Google Pixel Slate: So close, yet so far, from be­ing a per­fect Chrome-an­droid tablet hy­brid

Frus­trat­ing lim­i­ta­tions, flaws and glitches, and a tug-of-war be­tween An­droid and Chrome pre­vent the Pixel Slate from be­ing all it could be.

PCWorld (USA) - - Reviews - BY MICHAEL SI­MON

Re­view­ing the Pixel Slate was like re­view­ing two de­vices. Out of the box, it’s some­thing of a high-end An­droid tablet run­ning full-screen Play Store apps and a touch­friendly in­ter­face. But when you at­tach it to the Pixel Slate Key­board, it trans­forms into a pre­mium Chrome­book, with a large mul­ti­touch track­pad and Pc-like mul­ti­task­ing.

The Pixel Slate ap­pears to be a dream 2-in-1, the rare hy­brid de­vice that truly con­forms to your im­me­di­ate needs. Where the ipad Pro and var­i­ous con­vert­ible PCS fail to con­sider the jar­ring in­ter­face changes

when switch­ing from a touch-based UI to a key­board-based UI, Google has de­signed Chrome OS’S new hy­brid in­ter­face specif­i­cally with the Pixel Slate in mind. Google un­der­stands that you’ll use your Chrome­book dif­fer­ently as a tablet than you would as a lap­top.

So the Pixel Slate de­serves to be taken se­ri­ously as the next gen­er­a­tion of both Chrome­books and An­droid tablets. It’s the cul­mi­na­tion of a three-year evo­lu­tion from the Chrome­book Pixel to the Pixel C and Pix­el­book. At once a tablet that wants to be a lap­top and a lap­top that wants to be a tablet, it’s bet­ter at do­ing both than any­thing else out there.

But it’s also a work-in-progress sad­dled with frus­trat­ing lim­i­ta­tions, flaws, glitches, and a bit of tug-of-war be­tween the An­droid and Chrome sides of its per­son­al­ity. All these is­sues con­spire to pre­vent the Pixel Slate from be­ing all it could be.

PIXEL SLATE PRIC­ING AND FEA­TURES

The Pixel Slate comes in sev­eral con­fig­u­ra­tions, rang­ing from an In­tel Celeron and top­ping off at an 8th-gen Core i7 pro­ces­sor. That’s a wide per­for­mance spread, with the low end de­liv­er­ing less horse­power than the $399 Sur­face Go and the high end com­pet­ing with the Dell XPS 13.

I tested the $999 Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of stor­age, which rep­re­sents the mid-point be­tween the $599 en­try-level model and the $1,599 top-of-the­line model. Un­for­tu­nately, LTE isn’t an op­tion on any of con­figs, which makes the Pixel Slate less of a road war­rior than the ipad Pro or Sur­face Pro ( go.pcworld.com/sfpr).

It’s im­pos­si­ble to look at the Google Pixel Slate and not see shades of the ipad Pro. They both have a flat back and slim, uni­form bezels, so ori­en­ta­tion isn’t an is­sue. They both have gor­geous 12-inch-plus screens that feel some­what smaller than they are. And they

both have enough em­bed­ded mag­nets to stick to a re­frig­er­a­tor door.

The Pixel Slate is also very much a Google de­vice. It looks a lit­tle like a gi­ant Pixel 2, right down to the dust-trap­ping speaker grilles flank­ing ei­ther end of the screen and the miss­ing head­phone jack. The only cos­metic sim­i­lar­ity the Pixel Slate lacks is a two-tone back, which would have been a classy ad­di­tion to the oth­er­wise plain aes­thetic.

Still, the Pixel Slate’s single color is un­de­ni­ably a cool one. Google calls it mid­night blue, and it switches from deep blue to rich black to iri­des­cent de­pend­ing on the re­flec­tion off of your fin­ger­prints, which are quite vis­i­ble on the back de­spite a matte fin­ish.

The Pixel Slate has a 12.3-inch “molec­u­lar” dis­play, a bit of Ap­ple-style mar­ket­ing to play up its 6 mil­lion pix­els. With a 3000x2000 res­o­lu­tion, it’s sharper than the 2400x1600 Pix­el­book and the 2732x2048 ipad Pro, with an im­pres­sive 293 pix­els per inch (though your eyes won’t re­ally no­tice). Google says the LCD dis­play cov­ers 72 per­cent of

NTSC, a pretty use­less spec in an SRGB and DCI-P3 world, but the Pixel Slate won’t of­fend crit­i­cal eyes. It’s very bright (over 500 nits max­i­mum in my test­ing), and its col­ors are vi­brant. While the square dis­play corners feel a bit an­ti­quated in an age of rounded corners, you cer­tainly won’t mind

look­ing at it for hours on end, es­pe­cially if you’re fill­ing some of that time with movie-watch­ing.

Hold­ing it is an­other is­sue. At 11.4 x 8.7 x 0.4 inches, it’s ac­tu­ally a bit larger than the 12.9-inch ipad Pro, and the ex­tra tenths of an inch mat­ter when you’re al­ready push­ing the lim­its of com­fort. At 1.6 pounds, the Pixel Slate is also a lit­tle heav­ier than Ap­ple’s big­gest tablet (which weighs 1.4 pounds), all of which makes the Slate un­com­fort­able to hold for more than short stints. That means you won’t be us­ing it to take many pic­tures, which is prob­a­bly why Google didn’t bother to in­clude any of the Pixel 3’s cool cam­era tricks (though the Slate does have por­trait mode).

Be­cause of the Pixel Slate’s lim­i­ta­tions as a tablet, a key­board is an es­sen­tial ac­ces­sory. You can con­nect a third-party model via Blue­tooth 4.2, or pur­chase Google’s own. To that end, Google charges $199 for its Pixel Slate Key­board—as much as Ap­ple’s Smart Key­board Fo­lio—but it’s put a good deal of thought into the de­sign. The beau­ti­ful mid­night-blue chas­sis per­fectly matches the tablet, and it looks as great at­tached as it does folded up.

On a ta­ble, the Pixel Slate and the Key­board cut a strik­ing fig­ure, look­ing like a slen­der Chrome­book. When the Pixel Slate is in this po­si­tion, its two USB-C ports are po­si­tioned on the bot­tom of ei­ther side of the tablet rather than the cen­ter, so you won’t have to raise the power cord above desk height to plug in the de­vice (as you’re forced to on the ipad Pro). The Pixel Im­print fin­ger­print sen­sor/power but­ton is awk­wardly placed when hold­ing the Slate with two hands, but it’s easy to reach on its top edge when docked.

The mul­ti­touch track­pad is as re­spon­sive as it is on the Pix­el­book. The back­lit keys (called Hush Keys in the United States) are pleas­antly quiet. They also have a de­cent 1.2mm of travel de­spite a low-pro­file de­sign. Un­for­tu­nately, their cir­cu­lar shape and wide spac­ing gave me less mar­gin of er­ror in hit­ting the right key, re­sult­ing in more

mistyp­ing than usual.

The Pixel Slate Key­board pro­vides an “in­fin­itely ad­justable” de­sign that lets you cus­tom­ize the an­gle of the at­tached Pixel Slate tablet far more than you can with an ipad or Sur­face Pro key­board. It’s im­pres­sive how the Pixel Slate’s mag­nets al­low for slight an­gu­lar ad­just­ments. How­ever, you can’t lay it com­pletely flat with­out first de­tach­ing it from the Pixel Slate Key­board, mak­ing “in­fi­nite” seem like an over­state­ment.

Un­for­tu­nately, the mag­nets aren’t strong enough to pre­vent slight move­ments when you’re tap­ping with a bit of force on the screen. I also would have ap­pre­ci­ated a place in the key­board de­sign or on the tablet it­self for that mat­ter to rest the Pix­el­book Pen, which Google of­fers in Mid­night Blue to match.

(Oth­er­wise the sty­lus is ex­actly the same as last year’s sil­ver model.)

Over­all, the key­board’s light­weight, some­what flimsy de­sign, cou­pled with the weight of the screen, makes it tough to use the Pixel Slate on your lap.

PER­FOR­MANCE: MORE THAN ENOUGH

When bench­mark­ing Chrome­books, you al­ways have to deal with Google’s re­lent­less OS rhythm. Ev­ery six weeks, Google up­dated

Chrome OS, and our past re­sults lose per­fect ap­ples-to-ap­ples com­pa­ra­bil­ity. That said, we were still cu­ri­ous to see how the Pixel Slate per­formed against other re­cent Chrome­books, in­clud­ing its year-old Pix­el­book cousin.

The Pixel Slate car­ries a brand-new In­tel Core mo­bile pro­ces­sor, the Core i5-8500y, from the 8th-gen Am­ber Lake Y fam­ily. This dual-core, four-thread, 14nm CPU is an ul­tra-low-power chip de­signed specif­i­cally for slen­der, light de­vices like the Pixel Slate. Paired with In­tel’s UHD 615 in­te­grated graph­ics, it’s made for main­stream pro­duc­tiv­ity rather than high-end (CPU-/ graph­ics-in­ten­sive) ap­pli­ca­tions or gam­ing. The other Chrome­books on the chart in­clude the Asus Chrome­book Flip, with Google’s own low-end OP1 chip, and the sturdy, stu­den­to­ri­ented Len­ovo 500e Chrome­book.

So how does the Slate per­form? The short an­swer is the Pixel Slate ran neck-and-neck with its cat­e­gory-lead­ing cousin the Pix­el­book, un­til it pulled way ahead in bat­tery life. Here’s a look at the de­tails.

Us­ing the CR-XPRT bench­mark, which mea­sures com­mon tasks like brows­ing and movie play­back, the Pixel Slate stays a bit ahead of the Pix­el­book and leagues ahead of the lower-end 500e and Chrome­book Flip. An­other gen­eral

per­for­mance bench­mark, Basemark 2.0, com­bines WEBGL and Javascript per­for­mance. The re­sults echo what we see in

CR-XPRT: The Pixel Slate is they a lit­tle bet­ter.

In the Kraken and Jetstream Javascript bench­marks, the Pixel Slate and the Pix­el­book stage a close com­pe­ti­tion.

As ex­pected, the Pixel Slate per­forms some­what sim­i­larly to the Pix­el­book when test­ing straight Javascript. It also runs cir­cles around cheaper Chrome­books, as well it should.

More im­por­tant than charts, how­ever, is real-world per­for­mance. I didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence any slow­downs, freezes, or gen­eral is­sues dur­ing my day-to-day use, which in­cluded lib­er­ally bounc­ing be­tween Chrome and An­droid.

As with the ipad Pro, how­ever, there’s a ques­tion of whether you need the power of an 8th-gen Core i5 or i7 in a Chrome­book. Don’t get me wrong—the Pixel Slate’s zippy an­i­ma­tions and but­tery-smooth scrolling feel as pow­er­ful as a Macbook’s. Still, a Core i5-8500y is a lit­tle pricey for a Chrome­book, let alone a Chrome OS tablet. I sus­pect the $799 Core m3 model will be plenty for most peo­ple, if not the $599 Celeron-based one. A thou­sand bucks is a lot to drop on a tablet, es­pe­cially when you add $300 for a key­board and pen.

Bat­tery life is a big high­light. All five Pixel Slate mod­els have the same 48Wh bat­tery, and Google says each Pixel Slate will last for 12 hours of standby, web brows­ing, and other use. That’s a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate ac­cord­ing to my bench­marks, which clocked the Pixel Slate at over 14 hours (set to 200 nits bright­ness and medium vol­ume), more than an hour longer than the Pix­el­book.

Only af­ter hours of test­ing, along with a great deal of work, did I have to plug in the Slate be­fore I was ready to put it down for the night. Even then, it needed only a 15-minute charge to keep it go­ing for a cou­ple more hours. In short, the bat­tery life is as im­pres­sive as the dis­play, and it makes the Pixel Slate an ex­cel­lent travel com­pan­ion.

A BLEED­ING-EDGE AN­DROID TABLET THAT FEELS LIKE IT

The Pixel Slate’s bleed­ing-edge OS is an in­spi­ra­tion and a chal­lenge. It ships with

Chrome 71 on board, sev­eral up­dates be­yond the rad­i­cal re­vamp that ar­rived with ver­sion 70. For the first time, the new in­ter­face has a chance to spread its wings, and it truly gives the Pixel Slate a hy­brid, mod­ern vibe.

In tablet mode, the Pixel Slate has the feel of an An­droid tablet, with speedy nav­i­ga­tion, full- and splitscreen apps, pic­ture-in-pic­ture, and an awe­some float­ing Gboard key­board that is as com­fort­able as it is prac­ti­cal. An ever-present, OS X-style dock at the bot­tom of the screen show apps that are open and pinned, while Google’s Ma­te­rial De­sign aes­thetic gives the sys­tem a re­fined, so­phis­ti­cated feel. Google As­sis­tant in­te­gra­tion is as strong as ever, with An­droid Pie App Ac­tion-style short­cuts in the app drawer and an in­con­spic­u­ous home but­ton in the bot­tom left cor­ner that sum­mons As­sis­tant when un­docked. (“OK, Google” works too, of course.)

How­ever, while An­droid 9’s vis­ual in­flu­ence is undeniable, the Pixel Slate has its own per­son­al­ity, and it’s not al­ways agree­able. Google’s Chrome-an­droid con­flu­ence is still very much a work in progress, and any­one who wants to use the Pixel Slate to run Play Store apps will be frus­trated. For ex­am­ple, mul­ti­task­ing is

lim­ited to side-by-side win­dows un­like Chrome OS proper, but I’d like some kind of mid­dle ground, like the abil­ity to run apps and Youtube videos in Pic­ture-in-pic­ture mode (which Chrome’s se­cret flags site sug­gests is on the way, at least for video).

Be­cause many An­droid apps haven’t been prop­erly op­ti­mized for tablets, the ex­pe­ri­ence is pretty hit-or-miss. But even be­yond the state of the app ecosys­tem, there are loads of nig­gling is­sues when us­ing the Pixel Slate as an An­droid-first tablet. The big­gest by far is the lack of spellcheck, an an­noy­ance that makes writ­ing in any­thing other than Google Docs a ma­jor pain. I also ex­pe­ri­enced an oc­ca­sional bug in IA Writer that froze the app and forced me to sign out of my Google ac­count when us­ing the text se­lec­tion zoom tool. Other times I couldn’t bring up the win­dow at all.

That’s not the only bug I en­coun­tered. Here is a sam­pling of oth­ers: When logged into mul­ti­ple users, I com­pletely lost Play Store ac­cess on the main ac­count (and con­se­quently all of my An­droid apps) and was able to re­store it only by log­ging out. The backspace but­ton turned into a space bar on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. Tap­ping an icon in the dock didn’t ac­tu­ally open the app. The app drawer put new app down­loads on their own page, with no way to or­ga­nize them other than phys­i­cally drag­ging each icon and drop­ping it onto the prior page. And on three sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions, my Pixel Slate just spon­ta­neously re­booted.

There are far fewer is­sues when you stick to the Chrome browser and Google apps, but be­cause Google is in­stalling the Play Store on Pixel Slate and clearly wants peo­ple to use the Pixel Slate as a tablet, these are bugs that will need to be squashed quickly. Google re­sponded to my queries by say­ing some bugs would be fixed in up­dates avail­able soon af­ter launch.

BET­TER AS A TRA­DI­TIONAL CHROME­BOOK

Cu­ri­ously, these prob­lems all but dis­ap­pear when the Slate is at­tached to Google’s key­board. The fa­mil­iar Chrome­book in­ter­face re­turns, with

Pc-style mul­ti­task­ing, re­siz­able win­dows, and full key­board short­cuts. Even when us­ing An­droid apps, the bugs I ex­pe­ri­enced in tablet mode were nearly all gone.

My only real com­plaint with the Slate as a Chrome­book is that the Pixel Im­print fin­ger­print sen­sor doesn’t work as a bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tor in any other ca­pac­ity than un­lock­ing. Also, smart un­lock­ing with the Pixel 3—which is sup­posed to log you in au­to­mat­i­cally when your phone is within Blue­tooth range—rarely worked. Oh, and a cou­ple of times I lost my Blue­tooth con­nec­tion al­to­gether and needed a full restart to get it back.

But my big­gest gripe with the Pixel Slate is how jar­ring the tran­si­tion is from tablet to Chrome­book. When you un­dock it from the key­board, what­ever app you’re us­ing ex­pands to full-screen. This re­quires a sec­ond or two of vis­ual and men­tal ad­just­ment, and not just be­cause you’re mov­ing from type to touch. You’re also switch­ing from mul­ti­task­ing to duo-task­ing. Float­ing to snapped. Desk­top to app drawer. This awk­ward­ness isn’t unique to the Pixel Slate in a post-chrome 70 world, but it’s the first con­sumer Chrome de­vice that sets it­self up as a ver­sa­tile 2-in-1. And ul­ti­mately it’s still just way bet­ter when teth­ered to a key­board that’s sold separately.

Worst of all, the tablet mode—which is how the Pixel is sold, sans key­board—is an in­fe­rior UI. The no-desk­top con­cept is a good one, but I’d rather the tablet mode kept a lit­tle more of the Chrome­book func­tion­al­ity rather than merely its de­sign cues. Or sim­ply ex­panded on An­droid’s pic­ture-in-pic­ture fea­ture, so apps like Cal­cu­la­tor or Files didn’t need to take up the whole screen. Chrome’s tablet UI has tremen­dous po­ten­tial, and the Pixel Slate feels like a clas­sic Google move to it­er­ate in pub­lic.

VER­DICT

There are a lot of things to like about the Pixel Slate. It has a gor­geous de­sign, it comes in a range of prices

and op­tions, and it has a thought­ful two-way in­ter­face that plays to the strengths of each for­mat. The com­pan­ion Pixel Slate Key­board fits the Slate like a dream, and the bat­tery lasts long enough to leave a charger be­hind.

But in its cur­rent state, it’s hard to rec­om­mend the Pixel Slate with­out a few caveats. You need the Pixel Slate Key­board. An­droid apps are more of a bonus than a sell­ing point. And there are enough lit­tle bugs to make it feel more like a $200 Chrome­book than a $1,000 model.

But while I prob­a­bly wouldn’t rec­om­mend the Pixel Slate to any­one look­ing for a full-time tablet or Chrome­book, I also wouldn’t talk some­one out of buy­ing one. For all of the an­noy­ances, I en­joyed us­ing the Pixel Slate, and it’s def­i­nitely one of Google’s best-de­signed prod­ucts. I’ll cer­tainly keep us­ing and re­port back as things im­prove. The Pixel Slate is very much the fu­ture, but for now, if you have $1,000 to spend on a Chrome­book, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off get­ting the year-old Pix­el­book ( go. pcworld.com/pxlb).

The Pixel Slate has enough mag­nets to stick it to the front of a re­frig­er­a­tor.

It’s not glass, but fin­ger­prints are still a thing on the Pixel Slate.

The Pixel Slate has a cam­era on the back, but you prob­a­bly won’t be us­ing it much.

The keys on the Pixel Slate Key­board are cir­cu­lar, which looks good but feels weird.

The Google Pixel Slate’s Core i5 pro­ces­sor is a screamer, as the CR-XPRT gen­eral bench­mark shows.

The Pixel Slate per­formed ex­tremely well us­ing the Basemark bench­mark test, which com­bines WEBGL and Javascript per­for­mance.

With straight Javascript us­ing the Jetstream bench­mark, the Pixel Slate was slightly out­paced by the Pix­el­book.

The Pixel Slate is pretty equal to last year’s Pix­el­book when test­ing Javascript.

The Pixel Slate has fan­tas­tic bat­tery life.

The Pixel Slate is one of Google’s best-de­signed hard­ware prod­ucts.

The back of the Pixel Slate is clean ex­cept for a cam­era and a small “G” logo in the cor­ner.

Chrome OS’S new dock is very Pc-like.

When at­tached to the Pixel Slate Key­board, the Pixel Slate looks like an or­di­nary Chrome­book.

The Pixel Slate Key­board has a very low pro­file.

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