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

Google's new device sets a new bar for high-end Android tablets -- but as a convertible, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

01 google pixel c

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.

02 pixel c lightbar Google

The PIxel C has an elegant silver aluminum exterior and a distinctive multicolored light bar that illuminates during use.

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 a USB-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.

03 pixel c android buttons

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.

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.

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