Google Pixel Tablet review: the dock makes all the difference

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Google’s first tablet in many years doesn’t try to reinvent what tablets are good for. Instead, it leans into being a good media consumption device and can be a useful smart display when you’re not holding it.

Google’s hardware history is littered with failed attempts at tablets. Many of those past efforts, such as the Pixel C or Pixel Slate, were trying to find new and novel uses for a tablet, most with a focus on productivity. Attachable keyboards, various operating systems, and different ideas on how to multitask were the name of Google’s game.

The Pixel Tablet, Google’s first new tablet in five years, takes a different approach. The $499 tablet isn’t here to convince you that it’s anything more than a big screen for media consumption, playing games, or browsing the web. It makes no effort to replace your laptop, it doesn’t make any proclamations about the future of computing, and its multitasking features end at putting two apps side by side. You can’t get it with built-in cellular connectivity nor can you plug it into a desktop monitor. Google isn’t making a keyboard, stylus, or even a basic folio-style case for it. Its one unique trick is straightforward: an included speaker dock that provides a place to store and charge the tablet when it’s not in your hand.

The Pixel Tablet is defined as much by what it is not as what it is.

That approach largely works. The Pixel Tablet is great for the things most people already do with tablets: watching video on the couch, playing games, or entertaining kids. And when you’re done, instead of getting shoved in a drawer until its battery dies, it can transform into a smart display for listening to music or controlling your smart home while you go about other tasks.

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The Pixel Tablet is a simple-looking device, with an 11-inch screen surrounded by a half-inch bezel on all sides. Though it doesn’t look fancy in photos, it’s put together well and doesn’t feel cheap. The back has a soft-touch matte finish on its aluminum body; you could easily mistake it for plastic. There are three colors available: off white, soft pink, or dark green. The two lighter colors have a white bezel around the screen, while the green model has a black bezel. The rounded sides, soft touch finish, and generous bezels make it comfortable to hold in either portrait or landscape orientation.

The back of the Pixel Tablet

The back of the Pixel Tablet

The Pixel Tablet’s finish looks like plastic from afar, but it’s actually a nice-feeling coating on top of an aluminum frame.
A close up of the fingerprint scanner on the Pixel Tablet.

A close up of the fingerprint scanner on the Pixel Tablet.

The Pixel Tablet’s rouded sides make it comfortable to hold. A fingerprint scanner in the sleep / wake button makes unlocking it easy.

The LCD display has a sharp 2560 x 1600 resolution, wide viewing angles, punchy colors, and no visible air gap between the glass and the panel. It won’t compete with Samsung’s OLED tablets or Apple’s Mini LED screens for brightness or contrast, nor does it have the high-refresh rates found on the OnePlus Pad and other tablets. But it still looks great for watching video and I doubt many will find fault with it.

My one complaint is with the 16:10 aspect ratio, which is more rectangular than the 4:3 screen on an iPad. Browsing the web in landscape mode feels vertically cramped; reading an article or book in portrait orientation is more awkward than on an iPad. As a result, the Pixel Tablet is not my favorite device for reading, the thing I do most with a tablet. It really drives home the fact that this is primarily a “watch things” device.

There are four speakers, two on each side, that provide clear audio and noticeable stereo separation. What’s lacking is a headphone jack — you’ll have to either use Bluetooth or a USB-C dongle for more private audio. That’s the trend among phones, tablets, and even laptops now, but having a traditional headphone jack would make the Pixel Tablet easier for kids to use and makes sense for the communal type of device it is trying to be.

Watching Beavis and Butt-head on the Pixel Tablet

Watching Beavis and Butt-head on the Pixel Tablet

The Pixel Tablet’s screen is sharp with good colors and viewing angles.
Reading an e-book on the Pixel Tablet in portrait orientation.

Reading an e-book on the Pixel Tablet in portrait orientation.

Using the Pixel Tablet in portrait orientation is doable, but awkward.

Centered in the bezel on the long edge of the screen is an 8-megapixel webcam. The Pixel Tablet is fine for one-on-one video calls, with sharp details and good color. But it’s less ideal for large groups: when I used it for a meeting with a dozen other people, Google Meet would only show me half the attendees at a time. There’s also a perfunctory rear camera, which you can use for scanning documents or snapping a pic in a pinch, but you’re certainly better off using the camera on your phone for anything beyond that.

Inside the Pixel Tablet is the same Google-made Tensor G2 processor found in the Pixel 7 line of phones. It’s paired with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in the base configuration; $100 more gets you 256GB of storage. This setup is effectively identical to the Pixel 7A phone, just with a bigger screen. While I’d have loved to see more storage options and maybe even microSD card expandability, it’s nice that Google is providing twice the base storage Apple offers in its similar iPads.

The G2 provides fine performance for the majority of tasks I tried on the Pixel Tablet, and it had no problem pushing pixels around as I navigated the interface. Most games run well on it and it unsurprisingly streamed video in apps or through the browser without a problem. The chip’s struggles are the same we’ve seen with the phones: the tablet gets noticeably warm even when doing relatively basic tasks and battery life is not as good as I get from similar tablets. Most of the time I got six to eight hours of use between charges, considerably less than the 12 hours Google advertises and a couple hours less than I usually get from an iPad. But charging it up between uses is so easy with the included dock that I don’t think it’s that much of an issue.

A back view of the Pixel Tablet on its speaker dock.

A back view of the Pixel Tablet on its speaker dock.

The Pixel Tablet is held on its speaker dock via magnets.
The Pixel Tablet speaker dock without the tablet mounted.

The Pixel Tablet speaker dock without the tablet mounted.

The speaker dock is color matched to the tablet and covered in fabric, like many of Google’s other smart home devices.

There’s something undeniably cool about picking up the Pixel Tablet, tapping around for a minute or two to find something to listen to, and then dropping it on the compact, fabric-covered and color matched speaker dock and having my music, podcast, or audiobook seamlessly transfer to the dock’s louder, better speaker before I go about doing something else. I don’t have to phrase a voice command just right to get what I want to play; I don’t have to fuss with Bluetooth pairing or wait for the app to cast to another smart speaker — I just drop the tablet down and am good to go.

The speaker dock is also a clever solution to a familiar problem: if you don’t use a tablet often, it frequently isn’t charged when you do want to use it. By providing a place to always put the tablet when you’re done that also charges the battery, the dock makes sure the Pixel Tablet is ready to go the next time you need it. (By default the Pixel Tablet will charge up to 90 percent on the dock to preserve its battery’s longevity, you can override this in settings to get it to go all the way to 100 percent.)

This is something Apple has never solved with the iPad and third parties haven’t made any decent charging docks in years. I use the $300 Magic Keyboard as a charging dock for my iPad Pro, which tells you everything you need to know about the iPad’s situation here.

The Pixel Tablet mounts to the dock via magnets and uses pogo pins on the back to communicate with it. The one extra accessory Google did make is a kinda-overpriced $79.99 rubberized case that has a large metal loop on the back to act as a kickstand. That loop is wide enough to fit around the dock, so you don’t have to take the tablet out of the case to dock it. On the flip side, the case is heavy and most of the time I ended up taking it off the tablet when I was holding it anyways.

Playing Apple Music on the Pixel Tablet when it’s on the speaker dock.

Playing Apple Music on the Pixel Tablet when it’s on the speaker dock.

The Pixel Tablet has many of the same features as a Nest Hub when it’s mounted to the speaker dock.

Transitioning audio to and from the dock and the tablet is seamless — the tablet doesn’t pause or require a confirmation, it just plays a soft chime and moves the audio over. It’s easy to line up the tablet on the dock and it’s similarly easy to remove, despite the magnets being strong enough to hold the tablet with confidence.

Once on the dock, the Pixel Tablet becomes a cast target, so you can send video or audio from your phone just like you might with a Chromecast or Google smart display. (Unfortunately, you can’t cast audio to the dock when the tablet isn’t on it.) Audio from the speaker is louder and fuller than the tablet’s built-in speakers, and it had no problem filling my kitchen with sound.

More interestingly, the Pixel Tablet is also a smart display when it’s on the dock. Not only does it look like Google’s own Nest Hub Max when mounted, it can do many of the same tricks. Three far-field microphones can pick up “Hey Google” voice commands to the Google Assistant from across the room, and the tablet will display nicely formatted answers to common queries like weather, sports scores, and general facts. It can display a screensaver of images from a Google Photos album or a variety of other clocks when it’s not in use; it can play music through voice commands from a variety of services. You can ask it to set timers — more than one, even! — or add things to a grocery list you manage in Google Keep.

Two timers running on the Pixel Tablet

Two timers running on the Pixel Tablet

You can set and monitor multiple timers on the Pixel Tablet when it’s docked.
A score of a recent Yankess-Mets game displaying on the Pixel Tablet

A score of a recent Yankess-Mets game displaying on the Pixel Tablet

Sports scores and other information is formatted for a lean back view.

You can also control smart home devices through voice commands or via the shortcut button in the lower left corner of the screen that launches a control panel of device toggles powered by the Google Home app. It also integrates with Google’s Nest devices, such automatically showing a video feed whenever a Nest Doorbell is rung. 

I wish Google went further with this, though. I’d love to use the Pixel Tablet as an always-on smart home dashboard when it’s docked, so I could quickly see if someone left the garage door open or easily glance at feeds from security cameras. But you always have to press the shortcut button to launch the control panel, which makes it much less seamless than I’d like.

The Pixel Tablet also lacks some other features from the Nest Hub, though I’m not sure how many people will miss them. You can’t get nicely formatted recipes that walk you through each step; instead you just get a web search. I can’t wave my hand at it to stop a timer or pause music, nor can I use the front-facing camera as a security camera in the Home app. Voice commands to play video often result in the Android app launching instead of playing directly. Those omissions aside, for a lot of people, this can replace a Nest Hub smart display entirely.

The smart home control panel on the Pixel Tablet.

The smart home control panel on the Pixel Tablet.

The Pixel Tablet’s smart home controls are handy, but could be even better with a few tweaks.

An ideal setup would include multiple speaker docks throughout your house, so no matter where you happen to stop using the tablet, you have a place to put it and have the benefits of a smart display. But Google is charging $129.99 for each additional dock (more than the cost of a standalone Nest Audio smart speaker), which makes this a less than practical option.

The Pixel Tablet’s Android software has a very similar interface and aesthetic as Google’s Pixel phones. It’s customizable with various colors and widgets and Pixel phone owners will feel right at home with it. Google has added some things to make better use of the tablet’s larger display, such as a dual-pane notification shade and a quick-access app dock. You can also put two apps on the screen at the same time and drag and drop content between them.

The Pixel Tablet is also much more useful as a shared device than an iPad, simply because it supports multiple users. You can have a single tablet in a common space such as a kitchen and everyone can have their own personal accounts on it locked behind their respective fingerprints. There’s also a kids mode for parents to enable that locks down the tablet in customizable ways.

The home screen on the Pixel Tablet showing multiple widgets and app icons.

The home screen on the Pixel Tablet showing multiple widgets and app icons.

Like the Pixel phones, the Pixel Tablet’s software is colorful and customizable.

But while the Pixel phones have loads of smart features like call screening and flip-to-do-not-disturb, the Pixel Tablet feels lacking in this area. It doesn’t have any tablet-specific smart features that I could find; beyond the split-screen view, there aren’t any multitasking or windowing options. You can’t save pairs of apps as shortcuts to the home screen so they launch together in the same layout every time, like Samsung offers. The volume rocker doesn’t intelligently swap positions when I turn the tablet to portrait orientation, which often leads to “up” being volume down and “down” being volume up. It’s a small thing to get used to, but one that Apple solved on the iPad already.

Google has updated the majority of its own apps, such as Chrome, Maps, Gmail, Google News, Photos, Files, Google Home, weather, and others with tablet-specific designs that look good and work well. But if you look outside Google’s catalog, it doesn’t take long to find apps that still aren’t designed to work well on the tablet. Many apps designed for phones will run on the tablet, but with stretched-out layouts that have loads of unused space instead of multiple column views like on an iPad. For me, it’s my RSS reader and Slack that just stretch to fill the screen with lots of empty space; others will probably find the fact that Instagram opens in a phone-sized view with two-thirds of the screen blacked out a bit disappointing. (Thankfully you can easily fill that dead space with another app.)

If Google was pitching the Pixel Tablet as a laptop-replacing productivity device, I’d have a bigger problem with the lack of well-formatted apps. But if the majority of your time with the tablet is spent watching a video or playing a game in full screen, it doesn’t really matter if the rest of the app’s interface isn’t perfectly formatted.

With the Pixel Tablet, Google has made a device that’s specifically designed to be used in your home. It’s for watching video on the couch, or listening to music in the kitchen while cooking or doing dishes. It’s not meant to replace your laptop; it’s not even really designed to be used on the go. It’s a tablet built for the things people are already doing with tablets and it does most (if not quite all) of those things well. 

At $500, the Pixel Tablet does feel a tad expensive, especially when a base model iPad does effectively all the same tablet stuff and a Nest Hub Max does the same smart display stuff, both for much less money. A lot of the value you get out of the Pixel Tablet will be dependent on how much you actually take it off its dock. Based on my conversations with others, a competent tablet that can also be a smart display is exactly what they want. If you already have an Android phone or are invested in Google’s ecosystem by way of the Google Home app, it might make more sense in your life than an iPad.

But it’s also a safe device. The Pixel Tablet is not pushing the boundaries of what a versatile touchscreen slate could be used for, or even trying to compete with something like the iPad Pro. The door is wide open for Google to come out with a “Pixel Tablet Pro” that has accessories designed for productivity and perhaps some more advanced software down the road. The company could be testing the waters for how much appetite there is for an Android tablet before it goes all-in on them again.

Or not. Google’s now got the basics covered and that might just finally be enough.

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