With the Google Pixel Slate, unveiled on Tuesday, we finally know how Google is planning to light a fire under the currently quite boring non-iOS tablet market.
When it ships later this year, the $ 599 Pixel Slate will come with a significantly redesigned version of Google’s Chrome operating system. It’s a secret weapon of sorts in a fight that up until now has essentially been no-contest as PCMag sees it: The Apple iPad is simply the best midrange tablet for most people.
I got a chance to briefly test out the new Chrome OS features, which will arrive in version 71, and it’s clear that they could be the Pixel Slate’s key advantage over the excellent and well-established Microsoft Surface Pro and the Apple iPad Pro. If they end up trickling down to less-expensive tablets, Google could very well have an iPad killer on its hands.
The first thing you notice about the Chrome OS redesign is a new app shelf. Instead of relegating your frequently used app icons to the lower-left corner of the screen like Windows does, Chrome now displays them prominently in the bottom center of the screen. It’s reminiscent of the iOS dock, with big icons that make it easy to launch apps.
The newly improved shelf shows up in both Tablet mode and Laptop mode, and as before, you can set it to automatically hide to maximize the real estate on the Pixel Slate’s 12.3-inch display. Overall, it’s far more intuitive than the old version, and the similarity with Apple’s dock will also make switching from a Mac or an iPad much easier.
The real star of the new Chrome OS show is the revamped Tablet mode layout. If you happen to spring for the optional $ 199 Pixel Slate Keyboard, you’ll use the Slate in regular old Laptop mode when it’s connected, which means interacting primarily with a cursor. But detach the keyboard and you immediately enter Tablet mode, which banishes the cursor and pulls up a brand new app matrix.
The matrix is clearly borrowed from Android, Google’s mobile operating system. On many Android phones and tablets, you can swipe up or down from the home screen to reveal all of your apps. Implementing this feature in Chrome OS Tablet mode essentially ports one of the most useful and familiar Android features to the Pixel Slate.
Above the rows of apps, there’s also a search bar and a list of suggested apps, reminiscent of Siri’s suggestions on the iPhone or iPad.
The third major new Chrome OS feature is a streamlined split-screen view. You can swipe down from the top-left corner of the screen to enter the app switcher, from where it’s easy to drag an app to the left or right edges and enter a split-screen view. It’s possible to display apps side by side in the current version of Chrome the old fashioned way, by resizing them with your cursor in desktop mode, but this is far easier.
One of the few things missing in the new Chrome OS for tablets is the ability to force your device to stay in Tablet or Laptop mode. If the Pixel Slate doesn’t detect a keyboard or mouse, it automatically enters Tablet mode, and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is in contrast to Windows 10, which asks you before switching.
That said, the lack of a Tablet mode/Laptop mode option will be less of a drawback in the new Chrome OS, which handles Tablet mode better than the current version does.
The new features are just the first step in making a worthy competitor to the iPad, however. Right now, the Pixel Slate’s high price, which jumps to $ 800 when you add the keyboard folio, makes it more of an iPad Pro competitor than an iPad competitor. It could very well be worth the money, with slick features like a power button that doubles as a fingerprint reader, a brilliant display, pen support, and dual 8MP cameras.
I especially appreciate the magnetic cover for the keyboard, which sports rounded backlit keys that were very comfortable to type on during my brief demo. The touchpad is sturdy and pleasing to use as well, no small feat considering how thin the cover is. You can even prop up the Pixel Slate in infinite angles using the strong magnets in the keyboard cover’s back.
Still, these niceties pale in comparison to the potential of the revamped Chrome OS, which will be most attractive to would-be iPad owners if it’s available on more compelling cheaper devices. There’s promise here, since the Chrome 71 will be available on third-party devices in addition to the Pixel Slate once it rolls out, according to Google. But there just aren’t too many Chrome tablets yet, with notable exceptions like the HP Chromebook x2 and the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, which is only available for institutional purchases.
Perhaps Google will one day make a $ 399 version of the Pixel Slate. Until then, your best bet for a mainstream, midrange tablet is still the iPad.