Cool creative features make the Apple iPad today’s top all-purpose tablet. (It’s PCMag’s current go-to recommendation for anyone who wants a tablet for general use under $500.) One of the iPad’s few weak spots, though, is that, in some key respects, it’s less versatile than laptops based on Google’s Chrome operating system. Google knows this, and with its new Pixel Slate, it plays up those strengths and adopts a few of the iPad’s own. The first tablet from Google that runs Chrome OS instead of Android, it’s marvelous hardware, but early adopters won’t find it a catch-all topper of the iPad, Chromebooks, and Windows tablets—and it’s pricey however you slice it. (It starts at $599 and is $999 as tested, sans keyboard.)
A New Era for Chromebooks
On the eve of the unveiling of Google’s Pixel smartphone in 2016, CEO Sundar Pichai proclaimed that his firm wasn’t interested in making its own smartphones. In a textbook “we’re not going to do it until we decide to do it” moment, Google later bought the hardware division of Chinese tech firm HTC and set it to work making Google smartphones. Ever since, the Pixel smartphones that have come out of that project have been excellent, in no small part because they adhere to Apple’s strategy of controlling every bit of the hardware and software design.
Meanwhile, Android-based tablets lagged behind as the iPad got better and better. Premium offerings like the Samsung Galaxy Tab persist, but the most impactful development in non-Apple tablets in the past few years has been the Amazon Fire lineup, mostly inexpensive devices that work well but are hardly tablets to lust after.
Then, earlier this fall, tablet things became interesting again. HP started hawking the excellent Chromebook x2, a detachable Chrome-based tablet, and Google itself stepped into the Android-tablet void with the Pixel Slate. The grand bet here is that people will pay more—in the Pixel Slate’s case, a lot more—for a tablet that distills the best of the iPad without the limitations of iOS.
Because it runs Chrome OS, the Pixel Slate has a cursor and otherwise feels just like a regular laptop when it’s connected to an external keyboard and mouse. This is something that Apple has steadfastly withheld even from its premium iPad Pro.
At $599, the entry-level Pixel Slate slots in between the $329 base-model Apple iPad and the cheapest ($799) iPad Pro. Like the iPad, you’ll have to pay extra to add a keyboard. Third-party keyboard cases like the Brydge G-Type are available, or you can opt for Google’s own $199 keyboard cover, which also includes a touchpad. You can also pay much more to upgrade the internal components. The model I tested, for instance, comes with 8GB of memory and an Intel Core i5 processor for a quite weighty $400 premium over the base model’s 4GB of RAM and Intel Celeron. That difference is more than a base-model Apple iPad costs on its own.
From the outside, before you turn the Pixel Slate on, it looks like it’s worth every penny. It’s a gorgeous, Midnight Blue slab of metal with a generously sized 12.3-inch touch display. (The screens on the HP Chromebook x2 and the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 Windows 10 tablet are also 12.3 inches, while the top-end iPad Pro’s screen measures 12.9 inches.) It’s unquestionably a big tablet, measuring 0.27 by 7.95 by 11.45 inches (HWD), but at just 1.6 pounds, it’s not hard to hold. The borders around the screen are thick enough to let you rest your thumbs, but not so thick that they make the tablet look stodgy.
More Than Just a Tablet
The first clue that Google wants the Pixel Slate to be more than just a tablet is its default landscape orientation. An 8-megapixel front-facing camera that can record video in full HD (1080p) lies above the screen on one of the long-side bezels, while a magnetic dock connector is on the opposite edge. A second, front-facing camera on the back has identical specs. Both offer reasonable video quality for quick video calls, but the photos I took were far below the quality I’d expect from the Pixel 3’s superb camera. On the left and right sides of the screen (the shorter edges, in landscape mode), are two speakers that produce rich audio with surprising amounts of bass for a tablet.
I tested the Pixel Slate with Google’s $199 keyboard cover, the Pixel Slate Keyboard. Although the keyboard is sturdy and backlit, it has shallow key travel, and the rounded keys are a bit too small for my liking.
By far the best part of the keyboard cover is the large integrated touchpad. It’s far more comfortable and accurate than the touchpads on many Chromebooks I’ve used, which is even more impressive when you consider that it is part of an accessory that’s just 0.16 inch thick.
As soon as you slip the Pixel Slate into the keyboard cover’s dock, Chrome automatically switches to Desktop mode and the cursor appears. In addition to the Pixel Slate’s pogo-style magnetic dock connector, which includes four metal contacts to deliver both power and data to the keyboard and touchpad, magnets on the tablet’s rear let you prop it up at virtually any angle using the keyboard’s rear fabric support. Although it’s still impractical for use on your lap or anywhere other than a flat surface, I found the Pixel Slate’s keyboard cover more comfortable and sturdier on my lap than the Surface Pro, which uses a straight-edged kickstand built into the back of the tablet.
Along the tablet’s left edge are a volume rocker and a USB Type-C port. The latter serves double duty as a power connector for the AC charging cable; a handy charging indicator light is positioned next to it. An identical USB Type-C port, complete with another indicator light, lies on the right edge.
The top edge sports the power button. You can connect headphones, an external display, storage, and more to the USB Type-C ports, but many peripherals will require an adapter. Google thoughtfully includes a USB Type-C headphone adapter in the box, but a built-in headphone jack would have been better.
The core wireless connections are 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2. You don’t get an option to add an LTE modem like you do on the Surface Pro 6, the iPad, and the iPad Pro.
The Display: The Pixel Earns Its Name
Given a sleek enclosure made of anodized aluminum, you expect a stunning display to match, and the Pixel Slate obliges. Retina, feast your eyes: Google’s fancy marketing name for this panel is “Molecular Display.”
In casual observation, colors are more vivid and text is sharper than on the iPad and Surface Pro 6, and about the same quality as the iPad Pro. On a more technical level, there are a few key standout features. The Pixel Slate’s display is made of low-temperature polycrystalline silicon (LTPS) instead of employing the IPS LCD or OLED technologies that the iPad Pro and some other high-end consumer electronics use.
Also, the Pixel Slate’s Gorilla Glass-fronted screen features a resolution of 3,000 by 2,000 pixels at 293 pixels per inch, topping the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s 264 pixels per inch. Both screens support stylus input, in the Pixel Slate’s case from the optional $99 Google Pixelbook Pen.
The Pen itself is comfortable, with an easy-to-install battery, but its integration with the Pixel Slate leaves a lot to be desired. Palm rejection—the ability of the screen to filter out inputs from your palm while you’re resting it on the screen to write or draw—is poor. So is the solution for holding it when not in use: You can attach it to the bottom edge of the tablet by magnet. Alas, the attraction is very weak, and the pen fell off often during my testing. Check out our review of the Google Pixelbook for more on how the pen works.
Unlike the iPad Pro’s screen, the Pixel Slate’s display does not adjust automatically to the white balance of the room it’s in, although you can switch to a warmer color temperature manually using the Night Light setting. The Pixel Slate’s display does automatically adjust the brightness level based on the ambient light, but I frequently found myself adjusting the brightness level manually, anyway. I eventually grew frustrated enough to try disabling the automatic brightness feature altogether, only to learn that’s not possible. Google says that manual adjustments disable the automatic sensor until the next time you log in, and that the Slate will adjust to your preferred brightness setting over time.
You can immediately turn off the display and place the Pixel Slate into Sleep mode by pressing the power button. By default, the tablet wakes up as soon as you press the power button again, with no password or PIN required. You can set it to require a password or PIN, or you can register a fingerprint for use with the nifty, accurate fingerprint reader built into the power button. Just like with many smartphones, though, you must tap in a PIN or password after you restart the Pixel Slate before the fingerprint reader reactivates.
The Best (and Worst) of Chrome and Android
Like most new Chromebooks, the Pixel Slate can run Android apps, which supplement the thousands of Chrome OS web apps and extensions. Android app support means you can run the mobile versions of apps like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and even web browsers like Mozilla Firefox that compete with Chrome itself.
As I’ve noted on other Chromebooks, the Android app experience on the Pixel Slate isn’t perfect. Some apps I tried, such as the basic time-wasting game The Battle of Polytopia, were sluggish and glitchy compared to how they run on an Android phone, while Photoshop Lightroom worked without issues.
Google acknowledged that some Android apps need further fine-tuning in Chrome OS, and the company said that it is “strongly invested” in working with developers to improve support. In fact, the entire experience of using Chrome OS on the Pixel Slate is a work in progress that will likely improve by the time the first units arrive at their owners’ doorstep. The Pixel Slate I tested was running an unreleased version of Chrome OS that includes several new features that take advantage of touch input. Among them are a slightly redesigned app drawer, a new floating keyboard, and streamlined side-by-side app viewing.
Over several days of testing, I noticed some glitches with the operating system that I hope will be ironed out before the final release. The Settings app occasionally froze, and Chrome tabs often stuck at inconvenient zoom levels without the ability to zoom in or out. Google said it is aware of these and other issues, and is working on fixing them.
I also noticed other problems that are outside of Google’s control. For example, Inflight movies and TV shows from Gogo aren’t playable on Chrome OS, and there’s no Chrome or Android-compatible app for my company’s virtual private network (VPN), making it impossible to use the Pixel Slate as a replacement for my work PC. These issues aren’t unique to the Pixel Slate—they apply to all Chromebooks—but they’re worth knowing if you are considering the Pixel Slate as an alternative to a macOS or Windows machine.
Performance Testing: Smoothing Out Chrome OS
Despite my occasional frustrations with Chrome OS, the OS ran smoothly on the Pixel Slate, which has more computing power than most users will need to have a satisfying Chrome OS experience. I never noticed any slowdowns in the web browser, even with a smorgasbord of open tabs extending from one edge of the screen to the other. My test unit used a Core i5 CPU of unknown provenance. (Google hadn’t shared the specific chip model at this writing.)
Chromebooks aren’t compatible with PCMag’s full suite of benchmarks, but I was able to run a few Chrome OS-compatible tests to quantify the Pixel Slate’s computing prowess. It outperformed all other Chromebooks we’ve tested recently on the browser-based WebXPRT test from Principled Technologies…
I also subjected the Pixel Slate to the same company’s CrXPRT, a benchmark that tests productivity performance when running simulations of Chrome OS apps that represent the kinds of tasks that typical users would perform in the operating system…
Here, as you can see, the Pixel Slate again outperformed its competitors. This excellent showing is reassuring, since the tablet is also the most expensive Chromebook we’ve tested recently.
Even more important than performance for frequent travelers is the Pixel Slate’s excellent battery life. The tablet lasted 12 hours and 48 minutes on our battery rundown test, on par with the Acer Chromebook 14 and meaningfully longer than both the Google Pixelbook and the HP Chromebook x2.
This Hardware Winner Needs a Value Injection
The Google Pixel Slate is superb as tablet hardware comes. It combines the best of Apple’s iPad (a brilliant display, long battery life, and a cutting-edge design) with the advantages of a Chromebook (mouse and touchpad support). It falls short in a few key areas, however, which disqualify it from being a no-brainer replacement for an iPad or a laptop. Subpar stylus and Android-app support will matter to certain subsets of users. But the high price will matter to everyone.
Take the competition. For the Pixel Slate’s starting price of $599, you could pick up our Editors’ Choice Chromebook, the HP Chromebook x2, which is a detachable tablet that comes with its keyboard cover at no additional charge. (Remember, that $599 starting price for the Pixel Slate is for the tablet alone. The Pixel Slate Keyboard is another $199.) Or, for that same money, you could buy an LTE-equipped Apple iPad. Or, further, for the $999 price of the Pixel Slate unit I reviewed, you could buy a full-fledged Windows 10 tablet like the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 ($899 for a Core i5-based model), with better software and app support, and pay for most of Microsoft’s optional $159 Signature Type Cover, too.
Ultimately, the Pixel Slate is the logical result of Google’s venture into producing its own hardware. As Android tablets languish, Chrome OS-based ones are the future. If you want to experience the future the way Google intends it, the Pixel Slate is your purest and perhaps most stylish option. Your best option, though—especially if you plan to use a physical keyboard and touchpad often—is the HP Chromebook x2.