Google Pixel Slate Review: Android Apps On a Chrome Tablet

Google’s efforts to meld Android and Chrome, its two major operating systems, continues apace. The new Pixel Slate tablet is a slick addition that shows off the highest–and lowest–points of the attempted merger.

At the basic level, the Slate is a 12-inch, all-black tablet (Google calls it “midnight blue”) that starts at $600 with the basic specs of an Intel Celeron processor, 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. But you can load it with upgrades. The slate provided for review by Google was the intermediate $1,000 model with a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage.

The most maxed out model comes with a speedier Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage for $1,600. The detachable keyboard is another $200 and a stylus that works with the touch-sensitive screen is $100.

At 1.6 pounds and 7 mm thick, it’s just slightly bigger than Apple’s 12-inch iPad Pro but feels about the same in the hand. The back has a sharp looking metallic tint, with a subtle Google “G” logo in blue.

Over the past few years, Chrome devices have been infused with more Android compatibility so that they can run more advanced apps, like Microsoft Excel and Google’s Snapseed photo editor. That greatly enhances what you can actually do with recent Chrome-based devices, which used to be limited to apps running inside the browser.

In last year’s review of the Google Pixelbook, I found running Android apps on Chrome devices wasn’t always as smooth and easy as it should be. Things had improved a bit in last month’s review of the HP Chromebook x2, a tablet and keyboard combo much like the Slate. And that’s still the state of play: there’s a lot more room for improvement for Android apps on Chrome devices before they can catch up to Apple’s iPad, which itself isn’t perfect, but at least offers a reliable and consistent experience with every app.

Still, through trial and error and a little web research, you can find plenty of Android apps that work well on Chrome devices like the Slate. And more software developers are updating their apps to work better on Chrome devices. One of my favorite simple text editors, iA Writer, used to have trouble when I tested the Pixelbook last year but it now works without a hitch on that laptop or the new Slate. Just last week, Google updated its own Duo video conferencing Android app to work on Chrome devices.

Special features

Google has also added a few new software tricks for the Slate. Drag an open tab from the Chrome browser to the side of the screen and it pops out in its own window, splitting the screen in half, with the browser remaining in the other half. That lets you see two apps at once, perfect for taking notes on a web site or other common productivity tasks.

Or pulling down from the top of the screen shows all open apps in a mini view, allowing you to pick any two apps to split the screen. The new split view is a big improvement from trying to jump from app to app. It’s pretty similar to Apple’s split view, introduced a few years ago in iOS 9, though with its own set of gestures.

Another neat feature is handwriting recognition when using Google’s stylus. Whenever the on-screen virtual keyboard pops up, there’s a small squiggly icon at the top left. Press it and the keys disappear, replaced by a rectangular area for writing with the pen. As you write, Google translates your scribble into typed characters. It’s speedy and surprisingly accurate. It seems perfect for scribbling quick notes at a lecture or meeting. Then again, many people may prefer just typing.

At the top right of the virtual keyboard, there’s a microphone icon for taking dictation. Apple and Android phones have featured dictation for a while, and I still find Google’s voice recognition more accurate.

If you have an Android phone, Google is also working to create a smoother experience for using all your devices together, as Apple has done for its customers who use multiple products. Slate users can send and receive texts if they have an associated Pixel phone and the devices can instantly share the phone’s Internet connection. It’s not as advanced as some of Apple’s tricks, which instantly send photos and files between two devices and even copy text on one device and instantly paste it on another.

Using a second display

The Pixel Slate is well constructed and feels solid. The power button also works as a fingerprint reader for logging in without a password. And there’s a dedicated button on the detachable keyboard for summoning Google’s digital assistant, as well.

The tablet has two USB-C ports for charging or connecting peripherals like a 4K external monitor. The Slate can therefore truly take advantage of a second display, unlike the latest iPad Pro models, which have a USB-C port but can’t do much on a second monitor. You can run different apps on the Slate’s external screen and directly on the Slate’s screen, like on a typical PC that is used with two screens, for example. The Slate’s detachable keyboard includes a trackpad for moving the cursor around or controlling whatever is on an external screen—and you can even plug in a mouse. You can’t do any of that on the iPad.

Speaking of the detachable keyboard, the Pixel Slate’s is surprisingly decent. When struck, the keys move down a noticeable amount—far better for rapid typing than the squishy keyboards from Apple and some others. And there’s backlighting, another rarity for this segment, making it easier to type in a dimly lit room. Like the new HP Chromebook x2 tablet, Google’s detachable keyboard easily snaps on and off with magnets—no Bluetooth connection required. It’s a bit loud connecting back on the magnets, however, with the sharp, snapping noise of metal hitting metal.

So with its solid hardware quality and improved software, is the Pixel Slate a winner?

Value may be a big hurdle for many buyers. The entry-level HP x2 tablet is also $600 but comes with a pen and keyboard cover and is a little better looking to my eyes. And some reviewers have said the entry-level Pixel Slate at that price is noticeably slow and laggy. Meanwhile, the 12-inch iPad Pro costs $1,000, but it has a vastly faster processor than even the upgraded Pixel Slate models along with access to Apple’s better software ecosystem, with its far greater number of compatible apps and more tricks to work in tandem with an iPhone.

But if you’re already deep in Google’s ecosystem, especially if you have a Pixel phone, there’s an awful lot to like about the Pixel Slate.

(Update: This story was updated on Dec. 23 to note the model of Pixel Slate supplied for review was the Core i5 version and to add a link to poor reviews of the entry-level model.)

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