“Be together, not the same.” Google has been using that tagline in ads for Android for more than a year now, helpfully pointing out that its mobile operating system has been embraced by vast numbers of companies that use it to build an array of devices aimed at different sorts of people. Unlike—cough, cough—Apple’s iOS.
But the fact that Google sees the Android market as a gorgeous tapestry does not mean that it has no strong opinions of its own about what Android devices should be like, or that it wants to hover at a respectful distance while others take care of the hardware side. For years, it’s worked closely with major manufacturers on Nexus smartphones and tablets such as the new Nexus 6p and 5x phones, both of which reflect Google’s vision far more closely than any garden-variety Android phone.
And starting today, Google is selling the Pixel C, a 10.2-inch Android tablet which—as with the Chomebook Pixel–is its own work on both the software and hardware sides. Despite their differing operating systems, the similarities between the two devices run deep. Both feature similarly posh and attractive aluminum cases; sport colorful lightbars on their backsides that let you quickly monitor remaining battery power; and use USB-C, the next-generation version of USB with a reversible connector, for both connectivity and power. They also have price tags that position them at the high end of their respective markets: The Pixel C is $499 with 32GB of storage, and $599 with 64GB.
The new tablet is also notable for its signature accessory, a $149 Bluetooth keyboard that essentially converts the device into a diminutive notebook computer. It’s far from the first attempt to put Android into a laptop-like form factor, but it may be the most ambitious and high-profile effort so far.
When the Pixel C was unveiled at a Google event back in September, much of the initial reaction took it as Google’s answer to Apple’s iPad Pro and Microsoft’s Surface—both of which offer keyboard cases. Bad theory! The Pixel C’s 10.2-inch screen is dinky compared to the iPad Pro and Surface, making it less plausible as a full-time replacement for a conventional computer, and Google isn’t offering a pressure-sensitive stylus for drawing, painting, and note-taking. This tablet is much more of a direct competitor to the iPad Air 2, especially when that device is paired with one of the countless available third-party keyboard cases.
Google’s approach to making a tablet like a laptop is unique. The keyboard has an aluminum case, laptop-like keys, and embedded inductive technology that connects to the tablet and charges the battery. (Yes, there is a battery: Google, unlike Microsoft and Apple, doesn’t power the keyboard directly from the tablet.) Rather than propping up the tablet using a kickstand (like the Surface) or folding case (like the iPad Pro), Google built a hinged, magnetic panel into the keyboard. Snap the keyboard onto the panel, and you can angle the screen to your liking.
The magnetic grip is amazingly forceful: You use the contraption on your lap or even pick it up and wave it about without any fear of it falling apart. Even wrenching the two components apart is a Superman-like feat of strength unless you follow Google’s instructions—you slide the tablet off rather than pulling up.
If you want to use the tablet like, you know, a tablet, you can snap the keyboard to the back of the device, where it’s out of the way. For transport, you can snap the keyboard to the tablet’s front, so it protects the display. It makes for a chunkier package than the 7-mm-thick tablet on its own, but it’s all extremely clever and functional.
Judged purely as a keyboard, the keyboard is a mixed bag. It’s got the satisfying full-travel feel of a laptop keyboard, but the keys—unlike those on Microsoft’s Surface keyboards—aren’t backlit. Google chose to give it keys that are on the large side given overall available space, but the Enter key is skinny and vertical, and some keys are missing altogether. (I really miss the ones for “[“ and “],” two characters I use all the time–and can only get to by pressing a key that pulls up an on-screen keyboard.)
It’s not like it’s a cakewalk to cram a decent keyboard into a case this small, but overall, the Pixel C’s model falls short of the best third-party tablet keyboards from companies such as Zagg, Logitech, and Kensington.
Keyboard aside, how is the Pixel C as a tablet? In many ways, it’s impressive. Its specs—including an Nvidia Tegra X1 chip and 2560-by-1800 display resolution—give it more than enough computational and graphical oomph to keep up with the needs of its operating system, Android 6.0 Marshmallow. It adds up to an experience that’s beautiful, fluid, and powerful, even though there are no new multitasking features akin to iOS 9’s new split-screen mode.
But there’s a long-standing issue with Android tablets: The developer community has never emotionally bonded with them in the way it embraced the iPad, which now has 850,000 apps. The situation is certainly better than it once was–you could buy a Pixel C and never feel starved for good software, especially if you already own an Android phone and have favorites, be they from Google or other developers.
And yet. There are still plenty of instances in which apps are just stretched out to fill the Pixel C’s screen rather than being intelligently designed for a tablet display. Adobe’s Photoshop Mix only works on Android phones, not tablets. And in some instances, such as with FiftyThree’s Paper, there’s no Android version, no signs that one is in the works, and no completely satisfying alternative.
Related issue: More so than on the iPad Air 2, some websites conclude that the Pixel C is a really big smartphone and give you a “mobile-optimized” version of the site—which, on a device with a screen this big, is decidedly not optimal. (In some cases, Chrome’s “Request Desktop Site” helps here.)
Some of these issues aren’t unique to the Pixel C and Android: On the iPad Pro, lots of apps currently just get scaled up to fit the larger display, in a way that doesn’t take advantage of the extra acreage and resolution. Microsoft has a similar problem, but in reverse: Too many apps still feel like they were written for a Windows PC with a big screen and a mouse, not a touch-screen tablet.
Given that it’s been almost five years since Google got serious about putting Android on iPad-like tablets, though, it’s not like developers haven’t had enough time to take the challenge seriously. Bottom line: I wouldn’t buy a Pixel C based on the assumption that the app situation is about to resolve itself.
At the risk of repeating myself, I also wouldn’t get one thinking that it rivals the iPad Pro or Surface when it comes to productivity-centric use. The fact that the Pixel C’s display isn’t sprawling doesn’t mean that you can’t get useful work done on it—even the sort of work you might otherwise accomplish on a conventional Windows or Mac laptop. Over the past few years, I’ve spent thousands of hours being productive on iPads that are even a little smaller.
But I think that most people who want to spend a lot of time using a tablet like a laptop will find that the Pixel C’s 10.2-inch screen and the constraints it imposes on the keyboard make for a confining experience. Consider the history of Surface: In the three years since the first model shipped, Microsoft has repeatedly bumped up the screen size of new versions. And the iPad Pro is a tablet with a display so large that it continues to boggle some minds.
I figure that if Google really wants to produce a tablet that is specifically tailored for people who want to get stuff done, it will come to the same conclusion and bump up the screen size of a future Pixel C by a couple of inches or so. In the meantime, this first model is a very pleasant piece of tablet hardware–as long as you mostly want to use it as a tablet.