Over the past few years, new forms of personal computers have challenged the status quo of the portable PC. Is a 2-in-1 the same as a laptop? Is a detachable a tablet? Is the tablet the new laptop? Throw in desktop-grade chips and mobile-focused operating systems and you’ve got a recipe for a major shift in what we think of when we think of PCs.
Now, add Google’s newest Pixel to the mix. At a hardware event in New York City today the company announced the Pixel Slate, a Chrome OS tablet with a funky detachable keyboard. It was designed not to be a laptop in a tablet form factor, or a tablet that’s really a large phone, but to be a “completely new experience,” Trond Wuellner, a director of product management at Google, said on stage at the event.
Google says it built customized touch features for the Pixel Slate, which is the first tablet from Google to run Chrome OS. The Slate switches between tablet mode and “laptop” mode depending on how you’re using it. Not surprisingly, Google’s Assistant plays a role in the UI, too.
This new tablet shows that Google is focusing its efforts entirely on Chrome OS as it takes aim at devices like Apple’s iPad Pro and Microsoft’s Surface line. Previously, Google made the Chrome OS-based Pixelbook laptop and the Pixel C, a high-end and somewhat experimental Android tablet. Two years later it discontinued the Pixel C, but kept the Chrome OS Pixelbook around.
The Pixel Slate is larger than the Pixel C, with a 12.3-inch display compared to Pixel C’s 10-inch display. The Slate has an LCD display with a resolution of 3000 by 2000. Google claims it has the highest pixel density of any device in this category; while I haven’t used the Slate for any extended period of time yet, it does have a bright, lovely-looking display at first glance, and the type of LCD Google has used (a low-temperature poly-silicon) has the advantage of offering a high picture resolution.
The Slate is made of anodized aluminum, and its display is coated in Gorilla Glass. It’s 7 millimeters thin and weighs 1.6 pounds, which means it’s just a hair thicker and a few ounces heavier than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The edges of the Slate’s profile are curved slightly, for a comfortable feel; its weight is evenly distributed from the center. The company says it focused a lot on making this holdable. Google wants you to really hold this tablet, preferably for long periods of time, preferably while using Google software.
Like the new Pixel 3 phone, the Pixel Slate has a wide-angle front-facing camera, designed to fit everyone in the room in the frame when you’re making a video call. This front camera even has its own name: the Duo Cam, named after one of Google’s video chat apps. The tablet’s dual front-facing speakers have been custom-tuned to give good sound, and its power button on the top left-hand side of the frame doubles as a tiny fingerprint sensor. It charges via USB-C, and Google estimates that it could last up to 12 hours on a single charge. It doesn’t have LTE support.
Google made an interesting move with Slate’s internals: It’s shipping in four different configurations, and the tablet varies widely in terms of price. These range from an Intel 8th generation Core m3 processor, optimized for lightweight or fanless designs; to a Core i5 or i7 processor, which should have better graphics processing; to a lower-end Intel Celeron chip. It starts at $599 for a model with the Intel Celeron chip, 4 gigabytes of RAM and 32GB of SSD storage; and goes all the way up to $1,599 for 16GB of RAM, a 256 SSD, and Intel’s 8th generation Core i7 chip.
That $599 price doesn’t include the accessory keyboard for the Pixel Slate, a full-pitch, backlit keyboard with an extra-large trackpad. This will cost you an extra $199. Like the accessory keyboard for iPad Pro and Microsoft’s Surface Pro, it doubles as a folio cover for the Slate, and it connects via a magnet connector, which Google has dubbed its Quick Snap connector. And it draws power from the tablet’s internal battery, the same way the others do.
Google’s earlier Pixel C also had a detachable keyboard, but it wasn’t backlit and was using a different charging mechanism. That tablet used magnetic resonance to charge; the Pixel Slate keyboard uses an electrical connection.
One way in which the Pixel Slate keyboard stands out from pack: Its keys are round, a nod to the circular app icons on other Pixel devices. It’s a funky design, but it will be interesting to see what the round keys mean for typing accuracy.
Where things get even more interesting on the Pixel Slate is with its UI. The interface changes when you connect the tablet to the accessory keyboard, switching it to a familiar Chrome OS desktop. When the keyboard is attached, the Slate goes into “app screen” mode, with the page filled with apps and the Google Assistant making app suggestions near the top of the screen.
Google says it also redesigned the Chrome browser to be more accessible on a tablet, with bigger touch targets at the top of the browser. Browser tabs can also be manipulated by dragging them around, a kind of desktop window approach to navigation, but designed for a large touchscreen tablet. The Pixel Slate also has a split-screen mode, one of the advantages of having such a large display.
While analysts have been optimistic about the detachable category relative to the broader PC market, tablets in general (including slate tablets) have shown some weakness in sales lately. And Apple is still the clear leader in this area, with its iPad Pro. Let’s see if Google’s Pixel Slate can get people excited about slates again.
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