I really hate talking about Google twice in such a short period of time but it seems they are falling out of touch with their users and grossly misunderstanding the strengths and weaknesses of their own software. First was their atrocious Android Pay launch that, even currently, supports only a small pool of devices and requires those devices to be unrooted. Now Google has unveiled their new Pixel C Android tablet…that is also a laptop. Kind of.
For those who don’t keep up with Chromebooks, Google’s Pixel lineup is comprised of overpowered devices designed to show off Google’s software. Prior to the Pixel C announcement there were two Pixel devices, the Chromebook Pixel 2013 and the Chromebook Pixel 2015. As you can see in this graph below, both have cutting edge hardware for their respective production years. These specs are far above the recommended specs for ChromeOS, the operating system running on Chromebooks. Most current Chromebooks have mobile processors, like Intel Bay Trails or Rockchips, and most users find 4GBs of RAM to be more than sufficient. It isn’t difficult to tell that Google aims the Pixel lineup to function as flagship devices while simultaneously being future proof. Combined with the high price tag we can see that Pixel devices are designed for only the most devout enthusiasts.
So let’s take a look at this Pixel branded tablet. 10” screen at 2560×1800 resolution, Nvidia Tegra X1 with a desktop Maxwell GPU, 3GBs of RAM, Android 6.0 and an expensive price tag. Yup, looks like a flagship device with overkill hardware specs marketed towards enthusiasts. Except it isn’t really marketed as a tablet. Almost every second during the reveal at Google I/O 2015 and practically every picture you find about it shows it with the bluetooth magnetic keyboard attached — almost like a Surface Pro Tablet. This is a key distinction to notice about the Pixel C. For example, the Pixel C was introduced as being the tablet that does more than media consumption. This is a tablet that also functions well for productivity. Also, just like the Surface Pros, it is being marketed with the keyboard despite the keyboard being a separate, expensive accessory.
You can actually see a clear thought process that took them from the Chromebook to a Surface Pro look-alike running Android. Two of the biggest detractors of early ChromeOS was a lack of offline functionality and no support for Skype, both of which revolved around productivity concerns. Google quickly made their office suite of web apps work offline but Skype was something out of their control. Late last year, Google introduced some beta software that allowed Android apps to be run inside of Chrome and ChromeOS. It was super buggy and most apps crashed but four apps were promoted as working perfectly — one of those was Skype. In fact, Google even encouraged users to try running Skype first as it was guaranteed to work and allowed users to play with and learn the settings of the runtime with an app that always worked. As with most tech spaces, a devoted group of users set to task on getting as many apps to work within ChromeOS as possible. There are a confirmed 280 working apps, and already unimpressive number, but most of these are apps for websites such as Reddit, IMDB, or GoodReads. I’m guessing that getting Skype to work was a first step and Google decided to outsource testing to speed up the process of finding more compatible apps. The goal was for ChromeOS to quickly gain new offline functionality such as image editing and music creation, possibly from apps such as Autodesk Sketchbook and Guitar Pro respectively. For reference, this all happened around the time that the Surface Pro 3 had begun to gain traction and would explain Google’s haste to add new functionality through local apps instead of web apps. However, with the lackluster number of apps that actually work Google was forced to make a late game decision and simply use Android instead of ChromeOS in its 2-in-1 device, which we now know as the Pixel C. There is a huge flaw with this strategy though. Google is pitting Android against Windows and it doesn’t have a chance. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Android’s foundation though. After all, Android is a fork of Linux and that does a great job of being a Windows alternative. The issues lie in how Google has designed Android, which up until the Pixel C has been focused on small touchscreen devices.
I’m going to get this out of the way: Android sucks at being a desktop OS. It simply wasn’t designed for, nor has it been updated to accommodate, large screens or high resolutions. I’ve always found the UI to scale poorly at higher resolutions. Not only that but I’ve always felt that text is too big on larger displays as well. Those issues are minor compared to the lack of windowed app support. One of the benefits of using a laptop over a tablet is the increased ability to multitask, yet this hybrid device will be lacking this key feature. While this isn’t that big of an issue on the small 10” screen, both the Pixel C and the Surface Pro 4 will support video out via the USB Type C cable. Whereas the Surface Pro will convert to a traditional desktop version of Windows 10 when outputting to a monitor, the Pixel C will be using your entire 24”+ monitor for a single app. When it comes down to it, Android wasn’t built to stand up to Windows and because of that the Pixel C won’t be able to stand up to a Surface Pro. These issues only look at Android as an OS though. We can’t forget that most apps are designed for smaller screens and eschew features and menus that are found in the desktop equivalents. Even if Google updates their apps to take advantage of a laptop-esque form factor I doubt many other developers will follow suit. This will leave the Pixel C to excel only with Google’s software, much like ChromeOS already does, making this tablet redundant.
(For anybody who wants a quick experience of how poorly Android works in a laptop/desktop experience, simply connect your phone or tablet to a monitor and use a bluetooth mouse and keyboard with it. It doesn’t take long to feel how cumbersome this is. For added effect, try typing something up in the Google Docs app and then go back to Google Docs website on your desktop/laptop.)
It is almost unfathomable that Google is putting so much pressure on a mobile operating system to deliver a desktop experience. I spent two weeks trying to replace my desktop PC with a Shield Portable only to be completely turned off with the user experience. While I had apps to replicate most of the functions I used on my desktop, the lackluster multitasking and poor use of screen estate ultimately caused me to abandon the project. I have trouble understanding just who is going to want one of these. With a base price of $650, the cheapest model and the keyboard, the purchaser gets a really fantastic tablet that can convert to a clumsy laptop, and that just doesn’t sound appealing at all. Google has announced that the Pixel C will receive updates every six weeks, and we can only hope some of those address the substandard laptop experience. Post release updates won’t fix the issues the Pixel C will have at launch however, and if Google really wants this to compete with the Surface Pro 4 it will have to do extremely well at launch or it will be buried and forgotten as the niche device it is.