Google Pixel Slate review: Slick hardware but not quite polished enough
Gorgeous hardware, but there are too many small flaws for the Pixel Slate to command such a high price
Not too long ago, if you'd asked us to pay more than 1,000 for a Chrome OS laptop we'd have laughed in your face. Today, however, with Chrome OS having developed into a surprisingly powerful operating system, products like the Pixel Slate deserve to be taken much more seriously.
Even if you're a fairly demanding user, it's perfectly possible to live and work 24/7 with a Chrome OS device. Now that the specification and design of such devices is at least a match for the leading Windows and macOS alternatives - as proved by the Pixelbook last year and the Pixel Slate today - it's now a simple question of which platform you prefer.
So is it worth splashing out on the Pixel Slate? Or should you simply stick with a MacBook Pro or Dell XPS 13? The answer to that question depends on a number of different factors, but the hardware on offer here is at least a match for the best the Windows 10, MacOS, iOS and Android crew can muster.
Just like the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 6 and the Samsung Galaxy Book, the Pixel Slate is designed to be used primarily as a 2-in-1 laptop. It comes in two parts: a tablet and a detachable keyboard case, which you have to purchase separately.
The range of different specifications means the cost of the Pixel Slate varies considerably depending on the model you choose. We were sent the 969 Pixel Slate for this review, which includes an eighth generation Intel Core i5-8200Y processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Add the 189 Pixel Slate Keyboard and the price rises to 1,158 inc VAT. The Pixelbook Pen is another 99, bumping the cost to 1,257. That's only 10 less expensive than the cheapest 12.9in Apple iPad Pro, although the Pixel Slate does at least come with double the storage.
To put this into further context, this model is also nearly 60 more expensive than the new MacBook Air and around 150 pricier than the equivalent Surface Pro 6. Note, though, that rather like Apple has with its MacBook Air, the Pixel Slate employs Intel's Y-series processors, which are nowhere near as quick as the U-series Core i5 in the Surface Pro 6.
Google Pixel Slate review: Design
Physically, the Pixel Slate is closer to this year's 12.9in iPad Pro or the Samsung Galaxy Book than Microsoft's Surface Pro 6. Detach the tablet part from the keyboard and it's just that: a pure slate. It's very slim, at 7mm from front to back, and it weighs a feather-light 700g.
It's a little heavier and thicker than the iPad Pro despite its slightly smaller display, but it's just as nicely put together as Apple's tablet. The glass on the front is luxurious-feeling Gorilla Glass 5, and the anodised aluminium chassis tapers to a delicate curve on every edge. Suffice to say, it looks very handsome in Midnight Blue.
Inevitably, the slender profile means that physical connectivity is limited, but Google has provided a pair of Type-C USB 3 ports. There is one on each short edge, both of which can be used to charge the Pixel Slate. Unlike the iPad Pro, you can also use either port to attach external storage and transfer files to and fro, hook up a mouse or touchpad, and mirror or extend your desktop using an external monitor. Indeed, multi-monitor support extends to two 60Hz 4K external monitors, so you can use the Slate as a full-on desktop workstation if you wish.
Otherwise, the Pixel Slate is fairly meagre when it comes to physical features. With the tablet held in landscape orientation you'll find a volume rocker on the left edge, and a power button with integrated fingerprint reader on the top edge towards the left corner. There are 8-megapixel cameras at the front (f/1.8) and rear (f/1.9) and front-facing stereo speakers flanking the display to the left and right.
The Pixel Slate is designed, of course, to be used mainly on a desk attached to its folio keyboard case, which attaches magnetically to the tablet's spine. This, however, is a bit of a mixed bag.
To prop up the screen, the rear cover folds into a Toblerone shape with a small flap that folds back to snap firmly against the rear. You can choose any angle you like for the screen by sliding that flap up and down, although you can't push it back further than around 45 degrees.
Still, that should be enough for most purposes and in day-to-day use we've found the keyboard great to type on. The circular keys might look odd but we prefer them to the keys on the iPad Pro and we found we were up to our normal typing speed in no time at all. The touchpad below the keyboard works well, too. It's responsive to gestures, has a positive click action and feels lovely under the finger.
Where the Pixel Slate falls short is as a device for work on the move. When propped on your lap, it simply doesn't feel as stable as a regular laptop or even the new iPad Pro - especially in tight spaces. This is due to a couple of factors: first, the sheer length of the thing, which threatens to tip the tablet off the end your lap. Second, the centimetre-wide strip of over-flexible material that sits between the keyboard and the tablet, which causes the keyboard to flop around disconcertingly.
The latter, by the way, is the source of another problem we have with the design of the Pixel Slate Keyboard: when it's closed, the keyboard part doesn't stay firmly in place; it slips around and leaves one with the feeling that the tablet is about to fall out and crash to the floor, even when it probably isn't. It's a small thing - but small things are important when you're paying this much for what Google is touting as a laptop replacement device.
Google Pixel Slate review: Display, Pen and audio
We have no such issues with the quality of the 12.3in "Molecular Display", though, because it's superb. It has a resolution of 3,000 x 2,000 pixels, giving a crisp pixel density of 293ppi and it uses LTPS technology, ensuring perfect viewing angles and balanced colours.
A measured contrast ratio of 867:1 ensures images have impressive dynamism while a peak brightness of 432cd/m2 ensures the Slate is usable in most conditions, even outdoors in full daylight. This is a great machine for working outside in the garden.
Touch responsiveness is good, too, and the Pixelbook Pen works beautifully, albeit with a touch of lag. It's pressure sensitive to 1,024 levels, and is able to sense tilt so you can shade or draw without having to select a different tool. There's also a lovely sense of friction between the nib and the screen.
It's disappointing that there's nowhere to store the stylus on the tablet or the keyboard case, but we have no qualms with how the Pixelbook Pen works - and crucially it's pretty easy to find apps that support it properly.
We are big fans of the Pixel Slate's front-facing stereo speakers, too. They go loud and they're surprisingly full-bodied. The sound quality is good enough that you're not instantly reaching for your headphones when you want to watch a YouTube video or listen to the radio. Here, the Pixel Slate is more than a match for the iPad Pro and while it's disappointing Google has chosen not to include a 3.5mm headphone jack, there is an adapter included in the box.
Google Pixel Slate review: Performance and battery life
Hardware-wise, the Pixel Slate is impressive. It has a 12.3in, 3,000 x 2,000 touchscreen display, which supports the use of a pressure-sensitive stylus - again, an optional extra - allowing you to sketch and take notes on screen. It also comes in a series of different configurations with processors ranging from the relatively underpowered Intel Celeron 3965Y right up to an 8th gen Intel Core i7-8500Y.
Performance depends entirely on which Slate you choose to purchase and how hard you push it, but the Core i5 we had on test acquitted itself fairly well. It can struggle if you load it up with tens of tabs and lots of big Google Sheets, but while there has been the odd moment of slowdown, it is by no means a regular occurrence.
The benchmarks tell us that it's not as capable as the equivalent 12.9in iPad Pro, though. It lags behind Apple's A12X Bionic processor for raw CPU performance, and the Intel UHD Graphics 615 proved significantly slower in our usual GFXBench tests.
And, yes, that does matter, because it's possible to run some quite demanding applications these days with Chrome OS devices, including Android games and Linux desktop apps. The fact that you can run these things is impressive in its own way, but that the Slate doesn't run everything as smoothly as the iPad Pro 12.9in is a tad disappointing.
The battery life is better but not as good as we'd expect give the Y-series CPU. It lasted 8hrs 48mins in our video rundown test. That's longer than the Surface Pro 6 and the Huawei Matebook X Pro but it's an hour-and-a-half shorter lived than the 12.9in Apple iPad Pro.
Google Pixel Slate review: Software
Here's the big question, though. Is Chrome OS mature enough to make practical alternative to an iPad or even the Windows-based Surface Pro 6?
Initially, we were optimistic. The ability to run browser applications properly alongside Android apps gives the Pixel Slate the sort of flexibility you don't get from an iPad Pro. It's even possible to install and run Linux apps like The Gimp and LibreOffice - just enable the Linux option in the menu, fire up the terminal, and you can install software right from the command line using apt-get, just as you can with, say, Ubuntu.
Add seamless multiple monitor support and a file system that lets you easily transfer files to and fro without having to go via the cloud, and the Pixel Slate has instant and significant advantage over the iPad Pro. Indeed, as we write this review, we've been using the Pixel Slate for work for nearly a week without ever having to resort to our regular laptop. There have been frustrations but, in general, it has worked very well. There's no way we could have done that with an iPad.
Google's touchscreen optimisations for Chrome OS work nicely, too, and having Google Assistant a quick key tap away is surprisingly useful. The microphones are sensitive enough that you only have to mutter "OK Google" under your breath for it to register.
In reality, though, you don't have to use the Pixel Slate for very long before you start butting up against irritating flaws. We had problems with bugs in the Netflix Android app and web player. The BBC iPlayer app refused to play video in Full HD, although the web player was absolutely fine. We encountered palm rejection issues in Google Keep, and also a problem where the onscreen keyboard refused to appear when we tapped editable text areas without the keyboard attached.
We could go on, but we're going to stop there. The simple fact is that, for a product that goes head-to-head on price with the iPad Pro and is more expensive than the equivalent Surface Pro 6, the Pixel Slate simply isn't polished enough. That, for us, would be enough to send us on our way with our 1,300 before even considering things like how nice the keyboard and screen are, or how good the stylus and speakers might be.
Google Pixel Slate review: Verdict
There are elements of the Google Pixel Slate we absolutely love. The keyboard is fabulous to type on, the Pen works perfectly most of the time, and the battery life is superb. It's also highly refreshing that core functions like the file system, multi-monitor support and mass storage connectivity work seamlessly - just as you'd expect them to.
If Google had just set the price around 200 lower we'd be more forgiving, but you can't go up against the market leader when the software and ecosystem is this rough around the edges. And we think it's a bit cheeky, too, to try to fob users off with a Core i5 Y-series CPU at this price. The fact that Google attempts to gloss over this inadequacy on its website is mildly scandalous.
The simple fact is that, if someone came to us wanting to spend 1,300 on a portable computer, we simply wouldn't be able to recommend the Pixel Slate. Not because it's a bad product, poorly made or ergonomically suspect - it is none of these things - but because its rivals are more mature, work in a more consistent fashion and offer better performance for the same or less money.
Despite a gorgeous design, relatively nippy performance and a truly lovely keyboard, there are too many little irritations about the Google Pixel Slate to recommend - especially given it's so expensive.