NEW YORK—As the very first Android tablet made and designed from scratch by Google, the Pixel C is an impressive piece of hardware. The software is another story.
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.
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. The bright 10.2-inch display on the new tablet is gorgeous, the internal components powerful.
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. In terms of design, it’s the finest implementation I’ve seen yet of combining a physical keyboard on a convertible tablet.
All that said, however, there are questions about whether Pixel C is the right purchase for you.
I’m still not sold on Android as the best operating system for a tablet, even with the latest version of Marshmallow. (By contrast, Google’s Chromebook Pixel laptop runs the Chrome operating system.) Productivity tablet apps for Android are lacking, and there’s no split screen multitasking option as on rival tablets. I encountered Wi-Fi connectivity snags.
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. But showpieces don’t come cheap.
The cost is $499 for a model with 32 gigabytes of storage, or $599 for a 64GB version. But you’ll almost certainly want to budget an extra $149 for the aforementioned physical Pixel C keyboard. 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.
I think Microsoft in particular has done a very good job with some the cover keyboards for its Surface Pro tablets. Apple more recently has done the same with the external keyboards designed for its larger screen iPad Pro.
But the physical Bluetooth keyboard on Pixel C, which I used in part to write this column, is as good as it gets on a tablet. When closed, the keyboard and tablet are held together by self-aligning magnets, and as with a clamshell laptop the keys are concealed under cover. In this position, this isn’t the thinnest machine you’ll ever pick up. You feel every bit of its 1.1-pound weight.
The neat part comes when you want to use the keyboard as, well, a keyboard, though figuring out just how at first is a bit of a puzzle. I had fun watching colleagues in my office give it a shot.
Once you do get it, you get it, and you can’t help but admire Google’s ingenuity here. (Hint: Slide the tablet off, touch it to the back of the keyboard through magnets and lift).
When the keyboard is visible, you can adjust the angle of the screen between 100 and 135-degrees, using the base of the keyboard as a stand. That’s not only useful for propping it up when you’re touch-typing, but also when you’re watching a video.
The magnetic attachment is remarkably sturdy. I was able to hold Pixel C by the tablet or by the display without worrying the other part falling off, even when I held it upside down or shook it up a little.
And Google managed to fit the Qwerty keyboard with minimal compromises. The “travel” as you type on a key feels natural (and similar to Chromebook Pixel). The “pitch,” or the distance center to center between two physical keys, is only slightly less than on a typical 13-inch laptop. (The 18.8-millimeter pitch on the Pixel C compares to the 19-millimeter pitch that is typical on the laptop.)
Google also moved five seldom used symbol keys to the onscreen keyboard. 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.
The keyboard has a small battery that is automatically inductively charged when the keyboard and tablet are closed and snapped together. As for the tablet itself, Google says you can get more than 10 hours off the battery—I didn’t do a formal test.
Not everything went smoothly. I had intermittent problems connecting to Wi-Fi, though other devices in the room seemed to connect to the same network just fine.
You’re also supposed to be able to check battery life by double-tapping on a light bar on the outside of the tablet, but this didn’t always work either.
A few other items worth noting: Though you can employ a third party pen, Google, unlike Microsoft for Surface or Apple for the iPad Pro, hasn’t designed a special stylus for Pixel C.
Google’s tablet has an 8-megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel front camera. Google also promises to update the Marshmallow software every four to six weeks or so.
Pixel C isn’t a tablet for everyone. But Google has come up with a hardware slate that certainly demands high praise. The software, not so much.
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The bottom line
Google Pixel C
$499 or $599, keyboard is $149
Pro. Beautiful display, impressive hardware, keyboard accessory.
Con. Keyboard is an option. Some Wi-Fi snags. Android software still isn’t great for tablets
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