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Google's Pixel C: The Elephant in the Room

[fa icon="calendar"] 03-Feb-2016 11:15:54 / by Eddie Vassallo

Eddie Vassallo

As a devoted iPad Pro user - and a power-user at that thanks to my nifty remote Mac Mini screen-share for extreme tasks that require a full desktop - the act of pulling away from the iPad to an Android Tablet (of all things) was not an easy sell.

For starters Android is notoriously poor on tablets, leading to an almost total absence of viable devices on the platform - with the somewhat notable exception of higher end Samsung tablets like the Tab S2 or Google and HTC's half-hearted Nexus attempt last year with the Nexus 9.

The issues with Android on tablets are well documented, so I won't exhaust the subject, but suffice it to say that Android as a platform has primarily been designed and dominated by the phone-size form factor. So much so, that only a handful of major apps have even been customised for the larger tablet screen-size and capabilities. Save for a few usual suspects such as Evernote, Gmail, and a few browsers, developers simply aren't putting in the time to create tablet optimised Android experiences. And who can blame them as up to this point, who would even want to *own* an Android tablet - much less expend valuable development time to target?

So needless to say, when it came to unboxing the new Google Pixel C tablet, I couldn't have approahced this device with lower expectations. It also didn't help that just about every tech review I had read about the device had stopped short of outright disgust - especially when it came to the software experience.

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But let's start with the hardware - and oh my (!) - this may be the best looking and feeling tablet I have ever used. Seriously - this is iPad Pro 'good' and I'll even go as far as to say that this bests Apple in both design and function - from the lovely ergonomics of the tablet 'as tablet', to the amazing keyboard and docking experience of the full aluminium keyboard cover that slips so pleasingly into place with magnets. And those keys! I thought the iPad Pro's Smart Keyboard was the most fun I could have on a keyboard, but boy was I wrong! The typing experience on the Pixel C is better. Much better. The keys have amazing travel for their depth, and the response is every bit as polished as the best bluetooth keyboards on the market.

Oh - and that issue we found with the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard's key-erosion, is non-existant here. Major point there, Google.

Finally the screen - wowzers. The Pixel C's 10-inch 308 ppi display is drop-dead gorgeous. I know we use that term a lot, and you would think Apple's iPad Pro would come out on top in the tablet wars, but side-by-side the Pixel C simply blows it away.

And it's no slouch on speed either, rocking NVidia's latest Tegra X1 64-bit quad-core processor. And without a doubt, this is the fastest (and best) Android experience you can have. Period.

So on that subject, moving on to the software, the device is running Google's latest Android 6.01 Marshmallow, with just a few optimisations for the tablet interface - most notably the side-aligned Home/Back/Recent Apps buttons. It's a small tweak, but actually extremely useful.

But before we progress further let's address the elephant in the room - a fact which usually acts as the lede for all reviews of the Pixel C. Yes, there is no multi-window or split-screen multi-tasking. The sooner you can accept that fact, the sooner you will be able to move on and actually enjoy the device.

It's missing, it's a glaring omission, I really wish it was there, but I'm not going to harp on it any longer....

But for just a moment, let's address why the lack of multi-tasking is perceived as such a miscue from Google. As reviewers from The Verge to CNET to Ars Technica to Anandtech will quickly remind you - the lack of multi-tasking means the device is unsuited to true 'laptop replacement'-level productivity.

And here's where I have a serious gripe. Have any of these reviewers actually spent a week with the Pixel C, set up a few widgets, experienced the lightening fast app-switching via the alt-tab function, and generally *attempted* to replace a laptop with the device? For me, I find the ability to set up my most crucial app widgets (Evernote, Todoist, Calendar, etc) actually works faster than aligning split-view windows - or in the case of the iPad Pro, scrolling endlessly in the slideover menu to find the second app I need to reference. With Android and the Pixel C, the homescreen actually allows me to run 4 apps at once (as widgets) that give me most (or even more) of the functionality I crave in split-screening.

What's more - actionable notifications on Android are exceptional - meaning I can read, archive, or snooze email notifications or other alerts quickly and easily without leaving the current app view.

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 I won't pretend side-by-side app multi-tasking would not be a welcome addition here. In fact, I think it's absolutely crucial to the success of the device. I have simply found that if you are willing to alter your workflow by embracing the nuances of Android (and specifically the use of widgets), you won't be as aghast as many reviewers have been to date.

Equally, why isn't the iPad Pro lambasted in the media for the almost total lack of OS and homescreen customisation for the 12.9-inch form factor? With so much space, the use of widgets or better icon alignment seems like just as large an oversight from Apple as the lack of splitscreen on the Pixel C.

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Being true to the spirit of the Entropy Daily Driver Challenge, I have been using the Pixel C as my main laptop away from the office, and thusfar I have to admit - the iPad Pro has some serious competition. In fact, in one of the key areas the iPad Pro faltered (screen sharing and group conference calls) the Pixel C absolutely shines. That's because Android allows developers to take full advantage of device-wide permissions, such as screen-sharing. On a similar point, Android is simply more file-friendly than iOS, in almost every way. Remember the workflow we needed to devise to simply download a file then re-upload it to a website using several steps and a few apps? Well, the Pixel C is much closer to a 'normal' computer workflow. Simply download and upload. With the more transparent Android file system, life is *much* easier for those of us who move files around as part of our everyday workflow.

All good so far.

But now for the bad.

The Pixel C shipped with a nasty bug (that has purportedly now been fixed with the latest software update) that rendered the touchscreen almost unusable at times. Save for a full re-start and locking the device in landscape mode, when the bug arises you need to stop work and fix it or the device will drive you mad. For most users, this is extreme enough to return the device outright - and who can blame them? Again, this has apparently been fixed in the latest update, but as we have yet to receive ours, we can only hope.

We have also gone through 3 keyboards until we found one that is bug-free. From stuck keys, to repeating letters, the keyboards have really been hit and miss. We are happy to report that the current keyboard (i.e. the one I'm typing this on) is working flawlessly, but it's been a hard trek to get here.

The final and biggest problem comes with recommending the tablet. While for me, I can tweak my workflow, use workarounds for nasty software bugs, and happily return a few keybaords until I get a good one - most consumers simply won't deal with that level of pain.

And that's why it's almost impossible to recommend this device to anyone looking for a tablet-based laptop replacement.

At the end of the day, I would still recommend the iPad Pro over the Pixel C in almost any scenario. The more polished software, overall better apps, and yes, splitscreen multi-tasking make it harder to push anyone toward the Google tablet. That said, for the geekier among us - i.e. the ones who like to tinker, love the openess of Android, and actually prefer the build quality, screen, and experience of the Pixel C - I say go for it.

As for me, I think I'm going to stick with the Pixel C for now, with my iPad Pro close by in case of any further issues!

Eddie Vassallo

Written by Eddie Vassallo

Eddie is Founder & CEO of Entropy, former Head of Mobile for Discovery Channel, regular Guest Contributor on GigaOm and has been featured on Daring Fireball, CNN, and Strategy Eye.