Android Intelligence Analysis

The problem with Google's Pixel Tablet

Google's first self-made tablet in four years comes tantalizingly close to being extraordinary — but then there's this.

Google Pixel Tablet
Google/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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I've gotta admit: I've really been struggling with how to share my experiences living with Google's line-blurring Pixel Tablet.

To say my expectations for this product were high would be an understatement. As I wrote in a column this January, it's been clear for a while now that Google's aim with the Pixel Tablet is to reimagine how we even use these types of devices and the very purposes they serve — to "create a whole new sort of framework for how tablets should function and fit into our lives," as a particularly sage mobile prophet once put it.

That's because the Pixel Tablet isn't positioned as Just Another Tablet™, as has been the case with practically every other slate-shaped screen we've seen over the past dozen-plus years. Instead, it's framed as an intriguing sort of new hybrid mashup that ultimately creates its own class of product — one that's yet to be named or defined by any other major tech player.

The idea, as you may know by now, is that the Pixel Tablet functions as a tablet whenever you're actively using it. That part is simple enough. It's when you set the tablet down, though, that things take an atypical turn: Instead of simply sitting on a counter and collecting dust during the 92% of your day when you aren't actually touching the thing, the Pixel Tablet transforms into an interactive Smart Display during those down moments. It's meant to serve as a shared quick-info-and-interaction surface in that docked state, making it a home and/or office hub first and foremost — and then allowing any approved user to pick the thing up, sign into it, and use it as a personal device at any moment.

As I opined in January, the implications here are profound. They seem to explain why Google brought itself out of its short-lived tablet-making retirement and why the Pixel Tablet's impact could extend far beyond this single product or even the platform around it:

All signs suggest Google isn't planning to go head to head with the iPad — or to offer up any sort of traditional Android tablet model, either. Instead, it seems to be set on creating its own completely new category — one where, at least in theory, it can set the standard and then force everyone else to catch up. And it's increasingly clear that Android itself is also being prepped to support that same sort of purpose at the ecosystem level.

So that's the stage around the Pixel Tablet. And that's why I've been having such a tough time deciding how to wrap my head around its actual place in the world, both as a product and as a part of the ever-evolving Android ecosystem.

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Allow me to explain.

The good of the Google Pixel Tablet

Let's start with the simplest part first: As an Android tablet, the Pixel Tablet truly is a pleasure to use.

I've been relying on it for what I like to call my evening unwinding activity — the time I like to plop myself down and plorp around the YouTubes or do other similarly passive things.

And I'll tell ya, the Pixel Tablet really is perfect for those sorts of purposes. It's the first Android tablet in years that's actually a pleasure to use, with an unmuddied and lard-free on-screen interface that's cohesive and consistent with the rest of the Android ecosystem. It's also the first Android tablet in years that you can trust to receive timely and reliable operating system updates and security patches as a core part of its product promise — and that won't do shady things with your data as a result of its manufacturer's monetization compromises or barfed-upon-you bloatware.

Google Pixel Tablet - held JR

Speaking of the interface, some of the enhancements Google introduced both here and on the related-feeling Pixel Fold are downright delightful to use — things like the new and improved systems for multitasking and for summoning Android's long-underemphasized split-screen capability.

Google Pixel Task Bar - Split Screen JR

Equally delightful is the built-in kickstand on the Pixel Tablet's Google-made case; that thing is ingenious and makes me wish every tablet came with one.

Google Pixel Tablet - kickstand JR

That being said, the Pixel Tablet isn't a productivity-first system, and I'd contend it's that way by design. Google's very deliberately positioning the Pixel Tablet as an inside, around-your-abode sort of device, and while it absolutely can be useful in an office environment — I've had my loaner review unit docked on my office desk as its default resting place, in fact — the concept clearly revolves around keeping the tablet in a single location and relying on it as a casual-use, larger-than-your-phone vehicle for consuming content with perhaps some very light work occasionally added into the equation.

If you want something for more active, heavy-duty, productivity-oriented work, a convertible Chromebook will serve you better. That type of device brings all the advantages of Android app compatibility into a much more advantageous form and an environment far better suited for getting stuff done — with an exceptional made-for-productivity keyboard and trackpad and a desktop-caliber browser experience that's much more conducive to contemporary work needs (not to mention an array of enterprise-aimed enhancements, including even support for legacy Windows apps).

But still: There's a place for a top-notch casual-use tablet that doubles as a Smart Display and shows you helpful interactive info when it isn't actively in use.

And that brings us to the second part of this story — the part where the Pixel Tablet proposition gets particularly prickly to process.

The Pixel Tablet problem

So, okay: The Pixel Tablet is a perfectly nice tablet for a specific sort of more consumption-oriented, light work purpose. That much we've established.

And if it were just being presented as a product for that sort of scenario, it'd be easy enough to wrap one's head around.

But the Pixel Tablet, as we discussed at the start of this soliloquy, is by design not a typical tablet. It's a line-blurring, hybrid device that's intended to be part tablet, part Smart Display. That second piece of the puzzle is a pivotal part of the product's identity, and it's what makes the device far more interesting than any ordinary Android tablet.

Unfortunately, it's also where the Pixel Tablet falls short.

As someone who's had a Nest Hub Max in his kitchen and a Nest Hub Mini on his desk for many months now, I've grown accustomed to the benefit of a Smart Display in both a home and a work environment. They're very limited devices, without a doubt, and the current hardware available in that domain sometimes leaves something to be desired.

But for the extraordinarily narrow purposes they serve, the current crop of Smart Devices work well enough, and their simplicity is actually an asset. Smart Displays make it easy to see at-a-glance info like the weather and your schedule, and they provide a quick 'n' simple way to perform specific tasks like setting reminders, interacting with notes and lists, and controlling connected lights and appliances in a home or an office. The Nest Hub Mini has become a real asset at my desk and something I rely on for all sorts of productivity-oriented purposes, and its simple, swipeable on-screen menu and second-to-none voice command responsiveness are the key reasons why.

And much to my disappointment, swapping such a screen out for the Pixel Tablet turns out to be a pretty hefty downgrade. In that department, the Pixel Tablet just doesn't even come close to comparing.

Honestly, it feels like Google had a great idea with this dual-device, tablet-as-a-Smart-Display philosophy. But then it just didn't do enough in terms of the actual implementation.

Google Pixel Tablet - docked JR

Instead of seeming like an actual Smart Display in its docked state, the Pixel Tablet mostly just feels like an Android tablet with a simple screen saver slapped on top. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, as Google actually is relying on Android's existing (and oft-forgotten) screen saver system to power the Pixel Tablet's docked experience. But still: I expected more.

It sounded like Google was expanding that framework to create a whole new kind of much more interactive and advantageous experience — something that'd match the function of the traditional Smart Display and then take it up a notch with the added full tablet experience behind it. But, well, it's basically just a screen saver. No swipeable interface, no enhanced voice interactions, nothing meaningfully more than what you'd get with any other Android device plugged in and having a screen saver running, really.

Now, if you didn't have a standard Smart Display already and weren't expecting much on the idle-time front, the Pixel Tablet would make a lovely Google-Photos-connected photo frame or digital clock during times when it's docked — and hey, that's certainly something. It's a step up from the standard tablet setup, especially since the dock comes bundled in as a part of all Pixel Tablet purchases. But if you're accustomed to the interactive interface a device like a Nest Hub provides, you're gonna be disappointed. With that standard in mind, the Pixel Tablet is less of a dual-purpose, Smart-Display-tablet hybrid and more of an Android-tablet-plus.

Frankly, even within the standard Android screen saver framework, you can find better options for a more engaging, info-rich dock setup. What Google created with the Pixel Tablet seems more like a placeholder than anything, and for a device whose entire identity revolves around that dual-purpose proposal, it's definitely a letdown.

That's to say nothing about the fact that the Pixel Tablet's dock essentially turns into a paperweight anytime the tablet isn't present. If the base speaker could continue to at the very least accept Assistant commands and act as a smart speaker even without the tablet attached, it'd make for a much more complete and sensible-seeming setup.

But look: In spite of these shortcomings, I really hope Google doesn't change course and give up on this concept, as the company's prone to doing. The idea here remains intriguing and packed with potential. The implementation just needs a little more work to reach that potential and turn into a truly compelling product.

In the meantime, if you want an excellent Android tablet for casual consumption and light work along with the added benefit of being a nice photo frame when you aren't using it, the Pixel Tablet is perfect for that purpose. And hopefully, one day, it'll evolve into something even more effective — something that serves that dual-device promise properly and lives up to the line-blurring potential the Pixel Tablet seemed poised to present.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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