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Featured Review: Google Pixel C Tablet and Keyboard

December 22, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Google’s Nexus program has been around for nearly 6 years now, delivering many generations of phones throughout the years.  Google has toyed with the idea of tablets throughout this entire time frame, delivering nearly half a dozen tablets in many forms, from the Motorola Xoom and its nearly stock Android experience and through the official Nexus tablets spanning the 7, 9 and 10 inch sizes.  While all of these tablets are different they share one big thread in common: none of them were 100% Google products.  All that changes with the Pixel C, the first 100% in-house designed and privately manufactured tablet.  But does this actually change anything significant for the shrinking tablet market, or will it ultimately be forgotten?  Let’s find out.

Specs

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Google’s Pixel C is a massive beast of a tablet, pushing the spec boundaries in nearly every area.  The front of the tablet is graced by a beautiful 10.2-inch LTPS IPS LCD with a resolution of 2560 x 1800 (308 pixels per inch), and is powered by none other than the latest from Nvidia, the Tegra X1.  The Tegra X1 here is made up of a Quad-Core 1.9GHz 64-bit CPU and a Maxwell-class GPU for top-tier performance, and the 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM inside is top class too.  32GB or 64GB of internal storage is included and there is no microSD card support, so choose wisely for your media consumption needs.  There’s an 8-megapixel camera on the back with f/2.4 lens, and a 2-megapixel camera on the front, as well as Bluetooth 4.1 and dual-band WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/a support.  There’s a non-removable 9000mAh battery under the hood and the whole experience is powered by Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow as of the writing of this review.  The whole package comes in at 242mm wide by 179mm high and 7mm thin with a hefty weight of 517 grams.

In the Box

The package here is incredibly light, and I don’t mean in the weight sense.  Outside of the tablet you’re only going to find the charger inside the box, one that curiously enough has its cable fused to the power brick.  This is a 15W USB Type-C charger though, so you’ll want to hold on to it if you want fast charging.  The keyboard box has nothing other than the keyboard and a cheat sheet that includes some tips on how to best use that magnetic hinge.

Display

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The most unique thing about the display on the Pixel C isn’t its crispy resolution of 2560 x 1800 pixels (308 PPI), rather the incredibly unique aspect ratio it brings to the table.  While most Android tablets are 16:9 to match TV and movie ratios, other tablets like the iPad or Nexus 9 use a 4:3 aspect ratio to feel better no matter which orientation you’re using the tablet in.  Google has opted for a rather unique 1:√2 aspect ratio, something you’ve likely never heard of before.  While this seems like a weird mathematical gimmick at first, it immediately makes sense as soon as you use the tablet.  Since it’s designed to be used horizontally with the keyboard, the screen at this ratio works perfectly in this orientation and even feels equally as good when held in the vertical orientation like a phone.

Besides not being so tall like a phone when held vertically, there’s something special about this aspect ratio that hints at what we know has been coming to stock Android for a long time now: multi-window mode.  No, it’s not here yet, but dividing this screen into 2 or 4 sections creates a perfectly sized and shaped environment for all sorts of media and just plain feels better than other aspect ratios.  It’s this sort of brilliance that shows forward thinking on behalf of the Pixel team’s hardware group and how it’s ready for the next big step in Android.

Display quality is nothing short of fantastic either and will wow just about anyone who looks at it.  If it isn’t the resolution that gets you it’ll be the sheer overall quality of the panel that does.  Viewing angles are about as good as they get, and there’s no color or brightness shifting that’s worth noting.  The screen is incredibly bright at 500 nits max brightness and as so is incredibly viewable outdoors.  The 1500:1 contrast ratio means this isn’t going to have the best black levels on the block for an LCD, but it’s not horrible either considering how some other LCD panels look.  sRGB color gamut gives accurate color representation, and at 10.2 inches you’re not likely going to need a bigger screen on a tablet.  Google has enhanced the display with Low-Temperature PolySilicon technology, which is supposed to result in excellent battery savings.

Hardware and Build

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Google’s in-house hardware design team has really stepped things up a notch with the Pixel C when it comes to Android tablets, but it’s what it shares in common with the Pixel Chromebooks that makes it so impressive looking.  Recalling that a Pixel Chromebook costs around $1,000 and this tablet is about half that, holding the same design language and materials certainly makes it all that more impressive.  The tablet itself is built entirely out of anodized aluminum and has a weight that feels nothing short of the highest quality product you may have ever used.  Sure that’s a bit of hyperbole, but this one feels downright amazing in the hand.  It’s also thin yet carries a huge battery inside, a win-win for consumers without a doubt.

This tablet is meant to be used in horizontal mode, so on either side you’ll find two large speakers for stereo audio.  On the right side near the top you’ll find the 3.5mm headset jack, while the left side holds the volume rocker near the same top.  You’ll also find that USB Type-C port near the bottom of the left side, while the power button is found on the top all the way toward the left side.  On the back you’ll find the camera lens near the top left, while centered near the top is the incredibly unique status light bar.  This light bar is split into 4 sections which light up as Google’s colors of green, yellow, red and blue.  When the display is off a double tap anywhere on the back of the unit will make the light bar light up, showing the battery level in 25% increments via the 4-section lights.  When the battery is low this entire bar is red, giving you a good warning without having to turn the tablet on to look.

Keyboard

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The physical connection between the keyboard and the tablet is probably the most special thing about the whole package, as it’s held together via an intelligent magnet system that’s incredibly strong to boot.  During our hands on at Google’s Nexus event where they announced the Pixel C, the representative showed us that you could literally shake the keyboard with the tablet attached and it wouldn’t come off on its own, a test that I’ve repeated to everyone I’ve shown the tablet to, and one that receives ooo’s and aah’s every time.  The magnetic flap actually features an induction charging coil within it, so you should never have to worry about charging the keyboard so long as it’s connected to the main tablet.  Those worried about scratching the screen of the tablet when connecting to the keyboard shouldn’t, as Google has built in a soft plastic rest that hovers just above the keys and resides at the same height as the magnet in the back.  This also doubles as a small palm rest.

The design of having the keyboard attach to the tablet in this way is sheer genius, particularly in the rubber feet that keep everything in place.  The weight of the tablet doesn’t get in the way of using its touch screen in the way you want, and I never found the tablet tipping back or anything awkward like that thanks to the angles that the tablet sits at in the “dock” of the keyboard.  Even the size of the keyboard is phenomenal, with spacing between the keys almost identical to most laptops.  The tradeoff here are the keys on the side like tab, shift, enter, and backspace, which had to be reduced in size to fit the footprint of the tablet itself.  The tall enter key threw me off the first couple of hours of use, but after that I found myself typing like normal on it.

Functionally the keyboard features two unique buttons, a search icon reminiscent of the early Android days, and an overflow button featuring 3 dots.  The search button can be used much like the Command key on a Mac or the Windows key on a PC keyboard, as it elicits the use of shortcuts to launch apps and other commands.  For instance Search + Enter brings you home, while Alt + Tab will bring up the recents screen.  Those wondering where the missing keys went because of the compact size of the keyboard will be pleased to find that pressing the overflow button brings up a software keyboard with the additional symbols, all of which can be used on the physical keyboard after pressing the overflow key.  Launching default apps like the browser with Search + B or email with Search + E are all available too.

The only problem here is that the keyboard connects to the tablet via Bluetooth, which isn’t exactly known for its reliability or stability.  In fact, the first 3 days I had the Pixel C I had little to no problems with the keyboard, but one day it decided to act up and completely stopped functioning correctly after that point in time. Not even a factory reset fixed this issue, and I was left wondering how many other Pixel C units suffer from these problems.  Normally you wouldn’t have to pair the keyboard like a typical Bluetooth device, however after this factory reset it was the only way to get the keyboard working with the tablet again.

Performance and Memory

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Nvidia’s Tegra lineup has always been known for its performance in gaming, but not so much for its everyday performance.  This time around though the experience was mostly phenomenal no matter what I was doing, and about the only time I saw it struggle is when I would run the initial setup on the device.  During this setup the Google Play Store installs all the apps I have installed on my phone, and while I tried to cancel apps like Android Wear and various watch faces from installing the Play Store app would hang, asking to close or wait and becoming completely unresponsive for many seconds.  There were plenty of times where the tablet would stutter and the framerate would become erratic too, but this wasn’t all the time.  This was particularly noticeable when a webpage was loading and I was trying to scroll at the same time, a feat that quickly became futile.  A lot of this has been seen on Tegra-powered devices in the past and while it’s much better than previous Tegra iterations in this regard, the problem is still here more often than with other SoC’s.

When it came to gaming though this tablet absolutely flew.  Everything including graphically intense games like Lara Croft Go on the highest graphics settings ran at a perfect 60FPS framerate, and that’s with the super high resolution of 2560 x 1800 too, a resolution considerably higher than any console could even think of running.  There are a few tablet optimized games too, including Asphalt 8: Airborne, which has been updated to support the keyboard and works incredibly well as a substitute for a controller unlike a touchscreen.

Multi-tasking was just as fantastic in terms of speed as I would expect to with 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM.  Apps never reloaded when switching between them, and the only thing that took time to switch between apps were the animations in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which can be adjusted in Developer Options if you want them to be quicker.  The problem here is the potential that’s been missed when having a form factor and screen size like this.  You can only run a single app at a time, which is a shame given both the screen size and the perfect aspect ratio here.  Thankfully Alt+Tab works to quickly switch back and forth between apps like on a PC or Mac, and makes single-app multi-tasking as fast as it possibly can be.  The Pixel C lacks the ability to run apps side-by-side like Samsung and LG’s tablets, not to mention the newest iPads can do.  This is a massive disadvantage for Google’s latest tablet and essentially makes it useless as a productivity device.  I actually tried to do all of my work one day with just the tablet and ended up giving up after a few hours simply because it’s so slow and frustrating to have to work this way.

Benchmarks

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I’ve never seen any mobile device run any of our regular suite of benchmarks as well as the Pixel C does.  This is one serious media and gaming tablet, there’s absolutely no doubting it, and Nvidia’s hardware shines through yet again in its strongest suit.

Battery Life

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With a battery that’s three times the size of your average smartphone battery, and around 2 times the size of many tablets’ batteries, you’d expect to get some seriously epic battery life out of the Pixel C.  In my experience that was definitely true, giving me a good couple of day’s entertainment without having to worry about charging, and since the keyboard is charged via induction wireless charging when connected to the tablet I never had to worry about having to charge the keyboard either.  The average screen on time I got during testing was at least 10 hours in a single charge, and depending on how demanding the apps you’re using are you could certainly get longer.  Standby time is beastly too thanks to Android 6.0 Marshmallow’s new Doze battery saving mode that forces apps to sleep when the tablet is sitting idle on a table, giving this one a possibility of weeks of standby time when not in use.

Software

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The Pixel C has the advantage over most tablets on the market of being updated straight from Google, using a stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow build.  The Pixel C team is spearheading development of tablet-optimized apps, but they’ve got a lot of work to do.  Stock Android simply isn’t tablet friendly and that comes in many forms, from the navigation of the OS itself to multi-tasking apps and even the apps themselves.  Most apps just aren’t tablet optimized and that includes far too many of Google’s own apps as well.  Hangouts is simply an embarrassment when using it on a tablet, and even Google Now looks horrendous on any Android tablet, with massive amounts of useless white space all around the screen.  The overall interface just features so much wasted space and potential it made me want to cry in a very geeky sort of way.

Take pulling down the notification shade for example.  Google made it so that the notification shade pulls down and is centered on your finger no matter where it lands, however it’s such a small and narrow column that there’s literally no more information displayed here than my phone displays, and that just doesn’t make sense given it’s twice the size.  This sort of design is everywhere in the OS too, and it’s nothing short of a mess that just looks like you’re running a phone OS on a giant screen.  To make matters worse there’s no real multi-tasking of any kind outside of simple single-app switching that you would find on any Android phone.  This waste of space in conjunction with the brilliant aspect ratio of the screen that’s just screaming for multi-window support is nothing short of frustrating.  Most things require too much travel with the hands and make using a device of this size uncomfortable.

We’re scheduled to get updates from Google every single month with the Pixel C, although we’re not expecting anything additional outside of some security and bug fixes each time.  Here’s hoping the Pixel C team surprises us with some significant feature enhancements, because as it stands this is nothing more than a device that’s designed for media consumption and not much else.  While typing in Microsoft Word or Google Docs is pleasant, it’s the gaming and movie watching experience that’s really stellar.  Those looking to browse the web, watch videos, play games and consume other forms of media won’t find much better places to do it, just don’t bother trying to do work here because it isn’t built for that.

Sound

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The sound coming from the speakers on the unit was nothing short of fantastic.  The true stereo speakers on each side of the screen provided a virtual surround sound-like experience that’s only rivaled by Google’s Nexus 6p in Android land, and were as loud as they were clear.  Audio was deep and rich and I felt like I was in my living room watching something on my TV most of the time; the sound is just that good.  Android Marshmallow’s new notification and volume panel also makes adjusting this sound easier than ever, providing quick toggles for system volume, media volume and alarm volume at the tap of a virtual button.

Camera

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Cameras on tablets are almost never worth talking about, and that’s certainly going to be the case here with the Pixel C.  It’s not a bad experience, but it is a slow one, with pictures sometimes taking 2-3 seconds just to take and save before you can snap another one.  Couple that with the massive size of this tablet, the weight and the general awkwardness of using Google’s extraordinarily simple Google Camera interface and you’ve got a camera that’s probably never going to be used outside of taking a quick shot for social media or something similar.  The quality of the photos is passable, and low light shots aren’t great.

There are almost no additional features outside of the standard auto mode shot, panorama and photo sphere that you’ll find on the Google Camera app on any Android powered smartphone.  The front facing camera’s quality is pretty abysmal too, with a low 2-megapixel resolution that’s barely good enough for video chats, let alone any kind of selfies or other shots that demand higher quality.  Video mode is also passable, with 1080p support if you really want to take video with such a behemoth of a device.  All in all the camera is certainly here, but it’s not much more than that.

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The Good

Unbelievable build quality

Brilliant magnet system

Built-in wireless keyboard charging

Huge battery

Stellar performance

Beautiful screen with a brilliant aspect ratio

Phenomenal feeling keyboard for typing on the go

Fast and fluid gaming like nothing else on the market

Amazing loud and clear sound from the onboard stereo speakers

The Bad

More potential than actual success for productivity

No multi-window features

Weird jank and stuttering issues

Problems with the keyboard connection at times

No microSD card support

Final Thoughts

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It’s amazing to think that this small package in my hands above is both the tablet and the keyboard, yet the power packed inside of the Pixel C is among the greatest in the industry.  It’s heavy but thin, sleek and incredible to hold and is among the most powerful portable media devices out there.  What it gets right is overshadowed by the things that it simply misses, like any multi-window support and better productivity features that the keyboard makes one assume.  This is absolutely not a laptop replacement, it’s a fancy tablet with an expensive stand that doubles as a keyboard.  Is that a bad thing?  Of course not, and those looking to use this simply as an Android tablet or a media consumption device will likely be incredibly happy with what they get.  Just don’t go in expecting this one to replace your laptop because it simply can’t.