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Google Pixel C review: An Android tablet worthy of replacing your iPad

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MSRP: $499.00

The Good The Google Pixel C has a slim, compact aluminum build that feels sturdy. Its optional Bluetooth keyboard is equally solid and doubles as the tablet's cover and it has a powerful, long-running battery. The tablet runs the latest version of Android and its performance is lightning fast. The screen is sharp, bright and colorful, and gaming graphics look stellar.

The Bad It's a bit heavy when attached to the keyboard (which is sold separately). Big-name apps and games still tend to hit iOS before Android.

The Bottom Line The Google Pixel C is the best Android tablet money can buy.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.6 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Review Sections

Google's latest tablet is its greatest yet. In fact, the Pixel C hands down is the most powerful Android tablet I've ever used. The real question here isn't if the Pixel C is the best tablet, it's "who cares"?

The Pixel C starts at $500 and has a high-end design, spectacular screen, fast performance and long-lasting battery. (UK and Australian pricing has yet to be announced, but the US price converts to around £335 or AU$695.) But with interest in tablets decreasing more and more every year, Google's best effort at a high-end tablet may fall upon deaf ears.

As a standalone tablet, its aluminum design is both elegant and solid. When combined with its optional magnetic Bluetooth keyboard ($150), which is made of the same material, the tablet turns into a productivity-geared hybrid. Its duality -- and $500 starting price -- makes it ripe to compete against the Microsoft Surface 3 and the iPad Air 2. The problem is, that's like comparing apples and oranges. The Surface is powerful enough to replace a laptop, whereas the iPad works best for leisure activities, like gaming and streaming video. The Pixel C exists somewhere between the two.

The Pixel C is hands down the best Android tablet today. It earns a place near the top of the charts and rivals the iPad Air 2 for the title of overall best tablet. If you're interested in a tablet for work, the strength of its performance will depend on your needs. But if I had to pick between the two, I'd go with the Google Pixel C due to its exceptionally designed keyboard, gorgeous screen and speedy performance.

Where can I buy this and what's the price?

The Pixel C is available now at Google's Store starting at $500 with 32GB of onboard storage. There's also a 64GB version priced at $600, which converts to £400 or AU$835.

The optional keyboard is also available at Google and costs $149, which converts to about £100 or AU$205.

Specs versus the competition

Google Pixel C Apple iPad Air 2 Microsoft Surface 3 Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 (9.7 inch)
Display 10.2 inches, 2,560x1,800-pixel resolution 9.7 inches, 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution 10.8 inch, 1,920x1,280-pixel resolution 9.7 inches, 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution
Pixel density 308 ppi 264 ppi 214 ppi 264 ppi
Dimensions (imperial) 9.5x7.04x0.2 inches 9.4x6.6x0.24 inches 10.52x7.36x0.34 inches 9.34x6.6x0.22 inches
Dimensions (metric) 242x179x7 millimeters 240x169.5x6.1 millimeters 267x187x8.7 millimeters 237.3x169x5.6 millimeters
Weight 1.14 pounds (517 grams) 0.96 pounds (437 grams) 1.27 pounds (622 grams) 0.58 pounds (265grams)
Operating System Android 6.0 Marshmallow iOS 9 Windows 10 Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, with Samsung's TouchWiz
Processors Nvidia X1 quad-core, Maxwell GPU 64-bit A8X, M8 motion coprocessor 1.6GHz Intel Atom x7-Z8700 CPU, Intel Exynos Octa 5433 (1.3GHz quad-core Cortex A53; 1.9GHz quad-core Cortex A57)
Storage 32GB, 64GB up to 128GB up to 128GB 32GB, 64GB
RAM 3GB 2GB up to 4GB 3GB
Battery 12 hours 42 minutes of video playback TBD, estimated at over 10 hours mixed use 7 hours 41 minutes of video playback 12 hours 42 minutes of video playback
Starting Price $500 $499 $499 $500

That's one good-looking tablet

Google has consistently released great Android tablets in partnership with the likes of Asus and HTC, but this is the first time the company has built its own model from the ground up. From the looks of it, Google should've been designing its own tablets all along.

The Pixel C has an anodized aluminum frame that looks as luxe as any Apple tablet. It's fashionably matte, smooth and solid. In order to allow space for a large battery, the Pixel C is thicker and heavier than the iPad Air 2, though the difference isn't dramatic to the naked eye. I found both similarly comfortable to hold for long periods of time.

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Josh Miller/CNET

One of the best things about the Pixel C is its optional Bluetooth keyboard. It's magnetic and charges inductively. For such a skinny little thing, it's surprisingly comfortable. The main keys are almost full-sized, and the tab and enter keys are sized down. Typing on it doesn't feel as cramped as other Bluetooth keyboards -- it's small yet spacious, and compact enough to use even in the most confined spaces.

Once you magnetically attach the keyboard onto the tablet, it automatically connects over Bluetooth and hides the on-screen keyboard. This worked without a hitch most of the time. In a handful of instances, it took 10-20 seconds for it to work. It still automatically connected without me having to go into the Bluetooth settings, it just sometimes took a little longer than usual.

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Josh Miller

The keyboard doubles as a removable cover, which makes it look more like a laptop, or a tablet with armor. It's probably the most protective keyboard cover around -- built from the same aluminum as the tablet, which makes it both stylish and sturdy. The magnetic connection between the keyboard and tablet is freakishly strong. I never had to worry about them disconnecting, even if I shook it or held it upside down. Once attached, it's almost like they're superglued together.

Despite its excellent construction, I have a few gripes about the Pixel C's design. There's no trackpad, the keyboard makes it a bit heavy, separating the keyboard from the tablet can be awkward when it's being used as a cover and it's hard to tell which ends of the tablet to magnetically attach. You can solve the latter problem by flipping one of them around until they click into place since there are only two ways the tablet and keyboard can fit together -- open like a laptop or closed.

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Personally, I didn't miss the trackpad that much. Maybe that's because I never lost sight of the fact that I was using a tablet, not a laptop-like device. In fact, aside from the keyboard, the tablet isn't an attempt to replace your laptop. It does, however, carefully consider how an Android tablet with a keyboard should work.

Unfortunately, the keyboard suffereddd from frequently stuck keys. They weren't physically stuck, but letters and key functions dragged out on the screen as if they were. IIt was slightly comical how it elongated letters to create an unintentionally dramatic typing of a word, but it was less funny when the stuck key was the backspace button and I unintentionally deleted an entire sentence instead of a few words. The bugginess was inconsistent, and didn't seem to be affected by the number of apps that were open in the background. Sometimes letters also lagged and took a while to appear on screen. This might just have been a problem with the keyboard that came with my review unit. Regardless, it made an otherwise pleaaaasant experience into a needlessly frustrating one. On the other hand, our CNET Espanol reviewer didn't have this issue.

(Editor's note: These are real typos caused by the Pixel C's sometimes-misbehaving keyboard.)

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Heck yeah, Google

The Pixel C runs the latest version of Android Marshmallow 6.0. The interface revolves around Google apps and, as a heavy user of those services, I found it very convenient.

Unsurprisingly, the tablet works seamlessly with the OK Google voice search. The top of the tablet's edge houses four microphones -- that's three more than most tablets. This makes it easy for the Pixel C to hear you say "OK Google" even if it isn't in your hands at the time.

New to Android is the On Tap feature. It's activated by long-pressing the home button (the circle in the center of the tablet's bottom black bar) and it flashes a white border around the screen, as if you just took a screenshot. After it's surveyed what's on the screen, it displays a list of search results based on what you've been doing. For example, if you just read an article about dinosaurs and use On Tap, it'll bring up search results for specific species mentioned in the text or a link to a website where you can learn more.

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I found that the combination of OK Google and On Tap made it a breeze to research anything. It's scarily easy. The need to think or do your own Google search is replaced by literally asking the tablet a question or pressing a button for a few seconds.

For more details on what's new in Android 6.0, check out the full review.

Powerful performance

The Pixel C is a powerhouse to be reckoned with. Housing an Nvidia Tegra X1 processor it crushes the competition in 3DMark gaming benchmarks and its graphics are eye-watering. When playing games, I often found myself looking at the wrong things (the detailed, silky smooth scenery) instead of focusing on the action, because they looked that good.

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Google Pixel C
40922
Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro
25928
Apple iPad Air 2
21647
Dell Venue 10 7000
21004

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Its screen is brighter than the iPad Air 2 and packs more pixels-per-inch (ppi), at 308 ppi to the iPad's 264 ppi. It also appeared just as colorful as the Apple tablet in side-by-side comparisons to my eyes. HD content on the Pixel C's screen looks stunning. HD video had a detailed sharpness and lifelike colors, accentuated by the high-gloss screen.

It can quickly download and launch apps, as well load Web pages and games. Navigating around the OS was equally zippy. The only time I encountered any lag was when the battery was at 1 percent and it was on the brink of shutting off. Even then, I had about 10 apps open in the background and was playing N.O.V.A. 3, a game that took up a lot of the tablet's horsepower.

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The Pixel C has speakers on its left and right edges, and they actually sound pretty good. Most tablet speakers are underwhelming and tinny at higher volumes, almost begging you to use headphones instead. In contrast, I found the Pixel C's pair appropriately loud and fuller-sounding than most. They sound great when watching movies and gaming, but the sound quality does lack some bass.

There's only one port on the tablet: USB-C. It can be used for both charging the tablet and connecting it to a computer. What's great about USB-C is how fast it is. The Pixel C comes with a charger that rapidly powers it after its battery is fully drained. After letting the tablet battery die, I charged it for 15 minutes, disconnected it from the charger, then turned it on. It had about seven percent of battery. Seven percent may not sound impressive, but it lasted me about 50 minutes of heavy use. A full charge takes about two and a half hours.

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Speaking of battery life, after testing it in the CNET Lab, the Pixel C lasted 12.7 hours. That's great battery life for any portable device, especially one with such a big and bright screen. We test tablet batteries by looping a local 720p video at medium brightness in airplane mode.

Dare to compare

It's hard to place the Pixel C on the spectrum of today's tablets, but not because it's not a good tablet. It's a great tablet -- one of the best -- it just lands somewhere in-between the casual coolness of the iPad Air 2 and the work-hard-play-hard seriousness of the Surface 3. While you can definitely use it to write an essay, you won't be able to use it quite like a laptop.

The Google Pixel C's limitations aren't due to its hardware. It's limited because the Google App Store, as much as it has improved over the last few years, still can't match iOS in breadth and depth. And unless an app launches on both OSes simultaneously, popular apps still typically launch on iOS first.

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The Surface 3, which costs $500 in the US, and iPad Air 2, which can currently be found for as low as $445, are both similarly swift in performance, portable and stylish in their own way. You can't go wrong if you're choosing between these two and the Pixel C, but it all depends on what you're looking for. The Surface 3 will give you the full Windows 10 experience, the iPad Air 2 benefits from the Apple App Store's selection and variety, and the Pixel C offers Android's signature ability to customize the interface in ways that best suit you.

The Pixel C's top-shelf specs and sleek aluminum Bluetooth keyboard seem to put it in the same class as work-focused heavy-hitters like the Apple iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro 4. But it's important to note that they're actually not that similar, especially in terms of price. The artistically inclined iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 powerhouse will set you back $900 in the US. Unlike these two, the Google tablet doesn't aim to replace or one-up your laptop.

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Should I buy it?

The desire for an ultraportable laptop has been around for a long time. (Anyone remember netbooks?) The Pixel C will satisfy this need, but only for a select few.

A student or writer who only needs something for study and writing purposes should consider getting the Google Pixel C with its keyboard. It's an affordable laptop alternative and the combination of Google voice search and On Tap makes it easy to research online. The tablet-only configuration also makes it multipurpose -- it can work just as well for catching up on favorite TV shows or gaming.

If all I needed was a portable device for getting writing done anywhere (that also allowed me the Internet indulgences that I love, like Spotify and Netflix) I'd snag the Pixel C and its cool keyboard in a heartbeat. I need to use apps, however, that aren't available in the Google Play store. To be sure, Microsoft, Adobe and Google office apps are available on Android, but the big-name apps and games tend to debut on iOS first.

That being said, I haven't seen an Android tablet this great since, well, Google's last model. The Pixel C continues to raise the bar by setting new performance and design standards that give Apple a serious run for its money. As Android plays catch-up to iOS in app availability and popularity, the Pixel C is already on par with the iPad in good looks and desirability. I really think we could have an iPad killer on our hands, but we'll have to wait and see if anyone cares enough to notice.

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