What it’s good at
If you want a tablet with superior build quality, the Pixel C is it. Even compared with an iPad, the Pixel C feels like an incredible piece of hardware. The aluminum frame is a little heavy, but the construction, buttons, and speaker grilles are great. On the rear of the tablet is a cool little extra that you might recognize from the Pixel Chromebooks — a light bar. It glows while the tablet is on with the Google logo colors. However, it can also give battery status information without waking up the tablet. Just tap on it twice and it lights up with colors (green, orange, red) and 1-4 lights to show the battery level.
Inside this tablet is a Tegra X1 system-on-a-chip (SoC). That’s an octa-core 64-bit ARM chip, the latest from Nvidia with a powerful Maxwell-based GPU. The Pixel C is incredibly fast — probably the fastest Android device I’ve ever laid hands on. It loads apps instantly and multitasking is lightning fast. That’s a downfall of many Android devices that are otherwise acceptably fast. Gaming and general app use are excellent on the Pixel C.
The 10.2-inch display is also just fantastic in every way. It’s a sharp 2560×1800 LCD with a square screen ratio of 1:1.414 (or √2 as Google likes to say). The square screen ratio makes a lot of sense to me on a tablet, especially one as large as the Pixel C. This way you can comfortably use it in portrait orientation. The viewing angles are perfect and it gets incredibly bright.
There are things to like about the stock build of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow on this tablet, but it’s not all good. I’ll get to the not-so-good stuff in the next section. Android 6.0 is a generally great upgrade to the Android platform. The permission system is more granular, allowing you to disable access to your data if you don’t trust an app. It makes better use of battery life by suspending unused apps and keeping the device asleep when it’s not in use. The Pixel C gets insane standby battery life. I’m talking iPad levels of standby, which used to be an impossible dream for Android users.
What it’s not so good at
So, the Pixel C is good compared with other Android tablets in a lot of ways, but the approach to this device from a product perspective feels like a mismatch. Android was supposed to have true multi-window support ages ago, but for unknown reasons it still hasn’t been finished. So, what we have here is a productivity-oriented device that can only run one app at a time.
The Pixel C jumps between apps quickly, but it’s not the same as being able to have more than one thing on the screen at the same time. There are times that this isn’t the worst thing — if you’re just using the tablet to work on a text document, it can actually keep you on-task. I’ve managed to get some work done on the Pixel C, but only when I was just putting words on the page. If at any point I needed to do research or open a chat client, my workflow was completely interrupted.
I have to wonder why Google chose to push the Pixel C with a keyboard dock. This accessory is available for a whopping $150 on top of the $500 base price of the Pixel C. It connects to the tablet with magnets (and Bluetooth), and actually charges inductively from the tablet’s battery. It’s a neat trick, but the key layout is a little weird, and the switches are wobbly. The real problem with this accessory is that Android’s hardware peripheral support is lacking. You’re constantly going back and forth between tapping the screen and typing on the keyboard, as there’s no trackpad. Shortcuts are basically nonexistent too.
The app situation is also a problem for the Pixel C, but that’s not entirely the fault of this device in particular. All Android tablets are cursed with a lack of properly optimized tablet apps. Android itself does support universal apps, but most developers don’t take the time to craft these interfaces. It’s less of an issue with smaller tablets that are almost phone-sized. The Pixel C is huge, though. It really exacerbates the poor layout of many apps. Some apps don’t rotate to landscape mode either, so you have to take the tablet out of the dock to use them.
Even some of Google’s apps are a joke on tablets. Take a look at Hangouts, for example. It’s just a stretched phone UI. They aren’t all bad. Gmail works wonderfully on the Pixel C with a handy multi-pane interface. This is something that would be less annoying if there was multi-window support, but blowing all the apps up to full screen isn’t a good experience.
It’s known at this point that the Pixel C was originally intended to be a Chrome OS device. The board (code named Ryu) was being developed for Chrome OS in early-mid 2015. Then there was a brief time when Google planned to release it as a dual-boot device. This “franken-board” approach was eventually deemed too complex for such a tight timeline, and the hardware was switched over to pure Android.
This scatterbrained development process really shows in the final product. Emphasizing productivity on a device without true multitasking isn’t a good approach, and the keyboard dock is hugely overpriced when you consider that. You’re paying $150 for an interesting accessory that won’t get a lot of use. Chrome OS doesn’t have games and apps like Android does, but it’s significantly better at productivity with true multitasking, proper keyboard/mouse support, and an interface optimized for getting work done.
Make no mistake, the Pixel C is the best Android tablet you can buy, but I’m not sure it makes sense to get a $500 tablet at all right now. These devices are much better at content consumption, and you can do all that same stuff on a much less expensive tablet. Just slapping a $150 keyboard accessory on an Android tablet does not instantly turn it into a productivity device. It all makes me wish the Pixel C had been the Chrome OS device it was originally envisioned to be.