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Google Pixel Tablet Review

Posted June 28, 2023 | Android | Google Pixel | Hardware | Mobile | Pixel Tablet | Windows


The Pixel Tablet isn’t Google’s first tablet, but it still feels like something new and different because of a bundled speaker dock that turns the device into a smart display and its awkward landscape-first orientation. I appreciate that Google is trying something new and different here, and I suspect there is an audience for this intriguing hybrid device. But I’d rather have two separate devices for those tasks, and its dual-use design introduces compromises.

Consider the iPad. Apple’s market-leading tablet began simply enough, with just a single product, but it expanded dramatically over time to include mini, Air, and Pro models, each of which targets a specific market or type of user. The lower-end iPads are purely consumption devices, and are used for reading, watching videos, playing games, and other idle tasks. The iPad Pros are for power users, some of whom use the device as laptop replacements with keyboard covers and folios, and Apple Pencil. (And there is of course cross-over between the products and use cases.)

Google looked at this market and decided to focus on what I assume it believes to be the sweet spot of this market. By which I mean, the volume sellers at the lower, consumption-focused part of the market. And it made some key observations about those products, including one that I’ve certainly experienced myself in over 10 years of iPad usage: these tablets tend to stay at home—they don’t travel around all that much—and they tend to just sit there, unused, most of the time. And so Google went for what I think of as the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup solution—“two great tastes that taste great together”—and made the Pixel Tablet a hybrid device, one that could be a standalone tablet and a smart display.

This is the type of idea that makes people nod their heads in agreement. It sounds right. But I’ve been using iPads and smart displays for a long time. And in my case, at least, replacing those two things with one device just doesn’t make sense.

Here’s why. I primarily use my iPad in the morning to read the news and then again at night for reading before I go to bed. And that means it travels between my living room and my bedroom throughout the day. Our smart display, meanwhile, sits in the kitchen, and it’s always on, running a photo slideshow of our family and friends that my wife and I both enjoy every time we step into that room. For us to have that same experience with this one device, I would have to explicitly remember to cart it over to the kitchen every time I was done reading rather than just do what anyone would do, which is to leave it wherever I was reading. And so in testing the Pixel Tablet, its speaker dock has just sat there, empty, not displaying photos. No one likes that. And I am not super-interested in training myself to behave differently and remember to dock the thing.

Another minor issue is that my tablet is my tablet, whereas the Pixel Tablet is designed to be more of a communal device. It supports multiple sign-ins, and it can be controlled by voice by multiple people when used as a smart display. That’s fine. But my wife and I both use our own devices to read, play games, interact with Duolingo, and whatever else. And we’re adults, so we’re not particularly interested in sharing a device for those use cases, or of keeping track of who can use it when. We always read at the same time, for example. I can only imagine this would be more problematic for a family with kids, each of whom would want their own devices too.

I’m sure this dual-use design will work well for some. But I would rather just use the Pixel Tablet as a tablet and have a separate smart display. The issue, then, becomes whether doing that makes any sense. At $499, it just doesn’t, and some of the Pixel Tablet’s design compromises pile on to make it a non-starter for me. But if I could get a Pixel Tablet for, say, $379—the charging speaker dock is sold separately for $129—I might be swayed. But even then, you run into the obvious iPad comparisons, and despite recent improvements to the Android ecosystem for large-screen devices, I think the Pixel Tablet would still fall short for most. It’s weird to me that Google didn’t try to undercut the iPad, given how beloved the market leader is.

Design

I like the minimalist look of the Pixel Tablet, and I’m especially happy with whatever matte coating Google put over its aluminum back. It’s a handsome device, especially in the hazel color I chose (and love). Oddly, hazel is the only color choice that ships with black display bezels: with the porcelain and rose colors, you get white bezels.

Those bezels are biggish, but not much bigger than those on my iPad Air, and they provide a good amount of space with which to hold the device in either orientation. It has rounded corners, which look great, and a slightly curved back that I prefer to the hard, straight edges of my iPad Air.

There are little divots, holes, and buttons on three of the four sides. Keeping to Google’s landscape orientation, you’ll find two speaker holes and a USB-C 3.2 Gen 1 port on the left, two microphone holes, a volume rocker, and a power button with an integrated fingerprint reader on the top, and speaker holes and (I think) another microphone hole on the right. On the bottom, there are two rubber bumpers, which I guess will help it not get scuffed when you rest it on a hard surface.

On the back, there is a single camera lens in the upper left corner and the pogo pins needed to pass through audio and data to and from the speaker dock, which connects magnetically. There’s also a webcam in the upper right center of the top bezel (in landscape mode).

Overall, I like the look and feel of this tablet just as much as Apple’s entries, so congratulations to Google on that. And at just over 1 pound, it feels balanced and light in my hands. But I wish it had a built-in kickstand, a feature all iPads also lack. To get that functionality, you need to buy a $79 case from Google. Boo.

As for the speaker dock, it’s color matched with the tablet, which is excellent, and I really like the cloth covering on its sides. It doesn’t do a damn thing when it’s not attached to the tablet, but you can’t even see it when the tablet is attached, which makes the screen appear to be floating in the air. Attaching the tablet is seamless, as it seems to just suck onto it magically (thanks to magnets). Detaching takes a bit of practice, but I’ve found that you can do so easily and reliably with two hands by pulling up from the bottom back of the tablet.

Overall, the speaker dock is a nice addition, albeit one that I wish wasn’t forced on me.

Display

The Pixel Tablet’s 10.9-inch 16:10 display is bright enough at 500 nits for indoor use, though the adaptive brightness setting routinely came in too dark for my liking, an issue I’ve had with Pixel phones too. It’s a nicely detailed display, with a resolution of 2560 x 1600 (276 PPI), and it of course supports both multitouch and USI 2.0 stylus pens, though Google doesn’t sell or provide the latter.

The issue, of course, is the aspect ratio. A 16:10 panel works wonderfully in landscape mode, and it provides a reasonable experience for two apps side-by-side should you want such a thing. But it’s less than ideal in portrait mode: reading apps feel too tall and thin, and even most apps that are customized for large displays seem to misread the device in this mode and offer a basic, one-column phone-style layout. A square-ish (4:3, 3:2, 6:5) display would have been a much better choice for people like me who spend most of their time in portrait mode. And that’s the problem here: this device is oriented for landscape usage, with precedence given to what I think are the less common use cases.

This doesn’t bother me, but the display is stuck at 60 Hz and doesn’t support high refresh rates too. And it’s just a plain-Jane LCD panel, and not OLED, with no support for HDR.

Hardware and specs

The Pixel Tablet is powered by the same Google Tensor G2 processor that powered last year’s Pixel 7 lineup (and the recently released Pixel 7a and Pixel Fold). Combined with 8 GB of RAM—less than the Pixel 7 Pro but the same as the Pixel 7 and 7a—I’ve found this chip to be an adequate but not stellar performer while using my standard set of consumption apps. But as is the case on my Pixel 7 Pro, it can get hot under load, and though games run fine, I don’t recommend this tablet if game-playing is a primary activity.

Bottom bumper

You can configure the Pixel Tablet with either 128 or 256 GB of UFS 3.1 storage. That should be adequate for most people, but even the base storage is more than I need. As with Pixel phones, there is no storage expansion option.

Connectivity

The Pixel Tablet ships with Wi-Fi 6 (not 6E) and Bluetooth 5.2 radios, plus an Ultra-Wideband (UWB) chip of unclear usage. I never had any issues with connectivity, and I achieved roughly 550 Mbps download speeds on my gigabit internet connection, roughly the same as my Pixel 7 Pro. (My Ethernet-based PC hits in the high 900s.)

Unlike with iPad, there is no cellular data connectivity, even as an option.

Audio-video

The Pixel Tablet has four built-in speakers, which you can see on the left and right of the device in landscape mode. They sound good, though their placement means your hands will block them when playing games or just holding the tablet normally in landscape mode. And as I’ve noticed with my phones, you can make them sound even better by cupping your hands behind them, giving the sound something to bounce off of. Note that there’s no headphone jack, though you can use wireless earbuds or USB-C headphones.

The Pixel Tablet also sports three microphones, two on the top and one on the right (in landscape), and it offers noise suppression capabilities to clean up Zoom calls. I never tested that, sorry, but I did use the microphones for “Hey, Google” a lot, and they work fine, even from great distances.

The front-facing webcam is a sharp 8 MP unit that I only looked at for testing purposes, but I suspect it would work well for video calls if needed.

Sound output is dramatically enhanced by the speaker dock: the same music and movies at the same volume offer much better bass and depth.

Cameras

I can’t say that the cameras in this device matter to me in the slightest, as I’m not going to go out into the world like an imbecile and start taking photos with it. But for the record, the front- and rear-facing cameras both offer an 8 MP sensor with an ƒ/2.0 aperture, a fixed focus, and an 84-degree field of view.

Security

With Google having moved to unreliable in-screen fingerprint readers with its Pixel line of phones, it’s only natural to worry about how they handle sign-ins with the Pixel Tablet. Fortunately, they’ve reverted to a fingerprint reader embedded in the power button, and while the recessed nature of that button makes it a bit hard to find at first, it works very well. You just have to rest your finger lightly on it—no pressing—and you’re in. And you can also use PIN, pattern, and password sign-ins if you’re a masochist.

Battery

It’s hard to gauge the battery life on a device like this, and that’s even more true if you use it as a smart display as Google intends. But used without the dock, the Pixel Tablet gets about two-thirds of the battery life I see with my two-year-old iPad Air, and that latter device has been getting noticeably less battery life in recent months than usual. In real-world terms, that means that I’ve had to charge the Pixel Tablet every three days or so, compared to every five days with the iPad. What is that in hours? I’m honestly not sure, but Google does provide various settings you can use to optimize the battery, including adaptive preferences and a battery-saver mode that I did not try. You can also disable the optimized dock charging and just charge it to full if you want.

When you do use the bundled speaker dock, you charge at just 15 watts, which protects the battery and keeps the temperature down. But Google does not include a USB-C cable or charger with the Pixel Tablet. So you will need to pack your own if you travel with it. The tablet does work fine with the PC and iPad chargers I tried.

Unique hardware features

Thanks to its bundled speaker dock, the Pixel Tablet does feature some unique functionality. For example, I often listen to a podcast or audiobook when shaving or doing dishes, and I normally do so using my phone. With the tablet, I can get some audio going, dock it, and then enjoy the richer and louder sound and I go about my work.

You can also cast content to the display, which is neat. I’ve done this a few times while doing dishes, and with both audio and video content. In this unique mode, the Pixel Tablet displays a nice Now Playing view, and you can tap the display to access some simple playback controls. I just wish I could do this without the tablet: it would be nice to cast a podcast or audiobook to the standalone speaker dock.

Software

I’m a fan of Google’s clean and highly optimized version of Android, and it transitions to this larger device nicely.

This is especially true of the home screen, where complicated layouts of icons and widgets seem to work well in both landscape and portrait mode somehow.

And of course, there are now features that are unique to large display devices like this, including a taskbar dock that’s accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen and an intuitive way to position two apps side-by-side onscreen.

Most of the apps I use handle the large display normally, beyond the weirdness of the tall display in portrait mode.

Of course, there are exceptions, and to see what that was like, I installed Instagram, an app I do not normally use on my iPad. On the Pixel Tablet, this app runs in a phone-shaped rectangle in the middle of the display, which is odd in landscape view, and you can double-tap the black areas on either side of it to move it to a side. You can also use another app next to it, though the black bars remain on the side with the phone app (Instagram). It works, but it’s not great. Fortunately, you can resize a compliant app to take up the empty space too.

When you dock the Pixel Tablet, it goes into what’s called Hub mode, where it emulates a smart display. This is configured in Settings, and I’ve got it set up like my dedicated smart display to show a photo slideshow of family and friends. But you can display weather, clock, and other experiences here too, and can interact with it using voice (Google Assistant) and various reminder and alert types. But Google Home users might want to leave that app running instead, as it’s a nice smart home front-end for those in that ecosystem.

Pricing and availability

The Google Pixel Tablet comes in porcelain, hazel, and rose colors and starts at $499 for a version with 128 of storage and a bundled and color-matched speaker dock. You can upgrade to 256 GB of storage for another $100, or $599 total. The firm also optionally offers Preferred Care coverage for accidental damage for $5 per month for two years, and there are various first- and third-party accessories as well.

Recommendations and conclusions

The Google Pixel Tablet is a compelling Android-based alternative to the iPad, but it’s an even better smart display. In fact, I’d love to buy a smart display like this.

As a standalone tablet, however, the Pixel Tablet comes with a few too many compromises, assuming you use tablets primarily in portrait mode, as I do. The 16:10 display is fine for landscape mode activities but awkward for reading in portrait mode. And it’s too expensive: I don’t like being forced to buy a speaker dock and would rather pay less for just the tablet. That said, the speaker dock is a nice addition, assuming you’re methodical about returning the tablet to the dock when not in use.

Overall, the Pixel Tablet is also a surprisingly high-quality and refined product, and while the Android ecosystem still lags behind the iPad a bit, Google has made big strides here and I think most people will find the software support to be more than adequate.

Ultimately, what this comes down to is how you think you’ll use the device. If you mostly use tablets for reading, like me, the Pixel Tablet is less than ideal. But if you enjoy landscape experiences more, want to multitask with two apps side-by-side, and like the idea of hybrid smart display usage, the Pixel Tablet is a unique and interesting option.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Terrific smart display functionality
  • Speaker dock usage is seamless, and offers excellent sound
  • Multitasking capabilities are obvious and well-designed

Cons

  • 16:10 display is awkward for portrait mode reading
  • Forcing customers to buy the speaker dock makes the device too expensive
  • Speaker dock is useless unless the tablet is docked
  • Speaker dock uses a proprietary charging cable and plug
  • No built-in kickstand



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