No need to sugar coat that, the history of Android tablets is rough. There are some exceptions. Samsung, for one, has managed to carve out a nice niche for itself in the space, courtesy of beautiful hardware and highly customizable Android. The Galaxy manufacturer has consistently secured the no. 2 behind Apple — accounting for nearly a quarter of all shipments in the first quarter of 2023, per IDC.
Things go downhill fast from there. Huawei is actually in third place with about 7% of the market. That’s not surprising given the quality of the hardware, but the company’s much-publicized battle with the US government has put it in a bind. They’ve also pushed the company from its Android dependency to its homebrew, HarmonyOS.
Lenovo is the other major Android tablet maker in the top five; Amazon ranks fifth, but Fire OS doesn’t really qualify by most metrics. The company excels in good, innovative hardware, but the tablets split between three operating systems: Android, Windows and Chrome.
We won’t repeat why the OS has struggled to catch on to tablets the way it has handsets – but we can safely say it’s not for lack of trying. After initial reluctance around hardware manufacturers porting the mobile operating system to a larger form factor, Google began trying its hand at Android tablets over a decade ago.
In 2012, the company partnered with Asus for the Nexus 7 and Samsung for the Nexus 10. The HTC-built Nexus 9 arrived in 2014. The Pixel C came out the following year, amid a shift to first-party hardware after years of collaboration. . The Pixel Slate arrived in 2018, with a switch to Chrome as Google’s tablet operating system of choice. Like its predecessors, it didn’t last long.
When the Pixel tablet was first teased in 2022, there was one big question above the rest: Why should this time be any different? In addition to the usual adoption issues, Google’s approach to the tablet category has been defined by a lot of indecision, above all else. Using electronics is often a slow burn, requiring commitment. Over the years, one gets the unshakable feeling that the Google hardware team has been throwing up their hands in frustration after each subsequent swing.
When the Pixel tablet was fully unveiled at I/O, the answer seemed to be: this time will be different because the approach is different. The dock is the issue. Make no mistake. The dock is what makes the Pixel tablet interesting. In fact, I’m more inclined to refer to it as a Nest Home with a detachable display than a Pixel tablet with a dock – although I’m sure Google wouldn’t like that particular classification.
To be fair, when the Home Hub originally launched, I wrote: “From a design perspective, the product is best described as a seven-inch tablet resting on top of a speaker at a ~25 to 30 degree angle. More than any other smart display on the market at the time, Google resembled a small tablet implanted into the base of a speaker. I can’t be the only one who felt compelled for a moment to see if I could remove it.
The Pixel tablet is a clear logical extension of that design. Whether it is ultimately a tablet or a smart screen first is ultimately in the eyes of the user. What I will say is that Google made a smart decision to combine the two. In fact, the tablet can currently only be purchased as a bundle. Maybe at some point down the line, passers-by will want to buy the tablet separately, but right now it’s hard to get excited about the device as a standalone.
It’s solid hardware. The device feels high quality enough and it bests the regular iPad on many accounts. The display is 10.95 inches with a 2650 x 1600 resolution – compared to the 10.9-inch, 2360 x 1640 display of the 10th generation iPad (the Pixel has a slightly higher pixel density). The battery is rated at 12 hours, while the iPad is 10. It ships with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, to the iPad’s 4GB and 64GB, respectively. The front- and rear-facing cameras are both eight megapixels, down from 12 megapixels on the iPad.
In many ways, the Pixel tablet is best understood as Google’s equivalent of an entry-level iPad. It’s a flashless utility that does what you need your tablet to do. This is a product that Google could imagine starting making a decade or so back, rather than navigating its approach to the space and letting hardware partners like Samsung, Huawei and Lenovo eat its lunch.
But then the Google of the past always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with the idea of first-party hardware. It chose to let existing hardware companies do the heavy lifting. When it released its own device, it generally lacked a following. But some key things have happened in the meantime:
1. Google bought Nest for $3.2 billion in 2014 and has spent the intervening years building out its smart home lineup, including various Home Hub devices.
2. The company went all out on the Pixel division, buying bits of HTC IP and rebuilding from the ground up.
3. The company developed Android L, a variant of the operating system for larger screens – not unlike iPadOS
The last is in some ways the most important. The company didn’t quite get the message straight when it collapsed in late 2021 (as evidenced by the clear confusion in this post by my exceptionally sensible colleague, Frederic). Android 12L was introduced, in part, to embrace the growing interest in foldable devices. It also gives developers a native way to bring Android to a tablet. It was quickly adopted by the likes of Samsung, Lenovo and Microsoft.
It brings several key features, such as a multitasking screen accessible through the taskbar. When enabled, you can easily drag and drop content from Google Photos into apps.
Showcasing new software features has always been a fundamental foundation of Google’s consumer hardware game, and there’s no reason to believe that the Pixel tablet isn’t a direct outgrowth of that philosophy.
But coming out with a fine—if largely unremarkable—tablet in 2023 won’t be the panacea that finally reverses a decade of trying to establish itself in the segment. A combined tablet/smartphone/home hub, on the other hand, is a compelling proposition. The same applies to the price. Offering the Pixel tablet alone for $499 would also have been a tough sell. Unless you’re Samsung, you’ll need to price your system much more aggressively than Apple’s (the standard iPad starts at $449). Adding the speaker dock and Nest Home Hub functionality, on the other hand, sweetens the deal considerably.
Suddenly, you have a device that crosses Google’s two main consumer hardware divisions (Pixel, Nest) pretty well. Of course, Google is not the first to try this. Amazon is probably the best example, with Fire docks that double as Echo devices courtesy of “Show Mode” for FireOS. Google’s equivalent is Hub mode.
By default, the system displays a rotating gallery of wallpapers. Once connected to the rest of your smart home devices, you can access a panel that centralizes monitoring and controls lights, thermostats, and the like. This can all be done without unlocking the device, although more sensitive things like security cameras still need to be unlocked.
Hub Mode turns on automatically when you dock the system and magnetically snap it into place, so the charging pins line up (the system can also be charged via USB-C when the dock isn’t handy). You’ll see a short animation letting you know it’s working as intended. If you’re playing music on the tablet, the song will then be transferred to the dock’s speakers, which are significantly fuller than what you get with the tablet. As with the Nest Hub, it’s a good way to watch quick things like YouTube videos.
I certainly wouldn’t make it a primary movie or music listening device, but I’ve always found Nest hubs to be a great companion to better smart speakers like the Google Home Max (RIP?). It’s a great little visual media controller for the music as it plays. You can use it with a variety of services, including Spotify and Apple Music.
That’s one of the fun things about using an Android tablet versus a smart display: access to a huge library of apps. That means the docked tablet also serves as a handy little teleconferencing tool for things like Google Meet and Zoom. The front-facing camera and speakers are more than enough to get the job done.
When it came time to launch a new tablet in 2023, Google had an extremely difficult task at hand. This is an extremely mature class with established players. Like smartphones, tablets have largely improved to the point of being a bit boring, to be honest. Convertibles have made a pretty compelling case for continued creativity, but the tables themselves have fallen into a similarly repetitive spec race. For the first time, however, Google understood the task. Any new hardware it was going to introduce had to be more than just a tablet. The Pixel isn’t the first tablet to offer a smart home dock, but it’s the first where this functionality feels more important than an afterthought.
The Pixel tablet isn’t going to set the world on fire, but in some ways Google has done the impossible: made the standard entry-level tablet interesting in the year of our Lord, 2023.
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