Up close: Pixel C and Google's return to a tablet-optimized Android UI

Look closely, and you'll notice an interesting change to Android lurking quietly within Google's new Pixel C tablet. Here's the inside scoop.

Pixel C Tablet Optimized Android UI
JR Raphael, IDG

The Pixel C marks several firsts for Google and Android: It's the first tablet Google has designed and manufactured on its own. It's the first device other than the Chromebook Pixel to bear the "Pixel" name (and thus also the first Android device to use that moniker). And it's the first time Google has actively pursued a convertible gadget that attempts to straddle the worlds of both touch-centric computing and keyboard-based input.

Beyond all that surface-level stuff, though, the Pixel C holds an interesting extra surprise: It's the first time since 2011's short-lived Honeycomb era that Google is moving back toward the idea of providing a tablet-optimized interface for large-screened devices.

The shift is a subtle one, to be sure, but it's one of the first things that jumped out at me as I started getting to know the Pixel C late last week.

See for yourself:

Pixel C Nav Buttons

Notice how the main system buttons are justified to the sides instead of being centered, as we've seen them over the past few years? You've got Back and Home on the left and Overview on the right, all placed in a manner that -- while perhaps a little visually jarring at first -- makes them easier to hit with your thumbs when you're holding the tablet with two hands.

That was, in fact, Google's motivation for the change. The company tells me its team thought the split arrangement would make getting around the system more convenient on a device of this size -- and based on my first several days of use, I really think it does.

The new arrangement even shows up in portrait orientation, which is equally helpful given the almost-six-inch span of the Pixel C's screen in that direction:

Pixel C Nav Buttons Portrait

What's especially interesting is that this shift appears to have been a relatively last-minute addition to the product. Google's official Pixel C renders show the older, more traditional button arrangement, with everything still centered:

Pixel C Google

The Pixel C does run Android 6.0.1, but don't expect that to mean this new setup will show up on other tablets right away. Google tells me it'll be monitoring feedback to the change and evaluating its plans for a potential broader rollout as time moves on.

Speaking of version numbers, though, remember that Android 6.0 had already changed the way the notification panel works on tablets: Rather than always appearing in a static centered spot, as it had before, the panel now appears wherever you swipe down from the top of the screen -- which makes a lot more sense, especially when you're dealing with a larger device in its landscape orientation.

Pixel C Notification Panel

Now, all of this certainly isn't as elaborate as the tablet-specific UI we saw in Android 3.0, but it's the same general principle of putting commonly used commands in places where they're easier to access for a large-screen form. Honeycomb, as you may recall, took things to even more of an extreme, with the main system navigation keys appearing in the lower-left corner, the clock and notification panel in the lower-right corner, a search bar and voice activation icon in the upper-left corner, and the app drawer along with a separate widget drawer in the upper-right (whew!).

Android Honeycomb Tablet UI

Ah, memories. That all seemed like a good idea in terms of ergonomics at the time, but in hindsight (and with the perspective of today's Android UI design), it certainly does appear a bit visually overwhelming -- and it's easy to see how it might be confusing for a typical user coming from the layout of an Android phone. This new approach could be a happy medium that moves back toward the same concept of ergonomics while sticking more closely to a consistent UI and a less cluttered setup.

And, of course, if you really want to add something like more convenient app drawer access into the equation, you can always use a third-party launcher like Nova or Action to create a custom shortcut or gesture to accomplish that. What a world we live in -- right?

For a broader look at the Pixel C, what it's like to use, and whether it's worth buying, click over to my full real-world review:

Pixel C deep-dive review: A terrific tablet that tries to be more

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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