The Google Pixel C – What Happened and Where Are We Now?

It’s now been 6 months since the Google Pixel C tablet hit store shelves. Well, it’s didn’t actually hit store shelves – the device is available only from the Google store – but 6 months is about halfway into the one-year lifecycle of most mobile electronics these days. When it was announced in October 2015 alongside the Nexus 5X and 6P phones, it was touted by Google to be a premium-quality productivity machine. Does it live up to expectations? To answer that question, we’re going to have to take a look at the history of the Pixel C.

March 2015. Google has just released the Chromebook Pixel 2015 version – the most high-end Chromebook that the world had ever seen, and also the most expensive by a factor of four. Google had solidified the Pixel device line as the top tier of Chromebook hardware. Indeed, the Chromebook Pixel was the pinnacle of what a Chromebook could be: top-of-the-line hardware performance with a fit and finish rivalled only by Apple with their infernal Macbooks. The fact that it was ultimately a $1300 Facebook machine was largely irrelevant to Google (though not to consumers) – they were demonstrating what kind of hardware they were capable of producing, and they were showing Chromebook manufacturers like Asus, HP and Dell what was possible. In doing so, it also attracted the attention of Android users like myself.

Android is open-source, and that means that anyone can muck about with it and make it look and feel how they want. This is fantastic because it can be tailored to all kinds of different devices and applications with ease. Unfortunately, this also leads to most device manufacturers bogging down their phones and tablets with their own (often buggy) software that usually cannot be uninstalled. Samsung comes to my mind as the worst for this: My Samsung Galaxy Tab S came with over two dozen unnecessary apps that could not be removed, and many of them were running constantly in the background eating away at the performance of the otherwise excellent tablet. Touchwiz is the worst of this – an entire user interface that’s been Samsungified. It’s slow, clunky, and full of “features” whose only purpose is so they can be advertised on the box. Or to make some of that sweet, sweet partnership money.

To escape all of this, I quickly found my way to the Nexus line of phones, which began in 2010 with the Nexus One. The Nexus phones are built by manufacturers like HTC, LG, and Motorola, but are sold through Google and come with clean, pure Android the way Google intended. Only the essential applications are preloaded, and the rest is for the user to decide. The Nexus line is known for being clean and efficient – something that I value in a device I use throughout each day. But the Nexus phones, and later tablets, aren’t perfect. They’re usually of mediocre build quality, are often too expensive for what you get, and some hardware features like the camera are notoriously lacking (although this changed in 2015 with the Nexus 5X and 6P – they had top-end cameras). So it’s no surprise that, upon seeing what Google could do with hardware in the Pixel line (which is designed and manufactured by Google itself), Android users started asking for Pixel phones and tablets. Top quality hardware matched with pure Android. Google answered this request with the Pixel C. Or did they?

Rumours began spreading in summer of 2015 that Google was working on a Pixel tablet. The Pixel devices had, until this point, all been powered by Chrome OS. What follows is conjecture – well-informed conjecture, mind you, but conjecture none the less: The Pixel C was supposed to run Chrome OS as well. When the device launched, it quickly became clear that it was not the productivity machine that it was touted to be. The hardware was excellent, but Android Marshmallow simply wasn’t up to the task. It lacked multi-window support, which severely limited multitasking. It was designed to work in landscape mode, which many of the most popular Android applications do not support. But most importantly it was limited to what was available in the Google Play store, which was, and still is, seriously lacking in apps with tablet support. These shortfalls were pretty much universally acknowledged by reviewers, and they were absolutely right. Chrome OS has none of these problems, but it did have a different problem: Touchscreen support.

Chrome OS was built to use a mouse (or trackpad) and keyboard, and that means most things display the way they would on a desktop computer. There aren’t any big tappable buttons, the on-screen keyboard isn’t up to par, and there isn’t any swiping functionality built into the system either, not to mention the many thousands of browser extensions built by third party developers. The Pixel C is a tablet – the touchscreen is the primary interface. It’s very likely that Google wasn’t able to get Chrome OS to work as nicely as they wanted on the device, and with the launch deadline coming up, the decision was made to just give it Android and hope for the best. And when it finally launched, what we got was a great Android tablet, but a poor productivity device.

But that was then, and this is now. Google has been rumoured to be working towards unifying Chrome OS and Android into a single operating system. They’ve already announced that they are working on making Android apps work on Chrome OS, in fact, and Android N is paving the way for this with built-in multi-window support, among other features. In April 2016, Google released the Android N developer preview and, as of this writing, the beta version of Android N is now available on the Pixel C. Does the next version of Android help the Pixel C with its software woes? Yes. Yes, it does. Not completely – my bulky laptop could do better, and it’s miles behind my desktop, but it’s enough that it’s a viable option now.

In fact, I wrote this entire article using my Pixel C, which is something to say about its ability to get work done now. Gone are the software and hardware bugs that plagued the system in the early days, and now with split-screen support, I can write in Google Docs in one half of the display, while researching in Chrome on the other half. And I cannot stress enough that the Pixel C is a fantastic tablet for media consumption and basic productivity. I use it daily for browsing Reddit in bed, reading e-books, and taking notes in meetings at work.

Ultimately, though, the Pixel C is still more a great first attempt than it is a mobile productivity powerhouse. And it’s not because of the hardware – it’s as beautiful and fast and solid as one could ask for. But Android, even N, isn’t yet enough to replace your notebook for getting serious work done.