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Google Pixel Slate review: Google's pricey vision of a tablet-meets-Chromebook doesn't quite gel

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Call me crazy, but Chromebooks should be affordable. That's how I came to love Google's push for a browser-driven, lite-computing future years ago, and it's how Chromebooks became a staple of school systems everywhere. No doubt about it: Chromebooks are great.

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6.9

Google Pixel Slate

The Good

The Pixel Slate has a nice display, solid construction, a great-feeling keyboard accessory, supports mice and trackpads (like all Chromebooks), and has always-on Google Assistant as an option.

The Bad

The Pixel Slate feels a little too heavy and has buggy software and unimpressive performance. It's expensive compared to competing Chromebook/tablet alternatives.

The Bottom Line

There are a lot of good ideas in the Pixel Slate, but this pricey Google tablet doesn't do enough to distinguish itself from the plenty of other great Chromebook options out there.

Now, $1,000 Chromebooks...I don't know. Google's made bleeding-edge Chrome computers for years, and the Pixelbook a year ago wowed us with an elegant design. The Pixel Slate tries to take on iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface territory by blending tablet and Chromebook into one device. It's the right direction, but the wrong product.

As I said after a week of using it, the Pixel Slate is the Mirror Universe iPad Pro. It has a full desktop-class browser and support for Bluetooth mice and keyboards with trackpads, which is great. Working on the Pixel Slate, with an optional keyboard, feels like working on a laptop.

This is the type of product I want future Chromebooks to be, but not at this price.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Tablet as full computer: Sure, of course

Sure, Microsoft's been offering the same solution on the Surface and on countless Windows 10 two-in-ones. Google's Chrome solution has some advantages in a lean OS that starts fast, automatic updates, excellent Google services and Google Assistant on tap, and support for the Google Play Store and Android apps, which run to varying degrees of success on the Pixel Slate.

The thin, cleanly-designed Slate is indeed a blank slate for running a lot of apps, and connecting to a lot of accessories. That's not a new idea, though. And it's not even the first Chrome tablet, either: the excellent HP Chromebook X2 is the choice I'd recommend instead, since it has an included keyboard.

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Watch this: Google Pixel Slate: Unboxing the tablet and its accessories

Whoa, this gets expensive fast

That's the biggest problem with the Pixel Slate (among several others): the $599 starting price for the tablet, with an Intel Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, isn't upgradeable and lacks a MicroSD card slot. (My review loaner runs $1,000 for a Core i5 and 128GB of storage.)

That doesn't include a keyboard, which you'd surely want, and maybe Google's pressure-sensitive Pixelbook Pen stylus. Add those, and the entry-level price climbs to around $900.

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The Brydge G-Type keyboard is great, but doesn't automatically pair.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How's the keyboard? Great, but there are two choices

Google's own Pixel Slate Keyboard ($200) 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 and backlit, 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.

The G-Type from Brydge ($160) 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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Pen's less exciting than the Pencil

The Pixelbook Pen allows pressure-sensitive drawing, much like the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil, but it's not nearly as good. 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.

Instant always-on Google Assistant is helpful

Being able to tap to request things, search for things, or do anything 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 button, or by saying "hey, Google," so it's like having another Google Assistant-equipped smart screen. But Google's deep AI doesn't seem to surface in other dramatic ways as much as it does on the Pixel 3 phones. I expected a bit more and didn't see all that many everyday differences over any other Chromebook.

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The Chrome OS and Pen integration don't feel all that refined.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance feels unimpressive

The Core i5 version of the Pixel Slate did OK in our benchmark tests, but wasn't exactly impressive. It also lagged considerably behind the laser-fast iPad Pro. Lag also emerges in other ways, too: Google's adapted version of Chrome OS sometimes had bugs and hiccups, ranging from apps not launching to a lot of jittery stuff when attempting to multitask. At this price, I expected buttery-smooth operations, and that's definitely not the case. It works, but that doesn't feel like enough. Battery life is fine, but again, nothing surprising.

Other things to note:

  • The fingerprint reader is a nice touch. Signing in without a password is pretty quick with the side button on 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.
  • 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.
  • No headphone jack or MicroSD slot. A USB-C-to-3.5mm dongle for headphones is included in-box, but I'm not wild about not having a headphone jack (although the Pixel 3 USB-C headphones, not included, work great). And also, no MicroSD means no expandable storage.
  • Display: looks good. The Pixel Slate's high-resolution 12.3-inch 3,000x2,000 "Molecular Display" is very good, but not always great. Colors and text sometimes seemed washed out at off angles. The display's glass is also a bit glare-prone. At home, with brightness up, it looked much nicer. It's not my favorite display, but it's a solid one.
  • It's heavy, for a tablet. At 1.6 pounds, 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. It even feels a little denser than Apple's 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
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Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm not sure who I'd recommend this to

The HP Chromebook X2 is a better choice all around for anyone looking for a better-value performance Chromebook/tablet. For those who want a full computer in a tablet, there's the Microsoft Surface Pro. For the best bleeding-edge tablet for artists, the iPad Pro. That leaves the Pixel Slate in a weird middle zone. It's nowhere near as good a product as the Pixel 3 is as a phone, but it's a direction I'd like to see continue in Chrome? If it went on sale for a steep discount, maybe. But the Pixel Slate is attempt at pushing a luxury price on a device that doesn't feel like it earns it.

(This review was originally published December 22, 2018.)

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018) 18,098Microsoft Surface Pro 6 11,983Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) 9,194Google Pixel Slate 7,972Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) 5,974Samsung Chromebook Pro 4,995
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018) 104,375Microsoft Surface Pro 6 72,213Google Pixel Slate 55,178Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) 53,873Samsung Chromebook Pro 45,762Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) 37,352
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Jetstream Javascript Test

Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018) 273.94Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) 201.95Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) 168.79Google Pixel Slate 139.84Samsung Chromebook Pro 109.92Microsoft Surface Pro 6 89.701
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback (minutes)

Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) 938Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018) 796Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) 764Microsoft Surface Pro 6 671Google Pixel Slate 633Samsung Chromebook Pro 537
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Google Pixel Slate Google Chrome OS; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 8200Y; 7.69GB RAM; Wi-Fi; 1TB Storage
Apple iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018) Apple iOS 12.1; 2.49GHz A12X Bionic chip ; 5.52GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 1TB Storage
Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) Apple iOS 11.3; 2.3GHz A10; 2GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 128GB Storage
Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) Apple iOS 11.2.6; 2.3GHz A10X; 4GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 512GB Storage
Microsoft Surface Pro 6 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8250U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel UHD Graphics 620; 256GB
Samsung Chromebook Pro Google Chrome OS; 900MHz Intel Core m3-6y30; 4GB RAM; Intel HD Graphics 515; 32GB storage
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6.9

Google Pixel Slate

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6