Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.
Last month, I wrote an essay entitled "It’s time for Google to make its own hardware." I noted that the tech giant had made sporadic hardware products designed and built in house, but urged that the company get serious about really taking control of the hardware in which its Android software gets delivered. I argued that by building its own hardware, especially phones, it could reap the benefits of integrating software and hardware deeply.
Well, today, another one of those sporadic hardware products (announced back in September) comes out, and, after reviewing it for a few days, I believe it’s an object lesson in what Google shouldn’t do if it pursues home-grown integration of hardware and software.
While the Pixel C Android tablet shows flashes of inspiration — especially in its solid but flexible optional keyboard — and has sturdy aluminum build quality throughout, it’s also a bit bulky and balky.
But the worst part about this device, which starts at $499 for the tablet alone, is that Google has made no discernible effort to create software to match the screen real estate afforded by the first tablet it has designed and built itself. It has forfeited the big advantage its rival Apple has traded on for decades: The ability to blend your own hardware and software to provide a superior user experience.
Google has made no discernible effort to create software to match the hardware.
And that, along with some hardware issues and complexity, makes the Pixel C a sub-optimal tablet I can’t recommend.
Let’s unpack this product into three pieces: The tablet, the software and the keyboard base (which costs $149 extra).
Taken by itself, the Pixel C hardware is nothing special. With a 10.2-inch display, it’s roughly the same size as the standard iPad, but is about 15 percent thicker and 18 percent heavier than the iPad Air 2. You might think this would be because Google wanted longer battery life. But in my standard, harsh, battery test, where I play downloaded videos with the screen at 75% while leaving Wi-Fi on to collect email, tweets and chat messages in the background, the Pixel C lasted nearly an hour less than the iPad Air 2. It died after 9 hours and 42 minutes, in the middle of the movie "Trainwreck." That’s very decent, but almost an hour short of the skinnier iPad’s 10 hours and 37 minutes on the same test.
There are other issues. The screen, which has a higher resolution than the iPad’s, may be the most reflective tablet screen I’ve ever used. Even on an enclosed porch at home over the weekend, the indirect sunlight streaming through the windows made it act almost like a mirror.
Worse, the screen exhibited enough latency on enough occasions to be really irritating. Most of the time, it behaved like any premium display in 2015 — fast and smooth. But at random moments, I’d have to swipe or press twice to get it to do what I wanted.
This may be the most reflective tablet screen I’ve ever used.
Google does the right thing and puts 32 GB into the base $499 model of the Pixel C instead of the measly 16 GB Apple includes in the base $499 iPad. But unlike Apple, it fails to offer a large-capacity 128 GB model (Google stops at 64 GB for $599, the same price as Apple). And unlike Samsung or Apple, it doesn’t offer a cellular option on the Pixel C.
If you have a stockpile of Android phone and tablet chargers, they’ll be useless on the Pixel C. It uses the new USB Type-C port, being adopted gradually across the industry, for charging. This port is fast and versatile, so the move will be a benefit eventually, but in the short term, it will cause disruption. The camera is mediocre, yielding underwhelming shots for me even in moderate indoor light.
Apple rightly boasts that its app store contains 850,000 apps that either are wholly designed for the iPad, or automatically install an iPad version or an iPhone version, depending upon which device is doing the download.
While most smartphone apps, on both Android and iPhone, are constrained by the phones’ smaller screen sizes and vertical orientation, iPad apps are generally well designed for the larger screen and adapt with more visible controls and panels of information, especially for landscape use.
Google has long mostly ignored the notion of tablet-optimized apps. When I have asked the company’s executives about this, they’ve typically responded that well-designed phone apps can do the job on multiple screen sizes. But anyone who looks at an iPad-optimized app can see the difference.
Even though the Pixel C is a Google hero product, it lacks the software to make it great. As on Android tablets from other companies, almost all the Android apps I used on the Pixel C looked like blown-up phone apps. It doesn’t appear that Google worked with key third parties to take advantage of the company’s first-ever tablet hardware.
Apps on the Pixel C look like the blown-up phone apps they are.
For instance, in Slack, the wildly popular business chat app, the Pixel C shows only the main messaging panel, like on a phone. To see the side menu of chat rooms and individual chats, you have to tap a button and it will slide over, just like on a phone. But, on the iPad, the two panels coexist. On Windows tablets, iPads, and some Samsung devices, apps can be used alongside other apps in side-by-side windows. But not on the Pixel C.
Some apps, believing they are on a phone, simply flip around to portrait mode for certain screens, even when the tablet is docked in the keyboard in landscape mode. In Twitter, the app flips over when it introduces its new Moments feature, highlighting the fact that it’s really just a big phone app.
In other apps, content is awkwardly spaced or stretched, showing oddly placed white space. I found this when viewing individual Facebook posts.
Some of this may be blamed on the Pixel C’s odd aspect ratio, called "the-square-root-of-2." This is the same aspect ratio as standardized European business paper, called A4 — or about 1.4:1, according to Google. The iPad, and Samsung’s newest 10-inch tablet, the Galaxy Tab S2, are 4:3.
But it’s mostly due to the fact that Google has long under-emphasized the notion of tablet-optimized apps, and, surprisingly to me, continued to do so even when making its own tablet.
The best Pixel C innovation is the physical keyboard. Both accessory makers and tablet makers, like Microsoft and Apple, have been trying to get this right, and have struggled. Some people love the official add-on keyboards for the Surface Pro 4 or the new iPad Pro, but I am not among them. I find them much harder to use on a lap than a conventional laptop keyboard.
Google has done a better job on the optional, $149 Pixel C keyboard. It’s sturdy and heavy enough to form a fair base for lap typing. And it has a very clever, very strong, magnetic hinge, which allows you to tilt the screen smoothly but confidently at a wide variety of angles.
Not only that, but while the keyboard is Bluetooth, it charges inductively from the tablet, so you never have to plug it in.
But I have two problems with the keyboard. First, it’s a bit cramped, even though Google squeezed down some keys, like Tab and Enter, and banished others, like the bracket keys, to the software keyboard. It also lacks a trackpad, which means that if you’re a fast-touch typist, you have to keep removing your hands from the keyboard to do things like scroll and move the cursor on the screen. So it’s not as good as typing on a typical laptop.
Second, it’s so clumsy and unintuitive to attach and detach the two pieces and to mate them in a closed, protective, position for carrying that Google was forced to include in the box a two-sided illustrated instruction sheet that’s as long and wide as the Pixel C itself.
For instance, to attach the keyboard from the closed, carrying position, wherein only the aluminum backs of both pieces are visible, you have to (1) slide the tablet to the side, (2) flip the tablet over, and (3) touch it to the magnetic hinge and lift, making sure the front camera is on the top edge.
I asked Google about this, and an official said it would quickly become second nature. It hasn’t for me yet.
I could recommend the Pixel C as an okay choice for Google fans, despite its hardware flaws, if only because of the clever keyboard. But I can’t. Without a decent selection of true tablet software, especially for productivity, it’s just an oversized phone. The software problem makes it a very different animal from an iPad or a Surface.
I still believe Google should make its own hardware, for a variety of reasons I laid out last month. But it won’t be worth doing unless the company can find a way to let the hardware and software influence and bolster each other.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.