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Google Pixel Tablet: A Look at the Software Experience

Posted June 21, 2023 | Android | Google | Google Pixel | Hardware | Mobile | Pixel Tablet | Windows

The Google Pixel Tablet is a refined, premium Android tablet, but it’s probably not fair to expect it to compete evenly with the iPad. I guess the simple way to look at this is that Google has—mostly—done everything it can to provide Android and Pixel fans with a viable alternative based on their preferred platform. But its hyper-focus on landscape user experiences may be its Achilles Heel.

Here’s an obvious example. In Google Pixel Tablet First Impressions, I mentioned the landscape orientation of this device, which was apparently necessitated by Google’s decision to force a dock and smart display functionality on its customers … which can only happen if enough developers modify their apps to work well on larger screen devices. That’s a lot of prerequisites, and if my experience crossing the divide between iPhone/iPad and Android has taught me anything, it’s that Apple’s developer base is a lot quicker to act on the marching orders, whereas those in the Android camp seem to adopt a “good enough” policy. The result being that while many apps are modified for the unique qualities of the iPad, many Android apps are not, resulting in upsized phone apps on tablets and other large-screen devices.

In the real world, this means that your results will vary based on which apps you use the most. Google has, of course, done a good job modifying its own apps for tablets—at least from what I’ve experienced so far—but most people will use other apps. And here, I’ve already seen mixed results.

To demonstrate this, let’s step back a bit from the device and consider a typical day. I wake up in the morning, make a cup of espresso and sit down to read the news. On my iPad Air, this involves waking up the device and then lightly resting my finger on the power button, which includes a built-in fingerprint reader, to sign in. This is generally reliable, and I can quickly move on from there.

On the Pixel Tablet, this involves waking up the device and then lightly resting my finger …. on the power button … Wait. Where is the power button? It’s in the wrong place, that’s where. On the iPad, the power button is on the top right of the device while held normally in portrait mode, right where it should be, in the normal position for this right-handed person.

On the Pixel Tablet, it’s on the left side of the device, near the top, when held in portrait mode. But the Pixel Tablet is oriented for landscape; if I rotate the device to the right and hold it with two hands, the power button is now on the top right, where I can lightly rest …. lightly rest … where is the damn power button? On the Pixel Tablet, it’s flush with the case, not raised, and so it’s harder to sense with one’s finger. I assume I’ll get used to that over time. Anyway, once I find it, I can use its built-in fingerprint reader to sign in. It’s early days, but this seems generally reliable, so I can quickly move on from there.

OK, these are just familiarity issues, I guess. I can then rotate the device back into portrait mode and start reading. And in my case, that means reading through the New York Times, Washington Post, Google News (technology feed), and Google apps in turn. And right away I can see the differences between an app that has been customized for a tablet (or other large screen device): on the iPad, the New York Times app has sections with multiple layouts that nicely fill the screen real estate, and on the Pixel Tablet, it’s just a single column phone app, upsized.

The layout of the New York Times app is phone based on Android (left) but optimized on iPad (right)

To be clear, it’s not unusable. And I suppose if I had never used the iPad version of the app, or experienced the website version, I’d never know what I was missing. Too, the actual article reading experience is just about identical. Only the Pixel Tablet’s slightly weird taller display and thinner display stands out, and that is something I think I’d just get used to over time.

Another New York Times app layout comparison: Pixel Tablet (left) vs. iPad (right)

The Washington Post has the same issue: the iPad version takes advantage of the size of the display with different layouts for different sections, but the Pixel Tablet version is a one-column display of stories. Although here is an interesting—and literal—twist: if I switch into landscape mode, both apps do offer different section layouts. Curious. Or … is this by design?

Washington Post layout comparison: Pixel Tablet (left) vs. iPad (right)

Google promoted the fact that it modified its News app for the tablet, but even this app is less pretty on Pixel Tablet. Where the iPad displays articles in alternating sets of one or two tiles, the Android version is always two side-by-side, with no visual break or way to identify stories that may (or may not) be more important. It’s … fine. But that’s sort of the point. Android apps are typically just “good enough” and are rarely optimized like iPad apps.

The Google app is even worse. Where the iPad version of this app offers that two-column layout that I just complained about in Google News on Android, the Android version of the Google app is only one column (in portrait), with tons of white space on either side of each article tile. But here, again, something interesting happens when you switch into landscape, something I never do when reading: it offers a three-column layout. That’s a better use of space, for sure, but I don’t want to read individual articles in landscape, ever.

And that brings us back to my original point about the key difference between the Pixel tablet and the iPad, which is the former’s reliance on landscape usage. Landscape makes sense for videos and for games, but it doesn’t make any sense for reading. And reading is what I primarily use a tablet for.

Google has done what appears to be a good job adapting the Android home screen to landscape and portrait mode switches. But there are so many things about this home screen that bother me. I have two weather widgets on the iPad, one for home and one for Mexico City, and I can’t figure out how to do that on Android; I can have as many widgets as I want, but they’re all for home. You can only have 6 icons in the Android dock using the default layout, but I have 8 on iPad. And it’s not possible to put home screen icons right above the dock: there’s a non-removable search bar in the way for starters, but the closest the lowest row of icons can get to that is over one inch higher. What the what.

Look at that gap between the lowest row of icons and the search bar

I can see solutions to some of the issues I’ve experienced. For example, I could enroll my left index finger with the fingerprint reader so that I can easily turn it on and sign in with my left hand. And admit that many of these issues are familiarity based, and that continued usage will enable muscle memory, and maybe even acceptance. And I really do appreciate that Google is trying to do something different here, and that it’s latched onto the dock and this smart display usage as a key differentiator. Who knows? It may even work.

And it’s a nifty smart display. But here, too, it’s not what I want: we use our smart display as a photo slideshow about 95 percent of the time, and as any empty nester will tell you, seeing pictures of your kids throughout the day is a nice coping mechanism. The other 5 percent is asking Google Assistant questions and casting content so you can listen to something while doing the dishes or whatever.

In my/our case, at least, the smart display is a very specific tool and I/we want it in the kitchen at all times, not just when I am not using the tablet and/or have remembered to dock it so my wife can enjoy it as a smart display. In other words, this is a right tool for the job scenario: I want a smart display and a tablet, not one device that can perform both functions but only at the exclusion of the other.

(That said, a dock that lets you use this thing as a portrait mode smart display might be interesting too. Photo slideshows could animate to account for thinness, perhaps.)

Look, everyone is different. The question here is whether there is a sizable enough audience for a tablet that can double as a smart display, or for a smart display that can double as a tablet. There may be. I kind of hope there is. But I would like to use this thing just as a tablet. And for that to make sense, it needs a square display (with a 4:3 aspect ratio like the iPad or maybe 3:2) and not a rectangular display, and Android apps need to be optimized to work well in both portrait and landscape modes. In fact, I wonder whether the move to a square display would simply trigger the latter effect. Perhaps the Pixel Tablet display is so tall and thin that it just registers as a phone.

Sounds like a platform problem. Which means it’s a Google problem.

More soon.

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