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Google Pixel C Review: In Depth

4
Great hardware, let down by flakey software at launch

The Good

  • Ingenious industrial design
  • Powerful hardware
  • Good battery life
  • Stunning display

The Bad

  • Inexcusably flakey software
  • Expensive
  • Poor cameras
  • Keyboard not included

Interesting things happen when Google decides to bring its hardware design in-house and the new Pixel C is the perfect example of this.

Google’s been pushing out its own hardware for years – in the world of mobile it partners with established manufacturers, oversees development of a product, be that a smartphone or tablet and then ships it with a stock version of Android on board. For most of their lives, these devices have fallen under the Nexus brand, but they’ve always been partnerships with the likes of HTC, LG and Asus; the Pixel C is all-Google.

Design

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it shares it with the Chromebook Pixel, Google’s premium Chrome OS-powered laptop and it’s in fact the same Chromebook team who lent their talents to creating the Pixel C.

Pixel C front Pixel C back

Take a look at the tablet and the DNA is immediately apparent. Google has gone for an incredibly minimalist aesthetic, even more so perhaps than Apple uses on its products. It feels sparse, functional and whilst the clean aesthetic won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, it carries an undeniable weight to it (not literally, although at 517 grams it slots in between the iPad Air 2 and Microsoft Surface 3 nicely). The closest thing to a logo is the bar of four LEDs running along the top of the back face, which display the four Google colours during use and operate as a battery indicator when the tablet is off by knocking – a nice touch.

The display is mounted within a single milled piece of anodised aluminium with hard edges and corners. There are stereo speaker grilles on either side, four microphones along the top for greater reliability and metal volume rocker and power keys set against the top left corner. Like the Chromebook Pixel, the C is also one of the few tablets to operate using the new reversible USB Type-C connection for added convenience.

Pixel C camera and buttons

The tablet is only one half of the story though, with the keyboard serving to complete the package. It uses the same anodised aluminium on its underside with four rubberised feet for grip, but the most intriguing thing is that it lacks ports completely. It’s too thin to allow for a charging connection so it’s powered by induction, juicing up whenever it’s attached to the Pixel C in a closed position – it’s yet another ingenious aspect of the design and pairs seamlessly with the C from the off.

There’s an appealing amount of travel within the comfortably spaced keys and it attaches to the tablet using strong magnets. They’re so strong in fact, that they give you enough purchase to adjust the hinge for a more comfortable experience with the tablet attached. By comparison, the Nexus 9’s folio cover, which also attached magnetically, was flimsy at best and on more than one occasion gave way sending the tablet tumbling to the ground.

Screen

The clean hardware design serves as a nice contrast to the extremely crispy display Google’s blessed the Pixel C with. The 10.2-inch panel sports a distinctive aspect ratio that no other tablet on the market leverages, driven by the broad skillset of Android and the range of use cases that entail; from web browsing to working on documents and watching videos.

Pixel C screen

The 2560x1800 resolution gives an incredible level of fidelity to imagery, video and text, not to mention the fact that it’s also a very bright screen, combatting strong external light sources really well. There is however one notable issue with the Pixel C’s display, something we weren’t expecting.

Touch responsiveness is decidedly inconsistent. The issue seemed most apparent when attempting to rapidly type using the on-screen keyboard, but tapping to access web links or opening applications, alongside swiping and pinching on pictures, pages or Maps sometimes resulted in missed inputs as well.

OS

Just as the Nexus 5X and 6P are the debut Android 6.0 Marshmallow smartphones, so too is the Pixel C, but for tablets.

The refinements for the tablet experience are small, but welcome, namely in the layout of things. Previously you could call down the notifications panel or the quick settings panel independently by swiping down on either the top left or right of the display respectively. With Marshmallow on the Pixel C you can swipe anywhere along the top edge to bring down a new panel that merges all the functionality into one.

The back, home and multitasking buttons have also been adjusted so that they sit at the corners of the screen, the latter having been moved away from the home button, to remove the risk of accidentally pressing one when you meant to tap the other.

Google’s app suite at this stage in the game is well rounded, with Drive covering your basic productivity needs, Google Now well and truly integrated into your Calendar and similar apps, along with newer features like Now on Tap to extend its functionality to third-party applications.

We were hoping that we’d see better tablet optimisation from Marshmallow, but beyond shifting the aforementioned buttons around, it seems to be the same, familiar experience we’ve seen from Android before. There’s no side-by-side or floating app multitasking functionality (something we’ve seen time and again from the likes of Samsung), nor is there the ability to close all running apps in one go – a feature that nearly every other Android OEM has added to its own skinned Android operating system.

Performance

The hardware under the hood is suitably beefy, meaning that when the Pixel C works as intended, it works really well. The UI can fly, opening and jumping between apps is instant, gaming feels fluid and responsive (it’s Nvidia’s Tegra X1 chipset at the C’s heart after all) and HD video playback operates at a rock solid frame rate – the same can’t be said for the user experience as a whole however.

Pixel C keyboard

The more we used the Pixel C, the more we put the touchscreen issues down to poor software optimisation rather than a hardware issue. It’s an aspect that rivals like Apple clearly place very highly on their list of priorities and something you’d think Google would naturally ensure worked flawlessly, considering it’s responsible for the operating system the Pixel C runs after all. Instead we’ve got a well-specced premium tablet with an inexcusably buggy OS at launch, that lags and drops frames.

The 9243mAh cell doles out a respectable amount of juice, with Google quoting up to 10-hours per charge. The bright screen is the biggest drain, but thankfully you normally won’t need it pushed up to 100 per cent brightness so it won’t diminish too rapidly. Expect closer to eight hours of mixed usage and expect to charge it from zero to full in just under four hours.

Pixel C keyboard back

Storage-wise there’s no expandability, as like Apple, Google would prefer you use its Drive cloud storage instead. Internally you’ve got a 32GB or a 64GB model to choose from, so whilst it doesn’t have mammoth internal capacity, there’s enough room for games and movies, even without falling back on the cloud.

Cameras

Despite the beefy processor, the 8 and 2-megapixel rear and front-facing cameras on the C aren’t equipped with any particularly fancy features. There’s no HDR shooting, no 4K video capture or any sort of image stabilisation.

Picture and video quality are distinctly average and more extreme shooting conditions produce less than stellar results. The saving grace is perhaps the audio, which seems notably clearly than similarly classed tablets, like as a result of the advanced microphone arrangement the Pixel C packs.

Verdict

Like the Chromebook Pixel, Google intended the Pixel C to be ultimate pure Android tablet and whilst the software and hardware are undeniably powerful, it falls down in ways we didn’t expect.

Pixel C handheld

For the company that makes the software running on the Pixel C, it’s a huge surprise to find that there are so many issues with it and yet the hardware on which it runs feels so solid. Factor in the £399 starting price (for the 32GB model) and the fact that the keyboard costs extra and it’s hard to really get behind the C. If the software had been more stable and reliable, the Pixel C would have felt like a fitting offering amidst the Surface 3 and iPad Air 2, but in its current state we can’t recommend it.

The silver lining is that should its shortcoming be software-based as we suspect, they are fixable and once Google attends to those issues, we’d be willing to reconsider the Pixel C as a serious player in the tablet space.

Update 8/2/2016: As of February 4th, Google pushed out an update for the Pixel C that appears to completely remedy both the laggy touchscreen performance and the unreliable Bluetooth connection to the hardware keyboard. As such the review score has been pushed from 3.5/5 stars to 4/5 stars. Find out more here.

Key Specs

  • 10.2-inches
  • 2560x1800
  • 517 grams
  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • 2-megapixel
  • 8-megapixel
  • 1.9GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra X1
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB/64GB (non-expandable)
  • n/a
  • LED power indicator, four microphones, induction charging for keyboard

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