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Google Pixel Slate is the Mirror Universe iPad Pro

A week with Google's new tablet shows me what I miss most... and what I've taken for granted.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I have a dream of a tablet that can also be my laptop. The Microsoft Surface already does that. The iPad Pro tries for that, but delivers only half of the equation. And now the Google Pixel Slate claims to offer the exact things the iPad Pro lacks most, but at an equally high price. But it brings with it a host of weaknesses -- oddly, the stuff that the iPad Pro does really well.

The Pixel Slate is like the mirror universe iPad Pro, and at nearly the same price. It has what the other lacks, and lacks what the other has. And what I'd rather have is a fusion of both products. As a work machine, the Pixel Slate gets to my writing and websurfing goals faster, and in a more laptop-like way. But it's not my perfect portable computer, either. Far from it. Despite all that it does right, I wouldn't shell out $599 (£549) or, likely, even more for this -- plus $160-$200 more for one of the must-have keyboards.

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iPad Pro 12.9 (left) and Pixel Slate (right). There are similarities in accessory design.

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Unlike Google's last Google Chromebook product, the laptop-like premium Pixelbook, the Pixel Slate turns into a convertible along the lines of the Microsoft Surface Pro, with a version of ChromeOS that leans more towards the feel of a Google Pixel phone. It sounds like a great idea on paper, but the idea is sometimes better than the execution.

But after a long Thanksgiving weekend with the Pixel Slate, I kept wondering: Who is this product for? If it's aimed at everyone, the price is too high. If it's aimed at pro computer users, why not a Surface Pro or something similar with Windows 10? And if aimed at pro-minded artists and those who want a stellar tablet. why not an iPad Pro?

That's not to say a Chrome tablet isn't a good idea, and useful as a general work device. I'm sitting here, typing away on the Pixel Slate with a Brydge keyboard, and that's pretty great. It has a good keyboard and a desktop-like web browser. So what's not to like?

Well, for one, the price. And, the hardware and software seem to still be a little buggy in my daily use so far... sometimes fast, sometimes oddly sluggish. The Pixel Slate may be Google's model for Chrome's future, but at the moment it feels more experimental than perfect, like a product in beta -- with software that can sometimes be smooth, and sometimes be anything but.

Here's what the Pixel Slate gets right, and gets wrong.

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What's great

Keyboard is laptop-perfect (but which to choose?)

I received two keyboard accessories with the Pixel Slate: Google's own Pixel Slate Keyboard ($199), and the G-Type, made by Brydge ($160). Both are really good, and both have large trackpads that help add some laptop-like feel. But they have really different uses and drawbacks.

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The Pixel Slate Keyboard works great on tables, not on laps.

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Google's Pixel Slate keyboard is a lot like the Microsoft Surface Pro keyboard. It's meant to sit on a desk, and its rear cover turns into a magnetic adjustable stand. The keys are round, but have a satisfying mechanism and are generously spaced. The case attaches through a magnetic connector on the side of the Pixel Slate, powering the keyboard. It also doubles as a folio case. But unlike Apple's new iPad Pro keyboard, this isn't lap-usable at all. And it's an odd folio case, too. The plastic keyboard cover seems to slide across the Pixel Slate's display when closed.

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Brydge's G-Type keyboard: total laptop feel, but not convertible to use as a tablet.

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The G-Type from Brydge has been more my go-to. It turns the Pixel Slate into a clamshell laptop, and feels great to type on. But it doesn't fold back to enable the Slate to be used as a tablet, which means it'll have to be removed. It pairs via Bluetooth, and needs to be charged separately. And it attaches by sliding the Slate into rubberized brackets that hold the tablet in place, which feels less elegant and secure than Google's keyboard. It doesn't offer any protection to the Slate, either.

I like the G-Type a little more, but the Pixel Slate Keyboard has backlit keys, and does a better job as a tablet case on the go.

Now playing: Watch this: Google Pixel Slate tablet first look
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ChromeOS does exactly what I want it to do

The Chrome browser on the Pixel Slate works like a regular desktop version of Chrome, which is all I need it to do. With lots of tabs open at once, web pages open and read normally, and everything works. This has been the appeal of Chromebooks since the beginning, and the Pixel Slate does the same. Not a surprise, but it's nice versus the iPad Pro, which is more of a hassle for office work. The efficient feel of Chrome makes it a quick tool to pick up and do something at home or fire off an email. When the keyboard's connected, it's essentially a laptop.

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That side button is a fingerprint reader, too.

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The fingerprint reader is a nice touch

Signing in without a password is pretty quick with the side button on the Pixel Slate, which doubles as a fingerprint reader. But it's not hooked into a lot of uses, as far as I can tell, and it's not as seamlessly integrated as Face ID is into the iPad Pro.

Battery life is good

A relatively full day of use on a full charge is what I got from the Pixel Slate. It seems more than good enough, and kept a decent charge even while playing games, streaming videos and keeping a bunch of tabs open.

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Instant always-on Google Assistant is helpful

Being able to tap to request things, search for information or do anything similar gives the Pixel Slate more of a Pixel phone feel on a big screen. I like the way it's integrated at the press of a keyboard. I had a few problems getting it to listen in a cafeteria over office Wi-Fi, but getting restaurant recommendations hands-free by saying, "Hey, Google" is cool, and Google Assistant talks just like you'd expect it to, so it's like having another Google assistant-equipped smart screen.

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A pop-up settings menu comes in handy.

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Display: Looks good

The Pixel Slate's high-resolution, 12.3-inch, 3,000x2,000-pixel "Molecular Display" is very good, but not always great. Colors and text sometimes seemed washed out at off angles, compared to the most recent iPad Pro display. The display's glass is also rather prone to glare. On an NJ Transit train car, writing this review, I had to squint at times. At home, with brightness up, it looked much nicer.

Two USB-C ports are better than one

If you're comparing to an iPad, at least the Pixel Slate has an extra USB-C port. That could mean using wired headphones while charging, or connecting to a display and charging at the same time. 

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USB-C ports on both sides (don't worry, they're on the bottom when the tablet's docked).

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What I didn't like

The price

Chromebooks started as something you could get for a song, a modern alternative to the netbook. It was the Dream of the $200 Laptop.

Now, if the Pixel Slate was $400-$500, keyboard and pen included, it could also be tempting. But at its outrageous iPad Pro-level price, it's something I can't imagine anyone actually buying. Sure, the Pixel Slate starts at $599. But the faster systems you probably would want climb up fast. I didn't get to test all the configuration options, but the review unit Google sent me is the $1,000 (£969) one with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. But all you get in the box is the tablet and a headphone adapter: the $199 (£189) Pixel Slate keyboard and $100 (£99) Pixelbook Pen are sold separately.

There are plenty of more affordable Chromebooks, including the HP Chromebook X2, which does most of what the Pixel Slate does for a lot less, and hybrids that can fold their keyboards back, such as the Samsung Chromebook Plus V2. And Windows touchscreen tablet-laptop hybrids such as the Surface Pro 6 do more for those who need a work machine. And for a tablet, I'd still go with an iPad.

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USB-C times two, but nothing else.

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No expandable storage

There's no SD or microSD card slot on the Pixel Slate, which means you'll have to settle for the onboard storage that's included or use a USB-C connected external drive. The 32GB on the $599 configuration should be fine for basic Chromebook purposes, but it's annoying to not have the microSD option.

You're stuck with Chrome OS, and Google Play isn't as good as iOS' App Store

Chrome has its advantages: It updates automatically, it's clean and secure, and it starts up instantly. But it also means Google's OS is the only way to get things done. Multitasking between apps doesn't always feel fluid, although apps can be moved around in windows like a PC. 

Google Play's selection of apps is larger than you might think, and the Pixel Slate supports many Android apps, but almost all ChromeOS apps I've need to be online to work. A few offline apps do exist, but the whole offline experience is still far worse than an iPad Pro. Chrome is a great environment for kids, and for everyday light computing. But I'm less forgiving of it at a higher price.

Similarly, being able to work with standard Android apps on Google Play is great, and would be even more impressive for a lower-priced device. App performance and selection, while better than the last time I lived on a Chromebook years ago, still doesn't win me over compared to an iPad. The Pixel Slate wouldn't be my weekend entertainment tablet of choice. Microsoft's Office apps and Adobe's Creative Cloud apps are present to download onto the Pixel Slate, though.

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The Pen works, but it doesn't feel as fast or as precise as Pencil.

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The Pen pales in comparison to Apple's Pencil

The Pixelbook Pen allows pressure-sensitive drawing, much like the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil, but it seemed to me like the worst option. The chunkier pen uses a AAA battery, and using it with a variety of sketch and note-taking apps from Google Keep (which you can instantly take notes to) and Adobe Photoshop Sketch, it exhibits a lot of lag. Google's OS also seems to approximate where strokes are going, which created a subtle repositioning of line curves as I was doodling. I didn't love it.

No headphone jack

The needless ditching of headphone jacks continues: first phones, now tablets. Apple's iPad Pro got rid of the headphone jack this year, and the Pixel Slate does the same, only having two USB-C ports instead. Two USB-C ports are better than one, surely, and Google also includes a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter in the box -- something Apple, insanely, doesn't do. But that doesn't make the death of the 3.5mm jack any less annoying.

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Keyboard and Pen aren't included, but the USB-C charger and a USB-C headphone adapter dongle are.

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It's heavy, for a tablet

At 1.6 pounds (731 grams), the Pixel Slate feels oddly dense. As a laptop with one of the optional keyboards, it feels more normal. Either way, it's not a comfortable casual tablet to hold while reading.

Sometimes, it's buggy

I've had weird things pop up occasionally. Sometimes a web page wouldn't scroll properly, and would just hang. Other times, an app wouldn't properly launch. I had a hard time getting the Brydge keyboard to pair a few times. The Pixel Slate's touch tools also feel unintuitive when used with the keyboard and trackpad controls. Are these early bugs to be tweaked with Chrome updates, or is this the nature of the Pixel Slate? It's hard to tell.

Who is this for?

I'll still be using the Pixel Slate more before a final review and rating, but I keep wondering who would be attracted to a $600-and-up Chrome tablet over a more affordable Chromebook, a Surface Pro or an iPad. As a reference design for where Chrome tablet convertibles can go next, the Pixel Slate is a solid step forward. But it's not a product I would recommend anyone run out and buy... unless you've been dreaming of having a high-end Chrome tablet that can run Linux and have the money to burn.

The Pixel Slate proves that a great keyboard and trackpad and a great browser make a difference, and they're the missing links that the iPad Pro desperately needs. But the Pixel Slate doesn't feel like it's good enough at everything else for its high price.

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