on a tablet than on a phone.

It’s not like Google doesn’t know what to do with Android when it comes to a new form factor. If you look at Android Wear, Android Auto, or Android TV, you see Google implementing the right strategy: building every app and interface from the ground up for that form factor. No one is trying to run the phone interface for Hangouts on a watch. The Android TV Play Store is not the phone version, and that actually omits phone apps. We’re only asking that tablets be treated like the other Android form factors.

The thought from diehards is always “with new hardware, maybe now Google will start building tablet apps,” but we’ve heard that for the 2011 Motorola Xoom, the 2012 Nexus 10, and the 2014 Nexus 9. The hardware keeps coming, but Google still hasn’t taken the tablet form factor seriously when it comes to its apps or the OS interface.

Camera

We won’t spend too much time on the camera since there really isn’t too much of a legitimate use for a rear tablet camera. There’s a mediocre 8MP camera, which will get the job done, and not much else. The camera tends to hunt for focus a lot when you just want to take a picture, which can be frustrating compared to a modern smartphone.

Performance

FURTHER READING

NVIDIA ANNOUNCES TEGRA X1 SOC WITH MAXWELL-BASED GPU [UPDATED]
“Mobile superchip” has 256 GPU cores, will power two new in-car computer systems.
The Pixel C is the first device we’ve come across to run Nvidia’s Tegra X1 SoC. The X1 dumps Nvidia’s “Denver” CPU and goes with off-the-shelf cores from ARM, so you get a 64-bit 1.9Ghz processor with four high-power Cortex-A57 cores and four low-power Cortex-A53 cores. In benchmarks, it scores about as high as a Snapdragon 810, another chip made with off-the-shelf ARM cores.
Nvidia of course makes a big deal about the Maxwell-based GPU, which uses the same architecture as Nvidia’s desktop GPUs. It is very fast in offscreen GPU tests, but most of that power is soaked up by the 2560×1800 resolution. Overall, performance is fine and very competitive.

The Pixel C really makes a name for itself when it comes to the battery life, though. It scores higher in our tests than any other tablet. There’s no real mystery as to why: the iPad Air 2 has a 7,340mAh battery, while the similarly sized Pixel C has a massive 9,000mAh battery.

Hardware and software, working against each other

So much here feels like hardware built without any concern for the software it would run. The screen’s 1:√2 aspect ratio seems designed for a split screen mode, but there is no split screen mode here. The four microphones on top of the tablet seem designed for great always-on voice commands, but always-on voice commands aren’t supported. The keyboard seems designed for a productivity device, but productivity is one of the weakest areas of tablet Android.

If this device was originally meant to run Chrome OS, that would explain the complete lack of hardware and software synergy in the Pixel C. Hopefully some of this will be fixed in the future via a software update, but today we can only judge what is here. We also hope the myriad issues we had with the touchscreen and keyboard aren’t widespread.

iOS and Windows are both much better suited to a larger form factor device. Maybe some day Google will implement that “experimental” multi-window mode, which will help. However, right now it’s selling a $650 tablet/keyboard combo that can display a single app at a time. Even with a hypothetical split screen mode, you’d still have to deal with a sea of phone apps from developers that are reluctant to implement a large-format layout, in part because even Google doesn’t take its own tablet platform seriously.

The bottom line for every Android tablet is that until Google revamps its software to fully take advantage of the larger screen size, no Android tablet is worth your time.

Good

A big, high-res screen.
The all-aluminum body is a big upgrade from the squishy Nexus 9.
A huge battery gives the Pixel C a very long runtime.
The keyboard, if you can keep it connected, is rather nice to type on while still being compact.
Bad

No tap-to-wake. This was on the Nexus 9.
No always-on voice commands. What’s the point of those four microphones again?
Our unit had tons of issues. The touch screen didn’t work correctly, and the hardware keyboard kept disconnecting.
No split screen support. Android can’t stand up to iOS and Windows when it comes to productivity.
Ugly

This tablet’s entire reason for existing—to run Android—is also the worst thing about it.

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