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Pixel C deep-dive review

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Remember back when we had clearly defined device categories with bold lines between them? Smartphones were for voice calls and on-the-go communication, tablets were for more extended touchscreen use and laptops were for serious mobile productivity. Ah, simpler times.

These days, the lines have blurred — and there’s really very little separating one type of device from the next. Smartphones are increasingly enormous and all-purpose, while laptops are doubling as tablets and tablets are trying to act like laptops. Any one of them can make calls, given the right data connection. The most meaningful distinction among mobile products at this point may simply be their platform — and even the implications connected to that are in a constant state of flux.

Enter Google’s new Pixel C, a convertible tablet that doubles as a laptop (and yes, can make and receive calls with a Wi-Fi connection). The Pixel C is kind of like a sister product to the Chromebook Pixel — only rather than running the browser-centric Chrome OS, as its sibling does, the Pixel C runs pure Google Android software. And where the Chromebook Pixel feels like a laptop that happens to have a touchscreen, the Pixel C feels like a touch-centric tablet first — with an optional keyboard that connects to it.

You can buy the Pixel C starting today for $499 with 32GB of storage or $599 with 64GB. The physical keyboard attachment is sold separately and costs an additional $149.

I’ve been using the Pixel C and its keyboard for both work and play over the past several days. Let’s get into it, shall we?

Getting to know the Pixel C as a tablet

One thing’s for sure: Picking up the Pixel C immediately brings the Chromebook Pixel to mind. The two devices share a lot of DNA — which is no surprise, given that the Pixel brand indicates a product that was designed and made entirely by Google (unlike Nexus products, which are typically joint efforts between Google and a rotating cast of third-party manufacturers).

The family connection is most apparent in the realms of style and design. Like the Chromebook Pixel, the Pixel C is beautifully crafted and made to look as premium as can be, with an elegant silver aluminum exterior and a distinctive multicolored light bar that illuminates during use. In a neat twist, the light bar also doubles as an interactive battery indicator: Whenever the system is idle, you can tap it twice to have it show you how much power is remaining.

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At its core, the Pixel C is a 10.2-in. tablet — and in that regard, it’s a pleasure to use. The metal casing feels smooth and luxurious under your fingers. At 1.1 lb., it isn’t the lightest tablet around, but it seems strong and sturdy and is quite comfortable to hold (using two hands, which is pretty much par for the course with a device of this size). The slate is relatively thin, too, at 0.28 in. — a touch slimmer than Apple’s original iPad Air and just four-hundredths of an inch thicker than the newer iPad Air 2.

Staying true to the Pixel name, the Pixel C’s display is gorgeous — a 2560 x 1800 LCD panel that’s impossibly crisp and detailed. It’s super bright, too, to the point that I’ve actually found myself using it at the lowest possible brightness setting most of the time.

The usual qualifiers associated with LCD displays do apply: Colors on the Pixel C’s screen are a bit less vibrant and saturated than what you’d see on an AMOLED panel, and blacks appear somewhat grayish instead of being fully dark and deep. But honestly, that’s picking nits when we’re talking about a display of this caliber. This thing looks fantastic, and unless you’re studying it side by side with an AMOLED device (or are a professional display snob, like yours truly), you almost certainly won’t think about those differences or have any cause for complaint.

The Pixel C’s display uses an unusual aspect ratio of 1:√2 (about 1:1.4142), which is comparable to a standard sheet of A4 paper. That makes it more box-like and less widescreen than the 16:9 or 16:10 ratios that are more common on Android tablets. The result is a less elongated shape that shows you more content from top to bottom in landscape orientation and a wider viewing area in portrait mode. (Fittingly, it’s pretty similar to what you get with the also-unusual 3:2 aspect ratio of the Chromebook Pixel.)

In real-world terms, the setup feels quite natural for tasks like browsing the Web or scrolling through text-centric apps like social media services, word processors and news reading tools. It’s less ideal for watching videos, which tend to be created with widescreen displays in mind and consequently end up playing in the center of the screen with prominent black bars on the top and bottom. Aside from that outlier, though, I’ve found I rather enjoy the more balanced shape, as it meshes nicely with most of my day-to-day use.

The Pixel C’s aspect ratio also suggests some interesting advancements that might be on the way for both this device and Android as a platform in the future, but that’s another story — one that isn’t directly relevant to the product as it stands today.

The tablet-using experience

The rest of the Pixel C’s hardware is pretty straightforward: The device has decently loud but hollow-sounding speakers on both of its shorter side edges. And the tablet has just two ports: a 3.5mm headphone jack on one side and aUSB-C port on the other.

The USB-C port allows you to plug in a cable in either direction, which is nice after years of fumbling with one-directional USB connectors. It also enables fast charging and the ability to charge one USB-C device from another (if you wanted to use your tablet to top off your phone, for instance). The standard is still fairly new, so you may have to stock up on extra chargers and cables for now, but it’s expected to become the norm on many laptops, phones and tablets in the months ahead.

I should note that, unlike the Chromebook Pixel, the Pixel C’s USB-C port does not presently double as an HDMI-out port (even with an adapter). Google tells me such a function might be added via a future update, but there’s no guarantee. The Pixel C also lacks an SD card slot for supplementing local storage.

Performance on the Pixel C, meanwhile, has been flawlessly speedy for me, with nary a stutter nor sign of lag anywhere in the system. The tablet’s stamina has been equally stellar: Even with several hours of active on-screen use, I’ve yet to come close to running low on battery within a single day. Plus, with the minimal standby power consumption that Google’s Android 6.0 Marshmallow software enables, the tablet can stay on all night and lose only a couple of percentage points of power. All said and told, most people should have no problem leaving the tablet on around the clock and getting multiple days between charges.

About the software: The Pixel C runs a pure and unadulterated version of Google’s latest operating system, with none of the arbitrary visual changes or pointless bloat we often see added in by third-party Android manufacturers. The result is an attractive and intuitive environment, with no superfluous clutter and a consistent design language that extends from the system UI to the ecosystem of apps around it. The user interface makes an immeasurable impact in what a device is like to use, and that alone is enough to put the Pixel C in a league above most other Android products.

Technically, the Pixel C runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, but the changes from the base 6.0 release appear to be fairly minimal. The only significant visual difference I’ve noticed is that the main system buttons are now justified to the sides instead of being centered, with the Back and Home keys at the far left of the screen and the Overview icon at the right.

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It’s an interesting step back toward the tablet-optimized approach we saw years ago in Android 3.0 Honeycomb (especially with the notification panel also now appearing wherever you swipe down from the top instead of being stuck in a central position). Google tells me it felt the revised button placement would be more convenient on a tablet of this size and that it’s currently evaluating whether it’ll roll that same setup out more broadly to other devices.

Last but not least, the Pixel C enjoys the same upgrade guarantee as Google’s Nexus devices, which means you’ll receive future Android OS upgrades quickly and reliably along with ongoing monthly security updates, all directly from Google. Given the sad state of upgrades across much of the Android ecosystem, the value of that assurance can’t be overstated.

The physical keyboard factor

All right — so that’s the Pixel C on the tablet front. Now let’s talk about that optional keyboard attachment.

In a word, it’s okay — passable but not great. There are some clever things about the keyboard’s design and implementation, but trying to use the system as a laptop for real productivity-oriented work just isn’t a wonderful experience.

Much of that is related to the software: A mobile-first operating system like Android still isn’t designed for the type of more intensive work flow that’s normal on a laptop. Simple things like snapping back and forth between different apps, while certainly possible, are far less instant and effortless on Android compared to a desktop-centric setup. Time-saving hotkeys you may be accustomed to using on keyboard-based systems don’t work consistently, as I was reminded when trying to press Ctrl-F to find text while editing this story on the device. And a lot of websites still don’t play nicely with mobile browsers, which can make basic tasks like filling out forms or inputting text into a content management system frustrating and arduous.

That being said, Google has been making progress on improving Android’s productivity potential — little by little. The company’s Google Docs word processing app, for instance, now allows you to split the screen in half and search the Web for information while actively working on a document, which is a useful (if limited) feature. But all in all, trying to do intensive input-oriented work on the Pixel C always feels a little awkward — like you’re working extra hard to force a square peg into a round hole. And software isn’t the only reason.

On the hardware front, the Pixel C has high-quality keys and an impressive amount of resistance — but cramming a full keyboard into a space that’s roughly 9.5 in. long is inevitably going to require a certain level of compromise. Typing on the device is akin to typing on a really good netbook: I adapt to it fairly quickly and can get by well enough, but ultimately, it’s just not as comfortable as typing on a regular laptop. (The same can be said for trying to do actual work on a screen that’s only 10.2 in. — a size that’s fine for casual computing but not exactly optimal for extended periods of concentrated work.)

The Pixel C also doesn’t have a trackpad, which seems strange when you’re using it like a laptop — as you have to move your hands off the keyboard and then reach up to tap the screen every time you want to open a menu or “click” on something. Even just returning to your home screen requires an on-screen tap, as the keyboard has no such function keys. And while the magnets holding the tablet in place are extremely strong, the screen does still wobble every time you touch it — just enough to remind you that you aren’t using a holistic device.

It’s hard not to compare the arrangement to Dell’s Venue 10 7000, a similarly conceived convertible Android tablet that managed to implement a more fully equipped (and backlit!) keyboard as well as a trackpad into its lower half. The experience on that device feels far more natural and laptop-like as a result.

And though the Pixel C’s method of tablet-keyboard connection is sleek-looking and intuitive, I can’t help but think it’s less practical than the more conventional method used on Dell’s system. The top quarter of the Pixel C’s keyboard attachment hides the connecting hinge behind a magnetic panel — so when you want to attach the tablet, you touch the lower part of its back to that panel, and the two surfaces secure themselves together. You then pull up on the tablet, and it lifts the panel up from the base and allows you to position the screen up to a roughly 100 degree angle.

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Attractive as it may be, the nature of that mechanism is what causes the space on the keyboard panel to be so limited, since so much of the surface area is taken up by the hinge-hiding panel. It also causes the device to feel decidedly like two separate pieces — a tablet sitting on a keyboard attachment — instead of feeling like a cohesive whole, as Dell’s convertible does.

Finally, I find myself wishing the Pixel C had the versatility present in Dell’s setup: The hinge on that device allows you to attach the base so that it extends out behind the tablet and creates a stand — something I’ve found to be one of the most compelling benefits of the convertible form. The Pixel C’s panel-based connection system provides no such possibility.

On the plus side, the Pixel C’s keyboard pairs quickly and automatically as soon as it’s attached (via Bluetooth, but you’d never even know it). And keeping it charged is hassle-free as can be: All you do is attach the keyboard magnetically to the tablet in the “closed” position, with the tablet’s screen facing downward against the keys, whenever you aren’t using the device. The keyboard then pulls a minimal amount of power from the tablet so that it never runs low.

Bottom line

When we talk about whether the Pixel C is worth buying, we really have to talk about it as two separate products. As a high-end Android tablet, the Pixel C has what’s easily the best overall user experience you’ll find on such a device today. From the premium materials and striking design to the outstanding display and top-notch software — not to mention the timely ongoing OS and security upgrades — no other option even comes close.

At $499 for 32GB or $599 for 64GB, it isn’t cheap — but it also isn’t that unreasonable compared to other tablets in its class. And you really are getting an awful lot of bang for your buck, provided a top-of-the-line tablet is what you’re after.

When you factor in the $149 keyboard, things get a little more complicated. Between its inherent hardware and software limitations, the Pixel C just isn’t ideal for intensive or extended productivity use. But while the Pixel C might not be a suitable full-fledged laptop replacement for most people, its value as a convertible device is really all relative to your own personal needs and budget.

If what you want is an awesome tablet that’s also pretty good for limited lightweight input — a “tablet-plus,” so to speak, that makes it easier to respond to a lengthy email or pound out the occasional quick document without having to power up your computer — the Pixel C with its keyboard might be just the product for you. I could see it serving as a handy supplementary device for a lot of folks in that regard. But $648 to $748 is a lot to pay for a device of that nature.

In general, I’d say this: If you’re looking for a first-class full-sized Android tablet, get the Pixel C. You won’t be disappointed.

But I’d think carefully before shelling out for the full keyboard package. I wouldn’t flat-out advise against it; I’d just say it’s important to consider your expectations and whether the cost will be justified by the device.

Pixel C

Google

Price: $499 (32GB), $599 (64GB); $149 for keyboard attachment

Pros: Premium materials; sturdy yet elegant design; relatively thin; distinctive light bar that shows battery level on demand; gorgeous display with aspect ratio geared toward Web and app use; reversible and fast-charging USB-C port; superb stamina; excellent software with timely and ongoing OS and security updates; cleverly designed optional keyboard attachment with high-quality keys and commendable resistance

Cons: Somewhat heavy; aspect ratio not ideal for video-watching; no SD card; no HDMI-out capability; no wireless charging; optional keyboard attachment lacks trackpad and can be awkward to use; small screen size not ideal for extended productivity; expensive, especially with full keyboard package

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