Laptabs, or tabtops, if you prefer, are the gadget of the moment.
Ever since the first Asus Transformer, companies have been trying to make a tablet that could actually be used for work. Microsoft's Surface has gradually been building momentum, Apple has followed with the iPad Pro, and now Google has joined the fray with the Pixel C, a 10-inch tablet with a keyboard.
But what does the C stand for: capable or culpable? Commendable or condemnable? Crafty or crud?
Maybe it just stands for 'computer'. Anyway: to the review!
The design is really nice. The Pixel C is basically a small Chromebook Pixel. It’s very light and thin, to the extent that I briefly carried it tucked inside the dust jacket of a large hardback book. The two halves are held together by magnets, and to put it into laptop mode you pull the tablet and keyboard apart, flip the tablet over and let the magnets click it into position. The hinge can then be rotated to hold the screen upright.
The hinge is pretty firm and the magnet on the back is strong, so despite its small size, it feels quite solid. It rests comfortably on your knees for typing, and because the footprint is small, it fits easily onto one of the tiny little tables on the backs of plane and train seats, spaces that a laptop or a Surface would be too large to fill.
Probably the most important feature for a device like this is its keyboard, and the Pixel C's is surprisingly good. 'Surprisingly', because it looks so small, but actually the typing area is normal - the keys are full-size, and they have decent travel (a full 1.4mm, key travel fans). It feels like a smaller version of the superb keyboard on its big brother, the Chromebook Pixel.
It’s a lot quicker and easier to type on than the Transformer tablets, or the Surface Pro 4. Some sensible choices have been made in the design, too: classic shortcuts like Alt-Tab do just what you expect them to do. An ellipsis key next to the space bar brings up symbols (as on a phone keyboard), which is really handy. To counteract the usefulness of this key, tapping the Alt key in Google Docs brings up a menu of stupidly grinning emoji.
There are even some nice tweaks to Google Docs waiting in Android 6.0, including the ability to easily drag pictures and references into your document.
Your hands are very close to the screen, much closer than they are when using a Surface. This can be a good thing in that it makes the transition between the keys and the touchscreen very simple and intuitive. The touchscreen on the Chromebook Pixel isn’t really necessary because there’s a mousepad, but here you’ll use it a lot.
The connection to the keyboard is wireless (Bluetooth) but there’s no lag whatsoever and it never asks you to pair it. The keyboard also charges wirelessly from the tablet, so you just plug the whole thing into a USB charger and never really have to consider them as separate elements.
The 2560 x 1800 display is sharper and brighter than that of the iPad Air 2, cramming in over 300 pixels per inch (the MacBook Pro Retina has 227 ppi). It's a really, really nice screen, and again it's reminiscent of the expensive componentry you get on Chromebook Pixels. You'll be horrified the first time you go to delete some emails and leave a fingersmear of biscuit chocolate across the middle of it.
It makes the most of its display, too, with some of the most powerful Android hardware we’ve used so far. The Pixel C shares the same hardware as Nvidia’s Shield Console, pairing the new Tegra X1 chip with 3GB RAM. As a result Goat Simulator loads in seconds, and runs without the slightest lag. Because the Pixel C uses Tegra hardware, you could also run Half-Life 2 and Portal on it (using a controller and Nvidia’s Tegrazone app).
Controlled by android
Having Android as the OS is a major advantage. There are reasons to like ChromeOS - namely its speed and simplicity - but Android’s choice of apps is years ahead. You can use other browsers, such as Firefox or Ghostery, and apps like Spotify, BBC iPlayer and Amazon Instant Video run natively and allow you to store music, movies and TV on the device, so you can play them offline. In fact you can run everything that ChromeOS has to offer on Android and hundreds of other things, including thousands of games and powerful photo editors like Adobe's Lightroom.
Charged by USB-C
In our video rundown test the Pixel averaged around 10% battery loss per hour, so it’ll match the iPad Air and iPad Pro with 10 hours of watching movies or web browsing. You could comfortably expect to get at least one working day (a long working day, including commutes) of use out of the Pixel C, without needing to charge it. And if you do need to charge it, the charger is a small and light phone-type one, or you can just plug its USB-C cable into any port.
Using the supplied charger will cause the Pixel C to smugly declare that it's charging 'rapidly'. With a larger battery to fill it doesn't hoover up electrojuice quite as quickly as a Galaxy S6, but it's still pretty speedy. Another nice Pixel design point is that you can tap the closed Pixel C (or the table near it) and the lightbar on the back will tell you how much battery it has left.
There's an 8MP camera on the back of the tablet. If the Pixel C was a phone we'd be deeply unimpressed by the quality of its photographs, but the important thing here is that its 2MP front-facing camera performs very well in Hangouts and Skype calls. As you'd expect from a Google device, Hangouts are particularly well supported.
Currently missing a couple of small points
There's not much missing, but if you're keen to use a stylus then you're better off looking at the Surface or the iPad Pro and its Magical Pencil. There's also currently no split-screening of apps, although on a 10in screen this wouldn't be all that practical, and Android's excellent multitasking and notifications make it unnecessary.
The speakers aren’t amazing - they’re better than most phones, and they’re positioned at either end for proper stereo sound, but they’re a little raspier than the sound from the latest iPad Air. They’re plenty good enough for watching a few episodes of Bojack Horseman while ironing, though.
Google Pixel C verdict
At US$650 with keyboard, the Pixel C is at least cheaper than a keyboard-equiped iPad Pro or Surface Pro 4. Only the Surface 3 can compete on price.
That said, the machines that may have more to learn from this tasty little workhorse aren't necessarily other convertibles, but Chromebooks. They now outsell Windows laptops, but Chromebooks are still growing in popularity because they're simple and affordable. If the Pixel C is successful, your next laptop might be an Android machine - and based on our experience of it, that would be no bad thing.