Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pixel C - The Google Tablet



Google’s Ambitious Pixel C Tablet Is Hard to Swallow

Somewhere within Google, a software engineer is screaming. The new Pixel C is supposed to show off what a Google tablet can do, but it reminds me of the disastrous Samsung Nexus 10: a tablet with solid hardware so buggy that I can’t believe it was actually released. Beyond bugginess, though, I’m still not comfortable recommending the Pixel C, because it’s neither the best Android device nor the best tablet I’ve tested.

Google’s large tablets have always suffered from the fact that many thirdparty Android apps format poorly on bigger screens. LG and Samsung tablets get around this, in part, by prioritizing multi-window multitasking. Not so the Pixel C, which lacks this critical feature. It’s coming in the future, but right now Samsung is doing a much better job of designing an Android tablet experience than Google is. You’re betting off buying the Galaxy Tab S2 or switching teams for the iOS-powered Apple iPad Air 2.


PHYSICAL FEATURES AND NETWORKING


Google Pixel C - Screen view

Hardware isn’t the problem with the Pixel C. It’s a good-looking, well-built tablet at 9.53 by 7.05 by 0.27 inches (HWD) and 18 ounces. On the metal back, there’s a colorful “lightbar” that shows the battery charge level if it’s tapped or knocked, which is a neat feature. Along with the power and volume buttons, the slate has stereo speakers on both sides and a single USB Type-C port. Oddly, the entire back of the tablet is powerfully magnetized; I stuck it to a fridge, a filing cabinet, and an office door.

The Pixel C’s 10.2-inch LCD has a 2,560-by-1,800- pixel resolution for a peculiar (but benign) aspect ratio of the square root of two. Colors are rich if you’re looking at the screen face on, and they look natural rather than oversaturated the way they can on many OLED screens. On the other hand, I found the display to be distractingly reflective when the tablet is laid flat on a table.

This might be the only tablet you ever see with Nvidia’s Tegra X1 processor, which seems to be Google’s way out of Qualcomm’s current Snapdragon 810 debacle. The X1 here runs at 1.91GHz and acquits itself competitively on benchmarks. As far as raw processing power goes, it slightly outpaces the Snapdragon 810 but falls short of the Exynos processors used in the latest Samsung Galaxy phones. Nvidia has its own Maxwell GPU, which gets better graphics frame rates than any other current processor powering an Android device. But alas, the X1 is slain in every possible way by the blazing A9X chip in Apple’s iPad Pro.



My travails started when I began to test Wi-Fi performance. The Pixel C has the latest wireless technologies, with dual-band 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.1. But Wi-Fi speeds were the worst I’ve seen on a high-end tablet. Even close to a Verizon FiOS router, where an older Samsung Galaxy Tab S consistently got 50 to 60Mbps down, the Pixel C reported 18 to 20Mbps. More than 20 feet away from the router the Pixel C had just 1 to 2Mbps down; the Tab S reported 10Mbps or more. The Pixel C also dropped its Wi-Fi signal over and over again at distances of 25 feet or more. Neither a Tab S, an iPad mini 4, nor several phones had any problems in the same location.

I think this is evidence of software bugs rather than hardware flaws, because the Pixel C reported surprisingly high upload speeds when it could stay connected—often up to several times what it reported in download speeds. That’s extremely unusual, and most likely a signal that it’s the OS’s network stack, and not its network hardware, that’s the problem.

On a more positive note, battery life is excellent—but then it should be, given the gigantic 9,000mAh battery. I got 8 hours, 10 minutes, of full-screen video streaming, which puts the Galaxy Tab S2 (5 hours, 11 minutes) to shame. The Pixel C’s battery fully recharges within 3 hours using the included fast-charging USB Type-C adapter.

The tablet comes in 32 and 64GB capacities. On my 64GB unit, 52.88GB was available. There’s no microSD card slot on the Pixel C, but you can connect a USB Type-C–compatible flash drive.


SOFTWARE AND PERFORMANCE

The Pixel C is Google’s flagship tablet, so it will always have the latest Android OS. But the version of Marshmallow on this tablet (Android 6.0.1) was riddled with bugs. One of the biggest was that the tablet regularly dropped touch input, whether I was typing on the on-screen keyboard, or, say, flipping pages in Marvel Unlimited. (My guess is that something in the tablet’s firmware is missing initial touch events.)

I kept running into smaller bugs, too. If you try to connect a keyboard to the tablet with Bluetooth off, it asks you to turn Bluetooth on—and doesn’t dismiss the dialog box even after it’s activated. Or if you upload a bunch of files to Google Drive, when the upload completes, the notification entry starts appearing and disappearing repeatedly from the notification list. That’s just the tip of a very buggy iceberg, though they could be related to Android (as we saw similar behavior when we updated a phone to 6.0.1).

The main problem is that many Android apps aren’t designed for large screen use in landscape orientation. Load up Facebook, Twitter, or even Google Docs on a tablet like this, and instead of a smart interface tailored for a big screen, you essentially see the phone interface that’s stretched wide with lots of white space on the sides or in the middle. The situation has gotten a bit better with time—Microsoft Word, Evernote, and Autodesk Sketchbook, for instance, all are truly tablet-friendly now. But many big-name apps still lag behind. Google promises that it will bring multi-window capabilities officially with Android N, which will be released in the middle of 2016.


KEYBOARD AND PORTS


Google Pixel C - Keyboard and ports view

The Pixel C’s $149 add-on keyboard is not intuitively designed. Initially, it appears to be a flat slab, with roomy, full-size keys that have terrific throw. The keys have better action than those on either the default Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or the Apple iPad Pro Smart keyboards. No pairing is necessary; when the keyboard is attached to the tablet, it’s connected. The keyboard’s kickstand has a good range of motion between 100 and 135 degrees, unlike the iPad Pro’s keyboard, which only has one position.

But attaching and detaching the keyboard can be confusing. To attach it, you pull the tablet and keyboard apart, push the tablet back until it clicks onto a magnet, then pull it forward on its kickstand. To detach it, you pull the tablet forward completely off the keyboard, lay it flat on top of the keyboard, then slide it back. Everything is so highly magnetized that you can’t do this on a metal surface, as the keyboard will stick to the metal and the kickstand won’t pull up.

I also have mixed feelings about the Pixel C’s single USB Type-C port, which is used for both charging and syncing. Attach it to a $20 Aukey hub and it becomes thrillingly powerful: I hooked up a wired keyboard, a mouse, and a flash drive, all of which worked perfectly with no configuration. Mouse support in particular gives Android tablets productivity potential that the iPad Pro can’t match, because it means you no longer have to reach up to control the screen by touch. But you only get the one port, which means you can’t charge and sync at the same time.


PHOTOGRAPHY


Google Pixel C - Camera vew

The Pixel C has a main 8-megapixel camera, which is unremarkable. In good light it doesn’t show a lot of noise, but there isn’t much shadow detail and there’s some blur on moving objects. In poor light, things get soft quickly. The main camera captures 1080p video at 30 frames per second (fps) indoors and out, the former at the cost of heavy video noise.

For a tablet, the front-facing 2MP camera is probably more important, because it’s how you’ll be video chatting. Unfortunately, it has a shallow focal length and a tendency toward both noise and blurriness in anything but the best possible lighting. Video recording tells a better story. Indoors, I got good 30fps video, oddly with less noise than I got on the main camera. Once again, all of this could and should be tuned in firmware.



Conclusion

It’s unfortunate (and more than a little maddening) that Google released the Pixel C with its software in this state. Fortunately, there are much better Android tablets on the market. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S2 series is the best, offering the slimness, speed, stability, and dual-window multitasking that you want from an Android tablet.

Beyond competing with other Android tablets, the Pixel C underscores that the Android tablet ecosystem still isn’t competitive enough with iOS or Windows. For productivity, Android is far behind Windows 10 tablets, with its no-compromise Office applications, wide range of different keyboard form factors, and as many open windows as you want. For education and fun, the range of properly formatted, good-looking apps and games on iOS still far outstrips the list of Android apps that properly make use of large tablet real estate. So even if Google fixes the software issues, the Pixel C still might not be the right tablet for you.



Specifications

Screen Size: 10.2 inches
Screen Resolution: 2560x1800
RAM: lpddr4
Hard Drive: 32 GB/64GB SSD
Wireless Type: 802.11abg, Bluetooth
Average Battery Life (in hours): 13 hours
Operating System: Android Marshmellow
Color: Silver Aluminum
Rear Webcam Resolution: 8 MP

By Sascha Segan

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