Google revealed the Pixel Tablet in full at this week’s Google I/O event, as the company’s first Android tablet in several years. It’s definitely unique, but for $500, it needs to be something more.
The Pixel Tablet is an 11-inch tablet with Google’s own Tensor G2 chipset, Android 13, 128 or 256 GB of storage, and a sleek design. Besides the usual Android tablet features, you get Google’s customized Pixel software, and the tablet ships with a special speaker dock that turns it into a super-charged smart display.
On paper, that all sounds great. The Tensor G2 is a fast and capable chipset, as proven by the Pixel 7, Pixel 7A, and other devices. Google will likely support it with software updates for several years, and the dock turns it into a multi-purpose device. Given how polished the past few Pixel phones have been, I’d be surprised if the Pixel Tablet turns out to be a terrible product.
However, when you look at the rest of the tablet landscape, the Pixel Tablet is in a strange position.
The Two Worlds
It’s clear that Google decided to lean into media streaming with the Pixel Tablet. The display has 16:10 aspect ratio in landscape mode, which is just a bit taller than the 16:9 ratio used for most videos and movies. There’s also the dock, allowing you to blast music, podcasts, or anything else to cover an entire room. Positioning it as a great media device is probably the safest move for Google, since it already has experience building several smart display devices, and just about every streaming service has an Android app.
The other option for selling a tablet is going for the productivity angle — a thin and light device for getting work done, wherever you are. Microsoft’s Surface tablets are firmly in that category, with a full Windows operating system and accessories like the keyboard cover and stylus. Samsung has been pushing productivity features on its tablets for years, with some models having the DeX desktop environment and S Pen stylus included. Samsung also has keyboard covers for most of its high-end tablets.
Apple has found success in targeting both media and productivity with the iPad. The square-ish aspect ratio used on most iPads is arguably worse for most videos (unless you’re binging older 4:3 TV shows), but Apple has been much more successful than Google or Samsung in building an ecosystem of tablet-optimized applications. iPads have many popular creative tools that are not available on Android tablets, like Procreate and Photoshop, and more recently Apple ported its Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro tools to newer models. There are alternatives in the Android ecosystem — the LumaFusion video editor is now available on both Android tablets and iPads, for example — but there’s no denying Apple and its third-party developers have created a unique experience.
Why Not Both?
You might be thinking, “that’s great and all, but I don’t care about editing videos or typing up Excel sheets, I just want something for Netflix in bed.” That’s totally fine! Here’s the problem, though: why should you spend your money on something that is less capable and more expensive than other options?
Google is selling the Pixel Tablet for $500. That’s a lot of money for a tablet, and most other tablets in that price range justify it with features beyond the typical tablet experience. The Galaxy Tab S8 is $630 right now (it was $700 when it was first released), but it has a premium AMOLED screen, an included S Pen stylus, and unique software features like DeX and apps optimized for stylus input. The latest iPad Air is $550 right now, with a premium metal build and apps and games you can’t get anywhere else. The Surface Go 3 is $400, and it’s an actual PC running a full Windows experience.
What can the Pixel Tablet bring to the table? Beyond the basic features for a tablet — watching media, web browsing, video calls, etc. — there’s really just the speaker dock. Google isn’t selling a keyboard case or stylus for the Pixel Tablet, and even though there appears to be hardware support for a USI stylus, there’s no sign of software features to take full advantage of that.
You can buy a 9th-generation iPad right now for $270, which is a little over half the cost of the Pixel Slate. That tablet has a proprietary Lightning port and larger bezels around the screen, but it’s still an excellent option for streaming, web browsing, and even gaming. Importantly, you have the option of extending it into a productivity machine: adding a Logitech Combo Touch keyboard for $135 and $80 Apple Pencil brings you to $485. That’s still cheaper than the Pixel Tablet. You could also buy a Galaxy Tab or iPad, pair it with a quality stand, and hook it up to a separate speaker system.
A Tough Value
The Pixel Tablet seems like it will be a perfectly good device, especially for the people who want a quality Android tablet without Samsung’s sometimes-overwhelming software experience. But that’s all it can be, because Google has not built it to fill any other role. The Galaxy Tab series and iPads have software built for stylus input, but the Pixel Tablet largely does not. Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft have built optional accessories to make their tablets more versatile and powerful — the Pixel Tablet’s only official add-on is a bumper case that costs a whopping $80.
The Pixel Tablet has not been released yet, so making any final judgments wouldn’t be fair. For the moment, though, the Pixel Tablet seems like a far more limited product than the $500 price tag would suggest. If you want something just for media streaming, get a Galaxy Tab A8 or 9th gen iPad. Honestly, if you can deal with Amazon’s flavor of Android, the $130 Fire HD 10 isn’t terrible these days.
In a world where the iPad is still dominant, partially because it’s so versatile, I’m not sure why Google’s triumphant return to Android tablets is a purpose-built Netflix machine and kitchen speaker.