The Misfortunate Pixel C: A Gigantically Insufficient Leap for Android Tablets

The Misfortunate Pixel C: A Gigantically Insufficient Leap for Android Tablets

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There is one particular device that disappointed me greatly last year, an Android product that promised to fulfill a void in the ecosystem, but that mightily failed to do so — and in great part it failed because it was an Android product.

The Pixel C was set to be the tablet that would bring productivity into the Android tablet landscape, a segment where Google’s hold is in dire need of saving. Ultimately, the dated and forsaken nature of Android tablets became its demise, with many condemning reviews calling out Google’s inability to live up to its own vision, once more. The Pixel C could have been a triumphant return for the Android tablet, but instead, it brought a sub-par experience that in turn brought out the worst flaws in Android tablets and put them on the spotlight.

The Pixel C is a giant leap for Android tablets, but a comparatively small step for tabletkind

As a student and editor-on-the-go, I was truly looking forward to the Pixel C. The promise of a compact tablet with a good keyboard and just the right amount of services for what I wanted was enticing. At the same time, many of us were expecting Google to do something more with the software:

Rumors of a Chrome OS merge were roaming about, some people were anxiously awaiting a multi-window implementation at long last, but I personally wanted a re-designed user interface and the foundations for better tablet software the most. Alas, all we got were minor changes to few things such as the navigation bar.

I haven’t bought a Pixel C, and I haven’t even seen one either — saying this was set to become a popular device would be silly, anyway. What I do see is plenty of its competitors, in every place and from every facet of life. Students, teachers, coffee shop goers, businessmen in suits… I’ve been seeing plenty of iPads and Surface tablets, but no Pixel C’s. The price alone is, in my opinion, one of the biggest deferments. With the current $499 pricetag, the Pixel C simply cannot justify the impairments it imbues upon the user’s experience and productivity. Why is the Pixel C such a bad deal?

Behind the Times

The Pixel C is a giant leap for Android tablets, but a comparatively small step for tabletkind. Whereas Google had a very rapid evolution with Android on phones and outpaced its competitors, in the span of a few years both Microsoft and Apple have managed to double down on their tablet efforts and cement themselves supreme in said space. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have considered a tablet; I was part of the camp that said they were an useless inbetweener, a bigger screen for the same use-cases my phone provides, minus the power of a laptop. But the tablet and the portable computer are, in many ways, merging. We saw the onset of this trend in 2015 with Microsoft perfecting the detachable tablet in the Surface 3 and Surface Pro 4, Apple entering the market with the iPad Pro, and the Pixel C awkwardly trying to compete.

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There is certainly one thing the Pixel C does best.

This isn’t to say the Pixel is not better than these other devices for some people, particularly Android lovers who simply want an ultra-powerful tablet with a nice keyboard to boot. But the sad reality is that, when measuring most individual aspects and the overarching sum, the Pixel C is not a device you can recommend to the target demographic it was allegedly aiming for. For an Android tablet, the specs are top notch, best in class. But even the affordable Surface 3, coming in at around $400 with Windows 10 at the moment of this writing, outpace it in virtually every metric but screen resolution. That and the sheer versatility Surface tablets offer put the Pixel C behind in terms of options, flexibility, and value.

Funnily enough, the Surface can be a better Android tablet than Google’s own flagship, thanks to Remix OS.

I say this because Surface can run not just a couple of Windows versions, but also Linux,  and Hackintosh software. It can even run Remix OS, the kind of tablet software that Android should offer by now. And it does this by providing an hardly-debatable superior bang-per-buck, with specification bumps to please many demographics as well.

Android Couldn’t Have Saved it

If you have followed our XDA podcast, or read some of my opinion pieces on Google’s late 2015 repertoire, you might have caught glimpses of my huge hype for the Pixel C. I instantly (and perhaps naively) fell in love with the idea and design, and funnily enough, I now realise that the thing that made me want it so much is actually much of what holds it back — Android. I wanted a small device to fit in my college bag, one that I could use to write and edit articles on the go, and perhaps use it for classes as well. I didn’t really ask for much out of such a device, and the specifications of the Pixel C looked good enough for the job. It was not until I saw the price and the stagnation of its software that I decided there was no way I’d get one.

But surprisingly enough, I now realise that even if it had a better Android, or chrome OS (as it should have had), or a brilliant mix between two for that matter, it still wouldn’t be nearly enough to out-value some of its competition. For all the bad things I have to say about Apple and Microsoft, their tablet offerings are of very high quality, and Google’s tablet could beat the iPad Pro in particular if it had the things mentioned above… but not Microsoft’s Surface offerings, at least not for the productivity-oriented consumer. After spending quite some time with a Surface Pro 3 I realise that the value it offers a STEM student is immense. I can carry it like a notebook, use a plethora of amazing applications side by side, as well as easily do my homework on it (online math assignment platforms are particularly clunky on Android), take notes, and everything I could ever need to do or compute outside of home.

There is better value out there than what the Pixel C could have offered

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Google recognizes the failure that the Pixel C was. The Pixel C as it stands today is a far shot from what Android needed in order to stand up against both Apple and Microsoft in the pursue of a highly-relevant segment of the tablet market, perhaps the only relevant aspect of said market that remains. Do consider that despite tablet sales volumes going down year after year, Microsoft and Apple are putting out highly-advanced tablets, with the Surface in particular amassing Microsoft a very healthy revenue. With both companies trying to expand their hold on education and enterprise through computers and multi-use devices., Google’s chromebook and Android efforts arguably fall behind in scope and ambition.

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There are things the Pixel C just can’t do.

And this is something I feel is key. If you go to an Apple or Microsoft store, or look at their advertisements, you’ll see that they know precisely who their products are aimed at. Artists and designers, students of both soft and hard sciences, businessmen… all represented in the promotional images and videos, each styled to the specific groups of people that would buy either brand. The Pixel C received much less than that, and the little exposure it got was completely unfocused. As hyped as I was for this tablet, and as foolishly excited I was for a chance for Google to rekindle their OS on tablets, I now realise that there is much better value out there than what Google could have offered.

Remix OS, and now Phoenix OS, have actually realised that this void exists, and set out to tackle it themselves, just like Andromium did before Microsoft Continuum became a thing. Google, on the other hand, has been too slow to act on not just the intuitively natural evolution of the OS (i.e. things such as multi-window) but actively delayed the insanely vocal cries of its most loyal enthusiasts. It’s hard to argue in favor of Android on tablets today, but it was just as hard a year ago, and nearly as hard two years ago as well. The Nexus 9 faced plenty of the same criticism the Pixel C deserves today, and the Nexus 10 received similar criticism that Android tablets today face, over 3 years ago, and for a good reason, Android has not improved its tablet experience one significant bit.

Time to Move Forward

I think the Android N release will be crucial for the future of Android computing, and tangentially, the future of Android in schools and businesses.This importance isn’t just due to Android M providing a lackluster tablet and laptop experience but because 2016, a year to be marked by the downfall of the single use tablet, is a year that is also slated to see growth in the detachable tablet space. This is the only segment of the tablet market set to grow in 2016, and Google has found itself caught with its pants around its ankles.

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The Pixel C is, in my opinion, unreasonably expensive at its current price — especially considering Microsoft’s offerings, which are superior in hardware and in functionality (if you are willing to use Windows). It is a powerful Android tablet, but not the most powerful tablet, and it can’t even execute the use-cases it set out to achieve properly — certainly not with an ecosystem of phone-focused apps that sometimes don’t even support landscape mode. Even if the Pixel C resembled the Chromebook Pixel in its OS, it still wouldn’t offer the value and functionality needed to battle it out with the giants. Don’t get me wrong, Chromebooks are lovely, but Chrome is not enough.

There is hope, though: as we reported earlier this week, there are good reasons to speculate that Android N will include expanded stylus support, and multi-windows is essentially guaranteed to come as well. Considering the Pixel C’s failure and the catching up Google needs to do, this is a no-brainer addition Google must add if it plans on setting foot on the productive-tablet sub-segment, and a suggestion that we might finally see a proper tablet OS from Mountain View. Until then, though, the Pixel C remains a great Android tablet, but only as a monument to how much the tablet OS has stagnated. And unless Google gets it just right and finds the proper niche, it’s hard to see them out-valuing Microsoft and many of the similar offerings coming from OEMs in 2016 and beyond.

Hopefully Remix or Phoenix will bring their efforts to the Pixel C and, at the very least, breathe some life into it, life that it should have had from the get-go. Please don’t fail us again, Google; I’d love to carry an Android tablet with me every day, but at the moment that’d be too unproductive.

Credit to ArsTechnica for Pixel Fridge image.