Google Pixel C review

Google’s Pixel C promises, but isn't prepared, to be your only laptop

The Pixel C is the first decent Android 2-in-1, but still has problems.
The Pixel C is the first decent Android 2-in-1, but still has problems.
The Pixel C is the first decent Android 2-in-1, but still has problems.

Highs

  • Great performance
  • Versatile
  • Handles 3D games with ease
  • Beautiful screen
  • Good battery life

Lows

  • Complicated design
  • Cramped keyboard
  • Android lacks splitscreen multitasking

DT Editors' Rating

While Google’s Nexus line tends to shoot straight down the middle in terms of hardware and design, the Pixel line has always shot for the stars. The Pixel C is a suitable addition, with its unique convertible hinge and speedy internals.

The Pixel C isn’t cheap, at $500 for the 32GB version and $600 for the 64GB version. With Android tablets readily available for less than $200 that already provide more performance than smartphones running the same OS, the burden of proof is on the Pixel C to justify its steep price tag.

Its price also puts the it within spitting distance of Apple’s iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4, a fight that has the potential to push users towards other options. Can the Pixel C capitalize on a newly contentious market, or does it fall short of the big guns?

Magnets, how do they work?

The Pixel C is a bit confusing at first take. The tablet and keyboard are two separate pieces, and there’s no clear way to connect the two. Hold them close enough and they snap together magnetically with surprising force. A two-sided card details the possible configurations, as well as the opening and closing process, which can be surprisingly complicated.

Google Pixel C
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

After using the device for a few minutes, though, some unique configurations emerge. Beyond using the tablet on its own, or with the keyboard as a laptop, the device folds down to stow and charge the keyboard, and the magnets are strong enough to make the Pixel C stick to solid metal. They’ll hold to a fridge, or the side of a computer case, then pop right off for tablet use. That’s not a sanctioned use of the device, for obvious reasons. Google doesn’t want to be liable if the Pixel C hurdles towards the ground. But it does show the unusual opportunities a magnetic hinge provides.

It takes guts to push Android as a high-end platform, but the potential is there.

The hinge comes with a downside. Unlike a traditional laptop, there’s no easy way to sit down and open the Pixel C to start working. It’s a job that requires two hands and some coordination, even after spending some time with the device. Once open, the device’s balance can be an issue. It tips backwards a bit too easy, a common problem with 2-in-1s.

The Pixel C’s minimalist aesthetic was a point of contention. Some Digital Trends staffers felt it looked unfinished, while others appreciated its simple design. However your preference rolls, there’s no denying that the slick exterior presents a problem: It’s all too easy for the Pixel C to slip out of the your hands.

Where are the wires?

There’s a distinct difference between the wireless connections in the Pixel C, and the wired connections, or lack thereof. Wireless is well supported, with 2×2 MiMo 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 with high-speed data transfer. That’s everything a tablet owner could ask for.

Sadly, USB Type-C and 3.5mm audio are the only wired connections. There’s not even a memory card slot. The charger is integrated into the power block, so most users will need to purchase a separate Type-C cable to transfer data, or use Bluetooth.

That said, this is a standard move for tablets even at the high end. The iPad Pro packs just a single Lightning connector and a 3.5mm audio jack. The Surface Pro 4 is the winner in this segment with USB 3.0, a 3.5mm audio jack, an SD card reader, and Mini-DisplayPort.

Beautiful display, and the speakers aren’t bad, either

The Pixel C is equipped with a beautiful 10.2-inch, 2,560 x 1,800 pixel display. This results in an extremely high pixel density of 308 per inch, and the ability to view native 1440p content, which there’s a surprising amount of on YouTube. The screen is gorgeous, offering up deep blacks, satisfying contrast, and no evidence of banding or color accuracy issues.

While there’s no bass to speak of, the speakers are satisfyingly clean and crisp. There’s no chance of true stereo sound on such a small tablet, but there’s a speaker on both narrow sides of the device, which is a nice compromise. The iPad Pro sounds better overall, but it’s also a much bigger device, and the Pixel C’s speakers easily beat the Surface Pro 4’s weak sound system.

A poor keyboard

Thanks to continued improvements in Google’s Android OS, the Pixel C has excellent keyboard compatibility. Apps play well with keyboard input, with ample shortcuts for common tasks. The device can also connect to a Bluetooth mouse. Responsiveness can be shaky at times, but in a pinch it gets the job done.

The cramped keyboard’s odd layout is frustrating to use.

Yet not all is well. The problem isn’t software support for the keyboard, but the hardware itself. While we don’t expect a 10-inch tablet to have an attachable keyboard with expansive keys or a full set of media buttons, the keyboard layout on the Pixel C can only be described as wonky. There are no function keys at all. The backspace and enter keys, arguably two of the most frequently used, are both narrower than normal, which makes finding them a chore. Keyboard backlighting is absent.

It’s hard to imagine using the Pixel C’s keyboard for long stretches. While it works on a basic level, it’s not comfortable or intuitive. Almost any notebook will be more comfortable. The Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover is in another league – and it includes a touchpad, something the Pixel C lacks entirely.

Related: Microsoft is still fixing the Surface Pro 4 — updates cover keyboard

The keyboard is also expensive, at $150 for both the magnetic and leather folio edition. That’s on top of the $500 core price of the 32GB Pixel C tablet. That’s steep for an Android keyboard, and $20 more than Microsoft’s Type Cover, but the same price as Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro.

Full speed ahead

The quad-core Nvidia Tegra X1 processor at the heart of the Pixel C impressed us with its performance. Even the most demanding apps, like Google Earth, don’t stutter or hang at all, and multi-tasking is handled without complaint.

The GeekBench multi-core score of 4,127 is excellent, showing off the fastest speeds of any available Android tablet at publish. This figure is in the same league as Intel’s Core M, which is impressive. That’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, due to the difference in operating system and architecture between the two. But it does show the new Tegra’s capabilities are inside range expected from a laptop.

Google Pixel C
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Of course, an Nvidia chip is also bound to pack in graphical performance, and that’s an area where the Pixel C really shines. Demanding games like Goat Simulator and Asphalt 8 run perfectly smooth, and look sharp on the high-definition display.

The 3DMark test Ice Storm Unlimited score of 40,510 places the Pixel C right in the top three, beaten only by Nvidia’s Shield TV’s score of 45,284, and squeaking out a win over the well-equipped Nvidia Shield Tablet’s score of 30,018. It even beats the iPad Pro’s score of 33,572 — an impressive feat for a smaller device that’s several hundred dollars cheaper.

So what about Android?

Android is great, but it isn’t yet ready for the Pixel C. It’s fast performance has a real world effect, but not what you’d expect. The Pixel C is only capable of displaying one app at a time until an upcoming software update adds split-screen support, and most apps aren’t capable of harnessing the full power of the Nvidia chip. It’s like buying a Porsche when the streets in your neighborhood all have a 25 mph speed limit.

Owning the Pixel C is like driving a Porsche through a neighborhood with a 25 mph speed limit.

Luckily, Android has to work on a wide range of devices, and that allows the OS to take advantage of the powerful hardware in a more meaningful way than iOS does. More apps, games in particular, include advanced settings, and better hardware detection. That means users can tweak apps to better use the Pixel C’s hardware.

Likewise, Android provides more opportunities for advanced users than iOS. On Android, there are log files to help find solutions, even if it means rooting and side-loading an app. There’s a visible file system underneath, and that means better compatibility for file types. Those that are unsupported by default can often be opened by an app on Android’s store.

These advantages aren’t as easy to appreciate on a smartphone. On the Pixel C, however, they help the device feel more like a proper desktop. Android isn’t a good replacement for Windows 10 yet, or even Chrome OS, not least of all because of lackluster multi-tasking. But it is much closer than iOS, which begins to feel limited when paired with a keyboard.

Battery life is impressive

The Pixel C wins big in the laptop realm, with battery life of just over 8 hours on a single charge while running the Peacekeeper browser test. That’s a demanding benchmark for a tablet, making the score even more impressive. We’re used to devices performing well behind their quoted use time, and most of the lower end Android tablets promise 8-10 hours. Google makes no such assurances, instead letting solid battery performance in the real world speak for itself.

It’s even a decent score compared to other high-end tablets. The Surface Pro 4 only ran the Peacekeeper test for about six and a half hours before calling it quits, although it’s powering a much larger display and a desktop OS. Apple has always packed in impressive battery performance, and the 9 hour, 26 minute run on the iPad Pro is a score that the Pixel C shouldn’t be ashamed to fall short of.

Warranty

Google’s one-year warranty is standard for tablets.

Conclusion

Android enthusiasts are ready for something more satisfying, a device they can sink their teeth into, and this is it. Like the Chromebook Pixel, the Pixel C shows that a lightweight operating system can function well on high-end hardware. It’s a proof-of-concept for Google, an indication of where the company’s ambitions lie.

Make no mistake — the $500 price is a lot of an Android device, and that doesn’t include the $150 keyboard. On the other hand, though, users have been spending $500 or more on iPads for five years now. Microsoft’s Surface 3 sells within the same price range. The unassuming Android OS has improved a lot i 2015, and is poised to expand further once Google adds splitscreen multitasking. While the Pixel C seems expensive compared to stand-alone Android tablets, it doesn’t feel overpriced when placed against other 2-in-1s.

The keyboard lets the device down, and most users won’t want to use the device for long typing sessions. It’s important that potential buyers understand that issue, because it bars the device from true competition with Windows 2-in-1s like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. The iPad Pro has a similar issue, however, and is much more expensive.

The Pixel C works best as a companion device to a more powerful system. It’s not a PC replacement (yet), but it does extend the functionality of Android, and will hopefully lead the operating system in a new, more productive direction.

Highs

  • Great performance
  • Versatile
  • Handles 3D games with ease
  • Beautiful screen
  • Good battery life

Lows

  • Complicated design
  • Cramped keyboard
  • Android lacks splitscreen multitasking
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