Google is known for doing a few different versions of everything. Android Messages and Allo. Gmail and Inbox (by Gmail). Google Play Music and YouTube Music. Take your pick. The strategy is this: Take many versions of an idea seriously and you’re bound to get enough data to point you in the right direction. Intentional or not, that’s what I feel has happened with the Pixel Slate, tablet by Google.
The Pixel Slate is at the same time its own worthwhile — and as I’ll argue, great — device with its own attractive qualities, but also a very familiar user experience that seems grasping for a purpose…
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To explain, we need to take a look at history and understand where we came from.
After a few years experimenting with premium Chromebook hardware that didn’t have much mass-market appeal thanks to barebones “it’s just a browser” software, Google launched the Pixelbook last year to much praise. It wasn’t any cheaper than its predecessor Chromebook Pixels, but the hardware felt finished and the software was finally spreading its wings. And in the last year or so, it’s matured even more.
With every passing day and the web-ification of desktop computing, Chrome OS itself has naturally become more viable as a full time machine. On top of the in-built momentum which comes as fewer people feel they need desktop versions of Microsoft Office to get by (and as Chromebooks have established themselves as a powerhouse in the education market, lest we forget), Google has also spent significant resources building out Chrome OS to be more capable in its own right. Full support for a huge library of Android apps and, more recently, support for Linux apps, are just two examples.
In fact, Chrome OS gaining all this functionality and its relationship with its older brother, Android, is a very important factor here — and might partially explain the Pixel Slate’s existence, even. With Android never picking up traction on the tablet form factor, Google spent the last few years laying the groundwork for something different. Chrome OS was doing relatively well on laptops, while Android, for a variety of reasons we don’t have time to dive into in this review, just never went anywhere on those larger-screen form-factors. (That is, except for the Galaxy Tab line if you want to count those.)
So when Google announced that it was bringing Android apps to Chrome OS at Google I/O more than two years ago, the obvious question in mine and many others’ minds was this: What if Google just slapped Chrome OS on tablets and let it serve as a sort-of trojan horse to give Android apps on tablets another chance? In fact, Google considered making another tablet, the Pixel C, the first to debut such a strategy. That device ended up running Android, but just know that this isn’t at all a new idea.
There was still a lot of work to be done, but it seemed to be a good example of making the best of an unfortunate situation — tablets had long struggled to provide true productivity use cases that Chrome OS caters so well to. As a bonus, Google didn’t have to worry about one of its biggest hurdles with Android tabs in the first place: getting developers to see value in optimizing their apps for those form factors.
After the underwhelming official debut of Chrome OS on tablets with the (appropriately?) education-focused Acer Chromebook Tab 10 earlier this year, the stage was finally set for the first “real” Chrome OS tablet to launch. The Google Pixel Slate is that device. The question is, though: Has the grand vision of Chrome OS on tablets yet been realized?
Setting all that aside a little bit, I think anyone who’s a fan of Google or Android can get excited to see that Google-made tablets are back, even if things have changed a bit since we last saw the Mountain View company make an attempt at entering this iPad-dominated market. A couple of ancient devices that you might not even remember at this point, the Nexus 9 and the aforementioned Pixel C, were its most recent entrants in the strict “tablet” space.
It’s actually an understatement to say that things have changed a lot since then. Google has since doubled and tripled down on hardware with the launch of its own self-branded smartphones, pushed the Google Assistant into every corner of its products, and made a big splash in the smart speaker market with Google Home lineup. All of these things are evident in the Pixel Slate in one way or another and it’s obvious that it’s built as just one family member of the bigger whole.
The first place you’ll see that is with its physical hardware. No, there’s no “top-third” design on the back (color me very disappointed), nor is there a colorful “Pixel” light strip (color me even more disappointed), but the sleek look of its deep blue, its matte touch back (very smudge-prone!), the far-field microphones at the top, and the fabric of the Pixel Slate Keyboard all fit right in with the rest of the fam.
Size & heft
The Google Pixel Slate is a big device. With its 12.3-inch display and decent-sized bezels, the footprint of this behemoth is definitely on the upper-est of ends of the tablet market. For reference, the newest iPad Pro with a 12.9-inch display manages to be less wide and only barely taller than the Pixel Slate — not to mention more than a full millimeter thinner.
Due to its size, this is probably going to be one of the very first things you’ll notice about the Google Pixel Slate — it’s just a bit unwieldy. I personally tend to think of a tablet as a content consumption device that I can comfortably tote around and hold propped up in my lap for hours on end while I’m sitting in the airport. In my experience with the Slate so far, even sitting on the couch holding it can make it feel big as its soft touch metal back slides down your pants right into your stomach.
It’s not necessarily an objective downside, but rather just something I think you should know when thinking about how you’re going to actually use this thing. Are you looking for something to hold with one hand while standing like you would a large phone or small tablet? If so, the Pixel Slate probably isn’t for you — but neither are any of the other larger tablets out there.
One thing about the large form factor and its huge display is that, well, the display is huge. That means if you’re looking to watch movies on this thing and can get over the fact that it’s on the hefty side, you’ll appreciate the fact that it’s really big. Google really emphasized the display on the Pixel Slate as a key selling point when we talked with the team last month, and I can see why.
Google calls this 12.3-inch display a “Molecular Display”, which is really just special branding for the device’s gorgeous 3000 x 2000 resolution LCD at 293 pixels per inch. I’m not obsessive about displays in general (unless they are terrible LG panels on the Pixel 2 XL with obvious discoloration at minor angles and graininess), but I came away having nothing but good things to say about this display. I didn’t really have any thoughts other than “this looks really nice,” which to me, is all I care about.
Another thing that’s really great on the Google Pixel Slate is the audio quality. The dual front-firing speakers go hand-in-hand with the display since they’re the necessary compliment when you’re watching a movie or playing games. I’m not one to think that having dual front-firing speakers are the be-all-end-all of a tablet or phone as some in the Android community are, but I can definitely appreciate it on the Pixel Slate.
When it comes to the camera experience on the Pixel Slate, you’re getting exactly what you signed up for. The front-facing camera is the most important shooter on this device since you’ll often find yourself using your tablet docked as a laptop and doing video calls via Duo — at least that was the primary purpose I got out of them. The front shooter is adequate but its quality is nothing to write home about.
Here’s a quick selfie I took in my kitchen this morning:
I’ve never really understood the point of having a rear shooter on a tablet — especially one of this size. I’ve used it precisely zero times in the last several days. But just for you, here are a few photos I took of my dog using the rear shooter:
I/O and fingerprint sensor
As we knew very well before the Google Pixel Slate was even announced, the device has a volume rocker on the left side (which I tended to neglect in favor of the software volume controls most of the time), there are a pair of USB-C ports (one on either side), and there’s the power button and fingerprint sensor along the top-left edge. Google has really hyped this up as the first fingerprint sensor on a Chrome OS device.
The fingerprint sensor works great, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the way Google handles locking and unlocking the device is a bit unusual by default. Single pressing the lock button when you’re logged in doesn’t actually lock the device, which I found confusing at first. Instead, you have to hold the button and manually choose to lock the screen. There’s an option to make Chrome OS show the lock screen when waking, but to me it seems like that should be the default — especially now that unlocking is so easy.
Overall, I found the experience of Pixel Imprint to be just as painless and simple as it is on a Pixel smartphone. You can enroll as many fingers as you might need, it reads your fingerprints reliably and quickly, and it really saves some headaches if you use a long, random password for your Google account like I do.
Google claims that this device gets “up to 12 hours” of use on a charge, but I didn’t really see that personally — at least not with my workload. Everyone is different and everyone has different work and browsing habits, so I’m sure 12 hours is attainable. But in my experience with an Android app or two open and a dozen or more tabs open in a Chrome window, I was getting roughly 4 or 5 hours. That’s definitely on the more extreme end of usage though given that I’m reviewing the device and you won’t be.
As I’ve mentioned countless times, the Pixel Slate runs Chrome OS. Thankfully, though, Chrome OS has seen some improvements for touchscreen devices even since the launch of the Pixelbook last year. For one, Chrome OS defaults to a tablet mode when not docked to a keyboard accessory. You’ll see an app grid on the home screen at all times which makes a lot of sense in that mode.
Chrome OS itself has also been optimized in other ways since last year’s Pixelbook launch, including the UI of the Chrome browser itself to be more touch friendly, updates to the design aesthetic to match Google’s Material Theme, updates to the Google Assistant UI, and support for things like Split Screen. All of these are also on the Pixelbook, too, so nothing exclusive here.
Ultimately, this is Chrome OS. You’ve probably used it many times before. You’ll primarily be using it as a Chrome browser and doing most of your work there, but it’s become even more powerful lately with support for the Android Studio development kit and, of course, Android apps. If I’m honest, though, I’m not a developer, and most of the Android apps I would want — say, Spotify, Slack, or Facebook Messenger — already have web equivalents that I’m in the habit of accessing via Chrome anyway.
One of those is Android Messages, which you may know as Google’s default SMS texting app on the Pixel phones. It already has a web equivalent that you can use to text on the desktop paired to any Android phone, and the Pixel Slate takes advantage of this for its Pixel phone tie-in features. You can also use your Pixel Slate to continue reading an article from your phone or instantly tether.
So far, performance of this i5 variant of the Pixel Slate has been nothing but stellar. I haven’t run into any problematic software bugs, and there’s rarely if ever any stutter or dropped frames when using the device on the day-to-day. I’d say my experience with this i5 Google Pixel Slate is pretty identical to that of the i5 Pixelbook — and I’m glad, considering that definitely wasn’t my experience with the pre-production units we got to play with last month.
That’s actually one thing about this review that’s very unfortunate and something I wish I had been given the opportunity to test. I’ve only been able to try out the Intel Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM for any substantial amount of time, and that leaves me with no indication of how the cheaper models — those that people will be more likely to buy — will perform in the real world.
I am what you might call an average Chrome user in that I tend to have 10-20 tabs open at one time. Scrolling and clicking through them is a breeze, dragging and dropping tabs to multitask is simply awesome with this display, and I never once had issues. As mentioned, I tend to hover toward web-app equivalents over Android apps for a couple reasons: Chrome tends to perform better, it avoids any glitches you might encounter with those native apps, and it seems to save battery life, too.
This i5 model starts at $999, which is almost double the entry-level Celeron model. Google really tried to reassure us that even the lowest-end models would be more than performant come launch day, but I just can’t say whether or not that’s the case as of this writing. I can say the $999 Google Pixel Slate is a performer, but if you were looking at that entry model, well, I can’t really help you yet unfortunately.
Official Accessories |
As you may be well aware, there are two key first-party accessories that Google is selling alongside the Pixel Slate, both of which Google was kind enough to send me to test out. There’s the $200 Google Pixel Slate Keyboard which serves as both a case of sorts and a keyboard, and the Pixelbook Pen, which is identical to the accessory that first shipped last year with the Pixelbook.
Google Pixel Slate Keyboard
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Let’s do good news.
The actual typing experience is wonderful and in many ways similar to the Pixelbook — a device you may know received lots of praise for its keyboard in particular. The keys have just the right amount of travel, they’re incredibly quiet, and Google made them round this time around. Google told us that this was a decision to help users become more accurate, and while there is a little bit of a learning curve, I do tend to prefer these rounded keys.
In short, typing on the Google Pixel Slate Keyboard just feels like butter, and I couldn’t be happier. I use the Logitech K780 as my daily keyboard on my desktop, and the Google Pixel Slate feels almost identical to type on. So for me, this keyboard is just perfect. It’s actually so similar to that Logitech that it’s odd, but I’m not complaining — it’s my favorite keyboard ever and the Slate Keyboard is quieter.
Another thing I love about the Pixel Slate Keyboard is the adjustable mechanism on the back. There are magnets that hold the fabric stand in place, and you can easily slide it up and down to get whatever viewing angle you want. It has a really satisfying click at the top and bottom to let you know you’ve extended it as far as it’ll go, too. It’s a nice little detail that Google paid attention to.
Now, for the bad news. Everything else about the Google Pixel Slate keyboard is just unfortunate and feels sloppily put together. The ergonomics of actually using it are in a word, dismal. For one, you absolutely can not put your Pixel Slate on your lap in any scenario when docked to the Pixel Slate Keyboard. The keyboard part is attached via flimsy fabric, so the heavy tablet itself wobbles and moves around while you type.
The magnets to connect the tablet to the keyboard are so strong that you feel like you’re going to break something when you detach it. And the tablet itself doesn’t have any magnets connecting it to the keyboard when folded up, so it slides around inside and just feels sloppy.
For a little more bad news, there’s the trackpad. It’s kinda just meh. Most of the time the trackpad is fine to use, but it’s definitely nowhere near as good as the trackpads you’ll find on laptops — like the MacBook Air — in this price range. It’s one of the traditional style “diving board” designs, so it requires pushing with a lot more force at the top to get a click — if you can get one — than at the bottom.
Also, sometimes, the 2nd finger rejection just stopped working for me, and that was frustrating to say the least. But I’m not sure if that’s a bug with Chrome OS or something else. I did also experience this issue with the Brydge G-Type keyboard, so it seems like software to me. Google told us “we’re continuing to improve touchpad input and expect to push an update in the coming release.”
The Google Pixel Slate also works with last year’s Pixelbook Pen, and Google introduced a new color this year to match the deep blue of the Slate itself. I’d guess Google has realized in hindsight that naming the stylus after last year’s laptop might have not been the best branding decision. That very minor gripe aside, the new Pixelbook Pen is exactly like the old Pixelbook Pen.
I’ll quote Ben’s Pixelbook review from last year here:
Google’s new $99 stylus is, well, a stylus. Look, there’s really not much to talk about here. This is a Wacom-based stylus that works very well. You can draw with it with pressure and angle sensitivity, and it works great for controlling Android apps or just general web navigation. It’s also comfortable to hold and the white & silver design matches up well with the Pixelbook itself.
I have pretty much the same thoughts this year, except replace “white and silver” with electric blue. Literally nothing is new with the new Pixelbook Pen except the color. No clever docking and charging mechanism to keep it with you on the go. There aren’t many apps on the Play Store that really take advantage of it (I had fun playing around in Autodesk for a few minutes). Unless you exist at the intersection of hardcore artist and hardcore Chromebook user, it’s probably not worth $100.
Final Thoughts |
Clearly, when you break down each aspect of the Pixel Slate, it’s obvious that it’s a “good enough” and polished product. That is an achievement for Google considering they haven’t exactly been struggle free for the last few years. It doesn’t have any major flaws, and really, it doesn’t really have that many minor flaws either. But there’s one big elephant in the room that you’ve heard me mention more than two dozen times through the course of this review. That elephant’s name is Pixelbook.
Google may be marketing the Pixel Slate as a tablet, but I really think it’s far better at being a laptop. And when you use it as a laptop, there’s very little functional difference between it and the Pixelbook. Maybe a camera here and a few extra pixels there, but ultimately you’re going to be using it the same way for much the same things. The Pixelbook folds over into a tablet. It works on your lap. There’s no extra post for a keyboard. It works with the same stylus and has the same touch-optimized Chrome OS. From this perspective, the two siblings feel like two variants of the same product with different price tags.
Personally, even though the Pixel Slate is supposed to be a tablet, I found myself constantly docked to my Pixel Slate Keyboard or to the Brydge keyboard (or even better, docked to my monitor at my desktop via USB and paired with my Logitech K780!). For me (and I know I’m not you, so take this with a grain of salt), Chrome OS has long been about being able to get real work done in the browser. No one wants to type on a software keyboard for any longer than 5 seconds or write out a 4,000 word article with handwriting recognition.
Most people use tablets as media consumption devices, in which case the Pixel Slate with its gorgeous display is a bit on the big side but more than satisfactory for the job. Watching Netflix sitting on the couch or on a trip is enjoyable — don’t get me wrong. But that raises another issue: Pretty much any of the Google Pixel Slate models beyond the $599 Intel Celeron model are overkill for that casual media consumption use case, and I personally can’t speak to anything about that model yet. We can assume it’s just as good as the i5, but that’s an assumption for now.
All that to say, my concern, more than whether or not the Pixel Slate is a good device, is trying to figure out who should actually buy it — especially when its A/B test other half is so similar. The Pixel Slate as Google designed it is worse at being a laptop than the Pixelbook given the Pixel Slate Keyboard’s ergonomic issues, and it’s barely a better tablet. Sure, it has a larger, prettier screen, a rear camera, a fingerprint sensor, and no folded-over keys when in tablet mode. But are those things important?
I didn’t even mention the kicker to this argument, which to me is the Pixel Slate’s high price tag. The Intel Core i5 model of the Pixelbook has been selling for $699 consistently this holiday season, and that price probably won’t be all too uncommon in the coming months. Meanwhile the Core i5 Google Pixel Slate with the Pixel Slate Keyboard attachment is a whopping $1199 if you buy from the Google Store today. It’s not far from double the price for something that is very similar and nowhere near double as good.
I’m not at all negative on the Pixel Slate as a product by itself. It’s a bit expensive, sure, but that’s to be expected with Google’s hardware at this point. The Slate feels polished — at least the model I’ve been testing does — and it doesn’t have any critical flaws or compromises that would make me reconsider saying it’s just good. You really get a lot for your money here — some solid specs, a gorgeous display, great performance, and a user experience that is the best we’ve seen on a Chrome OS tablet.
But the Pixel Slate almost feels like it got caught up in some kind of redemption mission and lost sight of its identity. It feels like Google just really wanted to be able to say “me too” with professional-level tablets, and this was the result. It meant just making what is essentially a detachable Chromebook. It has a lot of advantages over less the “real work”-apt alternatives, but a lot of the iPad’s strengths, namely its immense tablet app ecosystem, are still its biggest advantages.
Google really started a noble effort to increase the Android app ecosystem last year with the Pixelbook, but not much has changed. Developers are signing on one-by-one to build apps optimized for Pixelbook and Pixel Slate, but it’s still an uphill battle. We’ll take a deeper look at how the Pixel Slate compares to the top-of-the-line iPads in a future comparison, but for now, it’s obvious that apps are where Slate falls short.
As might have been predictable, with this new seriousness about the Chrome OS platform in the form of its own hardware, I can’t shake the feeling that what we ended up with is a followup to last year’s excellent laptop that’s a bit more convertible and just calls itself a tablet because it’s more touch friendly. It’s technically the first of its breed (premium consumer-focused Chrome OS tablet), but is it really?
With the lines between tablet and laptop and tablet blurred more than ever in 2018, is there anyone that should buy this over just getting a Pixelbook (especially at its recent low prices)? Maybe there is, and if you buy one, you almost certainly won’t be disappointed. Maybe you just really want a tablet and don’t care for the keyboard or the productivity strengths of Chrome OS. Maybe you just want the Celeron model to carry around and use as a Chrome OS device productively on occasion. That’s fine, and it’s a great tablet.
But I think for me, I’ll be continuing to recommend the Pixelbook as my Google-made Chrome OS convertible of choice — at least until the Pixel Slate is a bit less expensive.