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.

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The physical keyboard factor

All right -- so that's the Pixel C on the tablet front. Now let's talk about that optional keyboard attachment.

In a word, it's okay -- passable but not great. There are some clever things about the keyboard's design and implementation, but trying to use the system as a laptop for real productivity-oriented work just isn't a wonderful experience.

Much of that is related to the software: A mobile-first operating system like Android still isn't designed for the type of more intensive work flow that's normal on a laptop. Simple things like snapping back and forth between different apps, while certainly possible, are far less instant and effortless on Android compared to a desktop-centric setup. Time-saving hotkeys you may be accustomed to using on keyboard-based systems don't work consistently, as I was reminded when trying to press Ctrl-F to find text while editing this story on the device. And a lot of websites still don't play nicely with mobile browsers, which can make basic tasks like filling out forms or inputting text into a content management system frustrating and arduous.

That being said, Google has been making progress on improving Android's productivity potential -- little by little. The company's Google Docs word processing app, for instance, now allows you to split the screen in half and search the Web for information while actively working on a document, which is a useful (if limited) feature. But all in all, trying to do intensive input-oriented work on the Pixel C always feels a little awkward -- like you're working extra hard to force a square peg into a round hole. And software isn't the only reason.

On the hardware front, the Pixel C has high-quality keys and an impressive amount of resistance -- but cramming a full keyboard into a space that's roughly 9.5 in. long is inevitably going to require a certain level of compromise. Typing on the device is akin to typing on a really good netbook: I adapt to it fairly quickly and can get by well enough, but ultimately, it's just not as comfortable as typing on a regular laptop. (The same can be said for trying to do actual work on a screen that's only 10.2 in. -- a size that's fine for casual computing but not exactly optimal for extended periods of concentrated work.)

The Pixel C also doesn't have a trackpad, which seems strange when you're using it like a laptop -- as you have to move your hands off the keyboard and then reach up to tap the screen every time you want to open a menu or "click" on something. Even just returning to your home screen requires an on-screen tap, as the keyboard has no such function keys. And while the magnets holding the tablet in place are extremely strong, the screen does still wobble every time you touch it -- just enough to remind you that you aren't using a holistic device.

It's hard not to compare the arrangement to Dell's Venue 10 7000, a similarly conceived convertible Android tablet that managed to implement a more fully equipped (and backlit!) keyboard as well as a trackpad into its lower half. The experience on that device feels far more natural and laptop-like as a result.

And though the Pixel C's method of tablet-keyboard connection is sleek-looking and intuitive, I can't help but think it's less practical than the more conventional method used on Dell's system. The top quarter of the Pixel C's keyboard attachment hides the connecting hinge behind a magnetic panel -- so when you want to attach the tablet, you touch the lower part of its back to that panel, and the two surfaces secure themselves together. You then pull up on the tablet, and it lifts the panel up from the base and allows you to position the screen up to a roughly 100 degree angle.

04 pixel c keyboard Google

The top quarter of the Pixel C's keyboard attachment hides the connecting hinge behind a magnetic panel.

Attractive as it may be, the nature of that mechanism is what causes the space on the keyboard panel to be so limited, since so much of the surface area is taken up by the hinge-hiding panel. It also causes the device to feel decidedly like two separate pieces -- a tablet sitting on a keyboard attachment -- instead of feeling like a cohesive whole, as Dell's convertible does.

Finally, I find myself wishing the Pixel C had the versatility present in Dell's setup: The hinge on that device allows you to attach the base so that it extends out behind the tablet and creates a stand -- something I've found to be one of the most compelling benefits of the convertible form. The Pixel C's panel-based connection system provides no such possibility.

On the plus side, the Pixel C's keyboard pairs quickly and automatically as soon as it's attached (via Bluetooth, but you'd never even know it). And keeping it charged is hassle-free as can be: All you do is attach the keyboard magnetically to the tablet in the "closed" position, with the tablet's screen facing downward against the keys, whenever you aren't using the device. The keyboard then pulls a minimal amount of power from the tablet so that it never runs low.

Bottom line

When we talk about whether the Pixel C is worth buying, we really have to talk about it as two separate products. As a high-end Android tablet, the Pixel C has what's easily the best overall user experience you'll find on such a device today. From the premium materials and striking design to the outstanding display and top-notch software -- not to mention the timely ongoing OS and security upgrades -- no other option even comes close.

At $499 for 32GB or $599 for 64GB, it isn't cheap -- but it also isn't that unreasonable compared to other tablets in its class. And you really are getting an awful lot of bang for your buck, provided a top-of-the-line tablet is what you're after.

When you factor in the $149 keyboard, things get a little more complicated. Between its inherent hardware and software limitations, the Pixel C just isn't ideal for intensive or extended productivity use. But while the Pixel C might not be a suitable full-fledged laptop replacement for most people, its value as a convertible device is really all relative to your own personal needs and budget.

If what you want is an awesome tablet that's also pretty good for limited lightweight input -- a "tablet-plus," so to speak, that makes it easier to respond to a lengthy email or pound out the occasional quick document without having to power up your computer -- the Pixel C with its keyboard might be just the product for you. I could see it serving as a handy supplementary device for a lot of folks in that regard. But $648 to $748 is a lot to pay for a device of that nature.

In general, I'd say this: If you're looking for a first-class full-sized Android tablet, get the Pixel C. You won't be disappointed.

But I'd think carefully before shelling out for the full keyboard package. I wouldn't flat-out advise against it; I'd just say it's important to consider your expectations and whether the cost will be justified by the device.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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