by Swapnil Bhartiya

Pixel C review: This pixel perfect tablet lacks for software

Dec 21, 2015
AndroidConsumer ElectronicsLinux

Pixel C is the best of all tablets, but Google's software teams didn’t do it any justice

Tablets are interesting market. They are fine as consumption devices, but Apple, Microsoft, and Google all are botching it as a work device. And as far as I can tell, the problem lies in the software.

I have, at various points,  owned the Samsung Galaxy 10.1, Nexus 7, Nexus 9, iPad Mini, iPad AIR 1 and 2. I recently bought the iPad Pro and gave my iPad AIR 2 to a friend. (And boy did I miss the iPad AIR; Pro is way too big to carry around the house comfortably.) I also  didn’t like the Logitech CREATE keyboard, which at the time I saw as the lesser of two evils, but without a physical keyboard I can’t really do much work on the iPad Pro. So I sent the Logitech keyboard back and pre-ordered Apple’s Smart Keyboard, which may arrive in January, but also lacks everything that one would expected from a $170 iOS keyboard.

Last week Google sent me a review unit of Pixel C, along with the keyboard, and I have been playing with this device for almost a week now.

When I first got the Pixel C, it reminded me how much I needed a portable tablet. And it’s a beautifully designed device.

Look and feel

Pixel C is an all aluminum and glass device. There is no gap between the body and the display. Everything is pixel-perfect.

pixel c tablet mode Swapnil Bhartiya

The device shares the design DNA of Pixel Chromebooks, which are squarish. It has slightly rounded corners, though not as round as the iPad’s. I have used many Android tablets, going all the way back to the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 and the latest Nexus 9, and none felt this great.

Pixel C reflects Google’s minimalistic approach to hardware.  There is hardly any Google branding anywhere on the device, despite being made by Google and not by partners, like the Nexus family of devices.

The only branding you see is at the back of the tablet in form of a light strip that serves many purposes. When the tablet is being used it shows four colors (blue, red, yellow and green), discretely reflecting Google’s branding. When the tablet is not in use, the strip serves as a battery indicator: just tap twice and it will show the battery status. Interestingly, and potentially confusing for users, the strip isn’t touch-sensitive. It seems to work with the accelerometer, users have to tap it as you would tap on someone’s shoulder to get their attention  and not the way you tap on a touch screen.

dsc 4655 Swapnil Bhartiya

Light strip on Pixel C

The back of the device also has an 8 MP main camera. There isn’t much to say about the main or front-facing cameras. The front -facing camera is good for Hangouts, and the main camera serves well if you are using it for anything other than photography, but that is true of all tablet main cameras and isn’t unique to the Pixel C. The camera isn’t totally useless, though. One good use of main cameras on tablets is for sports. Your trainer or coach can record video during practice and immediately show you how you are doing.

There is USB Type C port at the bottom of the left side of the device. On the top left is the volume button. The power button is on the top, above the main camera. There are four microphones on top as well. Yes, not one, not two, but four microphones.

You would think that with four microphones, you’d have a better Ok Google experience. But that is not the case. First, unlike on phones, Ok Google works only when the Pixel C’s screen is on. Second, the detection is not great. My Nexus 6P responds to OK Google better than Pixel C. I believe that the problem lies in the software and not the hardware . A software update may improve things.

pixel c ports Swapnil Bhartiya

Pixel C ports, microphones and buttons

The Pixel C has side facing stereo speakers (when the tablet is in landscape mode). The speakers are good, much louder and crispier than the iPad AIR 2 speakers.

The Pixel C’s display is the best display in tablets, beating both the iPad and Surface tablets. It’s a 2560×1800 pixel LCD display with 308 ppi. But beyond that, the display is truly stunning. Images are sharp and rich.

What makes this tablet even better is that Google has finally settled on a 4:3 aspect ratio, dropping the 16:9 ratio that we saw in previous Android tablets. 16:9 is a great aspect ratio for watching movies, but it’s not good for work. 4:3 is appropriate for reading books, reading Web pages, working on documents. (No surprise, then that Google chose a 3:2 aspect ratio for the Chromebook Pixel.)

The processor

From a hardware point of view, this device is a powerhouse. Playing resource-intensive 3D games is pure pleasure on the Pixel C. The tablet features the extremely powerful Tegra X1 64-bit chip. This chip has eight CPU cores: four ARM Cortex-A57 cores and four ARM Cortex-A53 cores, plus a Maxwell-based 256 core GPU. This is the same processor that drives 4K videos and high-end games on Nvidia Shield Android TV. On top of this processor, you get 3 GB of  RAM.

The best deal about Pixel C is the battery life. Pixel C has a monstrous 9,000mAh battery, as compared to the 7,340mAh battery found in iPad AIR 2. On top of that you have a battery saving mode that will give you extended battery life.

The keyboard

With my review unit, Google also sent a dedicated keyboard for Pixel C that  is also designed by the Pixel C team, so it’s really part of the tablet. The keyboard will set you back $139, but if you want to use the tablet for work, you need the keyboard.

pixel c keyboard Swapnil Bhartiya

Pixel C keyboard.

It’s a very durable and attractive keyboard. But given the 10.2” width of the tablet, it wasn’t possible to create a full sized keyboard, and Google had to make some compromises. They got rid of many less frequently used keys, and shuffled some keys around. The overall keyboard is a bit shorter than a full-size keyboard, but the travel is very good, as good as you will find on Macbook Pro keyboards. Despite the compromises, you will get used to the keyboard very quickly.  I got up to speed within 5 minutes of typing on it.

The right Alt key is replaced by three dots that hold the secret to more features and shortcuts. For example, you can pull up an on-screen keyboard with symbols. Unlike the iPad Pro keyboard there are no dedicated keys to switch between keyboard languages or emojis. But when you are in the online keyboard, you can click on the emoji icon and get access to onscreen emojis and you can change the keyboard language from the onscreen keyboard.

But the keyboard doesn’t look like a keyboard designed for Android devices. There is no dedicated key for many Android functions. They only dedicated key you will see is for search, and that has replaced the Caps Lock key.

It’s not backlit, so I can’t work on it at night. There is no volume, screen brightness, or play/pause buttons.

The keyboard attaches to the tablet with very strong magnets. The top 1/4 of the keyboard is a magnetized plate that latches to the bottom back of the Pixel C. The hinges are strong and allow you to choose angle the tablet anywhere between 100 – 135 degrees. When the keyboard and tablet are magnetically attached they are magically paired over bluetooth, so you don’t have to fiddle with pairing anymore.

It’s not perfect though. For example, you can’t latch it in any other way: You can’t attach it in portrait mode or upside down. And you can’t use the keyboard when it’s not latched. It seems like the magnets turn some switch on and off. We have seen a similar mechanism in Belkin’s Ultra Pro keyboards that attach to the iPad magnetically and pair automatically.

Due to the magnetic pairing and charging there is some ‘gadgetry’ in how you attach the keyboard to the tablet. Google included a card in the keyboard box that tells users how to correctly use the keyboard. Here’s a neat feature: If you place the tablet face down on the keyboard (it will look like a closed laptop), the tablet will automatically start charging the keyboard. But you have to do it right: The light stripe and the space bar should be on the same side. If you want to use the combo in tablet mode, you can simple place the back of the tablet on top of the keyboard and it will magnetically attach itself.

It’s a good keyboard and the mechanism to attach it to the tablet is really awesome. The only thing that makes it feel inadequate is the lack of dedicated keys. I also noticed that it occasionally loses connection. I experienced many glitches while composing this story, but I assume they are software related and things will get better with updates.

The softer and weaker side of the equation

I have been trying Android tablets since the Galaxy 10.1 days and haven’t yet seen an Android tablet that I can use for work.  Eventually I settled down with iPad AIR, mainly due to better hardware and more apps.

I was very excited when Pixel C was announced. And this is the best tablet hardware out there. It beats the iPad AIR 2 in every department.

Alas, the software drags it down. I can use Pixel C for doing the same things I have been doing on Android tablets so far: watching Netflix movies, playing some games, listening to movies, making hangout calls, checking Facebook and Hangouts, and that’s pretty much it. The Pixel C’s remarkable hardware can’t make up for the software shortcomings.

Despite such awesome hardware and Android’s capabilities, the software teams at Google didn’t do any justice to Pixel C. Other than moving the back, multitasking and home button from center to the corners, there is nothing specific about Android 6.x that takes advantage of this hardware. After using Pixel C for a week I get the impression that the software teams didn’t bother to do any work on Pixel C; they just slapped the stock Android 6.x on it and shipped the device.

It feels like a phone OS stretched to run on a tablet. From the centered Search bar to pull down notification, it mimics the phone and doesn’t take advantage of the bigger screen. It also fails as a laptop because it doesn’t support split screen, as iPad and many other Android tablets do. The fact is, I can do much more on my Chromebook Flip than on Pixel C.

It seems like Google did a hasty job, pushing Pixel C to the market for the holiday season. Many reports suggest that Pixel C was meant to be a Chrome OS device in an iPad AIR form factor. As a user of Chromebook Flip, I would have loved Pixel C as a Chrome OS powered device. Chrome OS is much more suited for ‘real’ work than Android or iOS. And once you bring in apps like VLC, you have the best of both worlds.

Another area where Google has failed to make Pixel C a laptop replacement is with apps. I am a heavy user of Google Docs. But the Google Docs apps for iOS and Android leave a lot to be desired. The UI doesn’t do justice to the tablet screen size; they haven’t even bothered to optimize it for iPad. I have been so frustrated with Google Docs on mobile that I ended up buying a subscription for Microsoft Office 365; at least I get a full-fledged office suite. I would never have bought Microsoft Office had Google developed a full fledged Google Docs app for mobile.

And Google Docs is not an exception. Almost all Google apps look bad on Pixel C, including Google Hangouts, Contacts, Google Play, Google Music, etc. Ironically, Hangouts on iPad Pro looks much better than it does on Pixel C.

I would have loved the tablet if Google had optimized Android for Pixel C. I would have loved it even more if Google had made it a Chrome OS device.

What next?

As you can tell from this review, I love everything about the hardware, but the software side makes it a weak player.

There are a few things Google should do to make this tablet worthy of the Pixel name.

Google has done an incredible job with Android wear, optimizing the OS for round, square and rectangular watch faces. They have created an incredible interface for Android TV. They have written Android for automobiles. So I expect them to optimize Android for tablets.

Android for tablets needs split screen so users can run more than one app simultaneously. Google must seriously look into Google Docs and bring it on par with Microsoft Word. They must optimize their own apps for tablets before expecting third party developers to do the same.

Or, just get rid of Android and slap Chrome OS on Pixel C, and then we will have a tablet meant for real work. I always wanted a $500 high-end Chrome OS device. Psst…I can also run Amazon Prime on it!

So, what do you think. Are you going to buy Pixel C? Do you think it should run Chrome OS, just as iPad Pro should be running Mac OS X?