Android Intelligence Analysis

Pixel Slate vs. Pixelbook: The productivity conundrum

Google's new Surface-like convertible has plenty of surface-level appeal, but can it stand up to the company's reigning productivity champion?

So maybe you've heard: Google's got a new high-end Pixel product that's finally ready for us productivity-hunting primates to purchase.

The product is curiously tough to define. It's a tablet, but probably not like any other tablet you've used before. It's a laptop, but only kinda — and with a fair number of asterisks attached. And it doesn't run Android, exactly, though it does run Android apps and have an interface that'll feel awfully familiar if you've used a recent Android phone.

The product, as you no doubt know (you smart cookie, you), is the Pixel Slate — a convertible Chrome OS computing device that doubles as both a laptop and a tablet, provided you pick up its optional keyboard accessory. On paper, it almost seems like a more versatile version of Google's high-end Pixelbook, which is basically the same thing except with a display that swivels back instead of detaching completely.

Once you've spent some time using the two products in the real world, though, something becomes painfully clear: These devices are absolutely not equals. And the difference between them is not what you'd initially expect.

Pixel Slate vs. Pixelbook: The stark hardware reality

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Whether or not Chrome OS is right for you is a question only you can answer. I'm not going to waste your time talking about the merits or limitations of Chrome OS as a platform here, because that truly is a completely separate question (and one we've talked about puh-lenty over the years).

So from here on out, we're gonna assume you're able to get your work (and non-work) accomplished with a combination of web-centric tools, Android apps, and maybe even a couple Linux apps — and that generally speaking, a Chromebook provides an appropriate and hopefully even ideal productivity environment for you. Capisce? Capisce.

And let's push one more pesky ol' elephant out of the room while we're at it: In terms of user interface, software, and capabilities (and despite what some coverage by folks who clearly don't spend much time using Chrome OS outside of product review periods may suggest), the Pixel Slate and Pixelbook are essentially identical. So, too, is any other reasonably recent Chromebook with a touchscreen in place. What we're talking about here, then, are differences in form and hardware between Google's two flagship laptop/tablet products — nothing less, nothing more.

All right — so all of that being said, here's the cold, hard, non-sugarcoated truth: Using the Pixel Slate for productivity purposes feels like using a lesser version of the Pixelbook. You're trading a premium, luxurious-feeling laptop that also doubles quite effectively as a tablet for a pretty nice tablet that awkwardly functions as a second-class laptop.

Pixel Slate vs Pixelbook (1) JR

With the Pixel Slate, instead of a sturdy-feeling metal body à la the Pixelbook, you get a flimsy plastic case with keys built into it. This contrast is most apparent when you try to use the device on your lap — y'know, like a laptop — and its screen wobbles around as you type while its keyboard attachment flexes and shifts beneath your fingers. It's passable enough, but it's certainly not ideal — nor is anywhere near a premium-feeling experience.

Pixel Slate vs Pixelbook (4) JR

I'm actually writing this whilst propped up in my bed (yes, it's that kind of week) and moving back and forth between a Pixelbook and Pixel Slate. Each time, the exchange feels like shifting between a top-of-the-line professional machine and a clumsily constructed screen-and-keyboard-attachment combo. The former is an absolute delight to type on, while the latter is one of those things you'd tolerate if no better options were present — maybe while gently kicking yourself for not packing a preferable solution — but would never willingly select, given the choice.

Harsh, I know. But we're here to talk truths, and sugarcoating doesn't serve any of us well.

Oh, and all of that is only part one. The real sticking point is still ahead.

Pixel Slate vs. Pixelbook: The tablet factor

"But surely the Pixel Slate has some advantages," you must be thinking. And guess what, Waldo? You're right-o! The Pixel Slate's speakers are meaningfully better than the Pixelbook's: They're located on either side of the display, which means they're always facing toward you (unlike the Pixelbook's, which are beneath the keyboard and thus facing the wrong way when you're using the device in one of its tablet-like arrangements). They're noticeably fuller-sounding, too — no contest at all there.

And despite the fact that speakers flank its screen, the Pixel Slate has smaller bezels than its sibling, which we all know is a Super Big Deal™ in any 2018 technological assessment. The Pixel Slate also adds a fingerprint sensor into the mix, which a welcome touch, but it lacks a headphone jack (something the Pixelbook does have). Win some, lose some, I guess.

Pixel Slate vs Pixelbook (2) JR

So maybe the Pixel Slate makes sense for someone who mostly wants a tablet, for more passive types of consumption, and doesn't care so much about the keyboard-using experience? Maybe. But, well, we're talking primarily about productivity here, remember? And even when it comes to tablet-oriented use — because hey, even the most productive among us occasionally needs to kick back and watch a perfectly (ahem) work-appropriate PG-rated video — I'm just not sure the Pixel Slate is really the preferable choice.

I get that a lot of folks are accustomed to having a tablet that's a slate-like screen and nothing more, but here's the thing: The Pixel Slate is a really big screen. It's 12.3 inches, diagonally, and just over a pound and a half in weight. That makes it too large and heavy to hold comfortably in the air for long, as one might hold a smaller tablet while lying back and relaxing.

You know what is a practical and enjoyable way to use a tablet of this size? With a stand attached. Kind of like the stand built into the Pixelbook, which allows you to position the screen at any angle and comfortably gaze uponst it or even tap it while it rests effortlessly on a table, desk, or your lap. And yes, the Pixel Slate's keyboard attachment can accomplishment that same effect — but it's less stable, less durable- and premium-feeling, trickier to manipulate, and less well-suited to the productivity side of your usage. (It also makes the Pixel Slate a touch heavier than the Pixelbook, when attached, and quite a bit clunkier, too.)

Pixel Slate vs Pixelbook (3) JR

Beyond that, the Pixel Slate's keyboard comes at a literal cost: While the base Pixel Slate costs $999 for a model that's roughly comparable to the starting level Pixelbook, the keyboard attachment runs an extra 200 bones. If my high-tech number-crunchin' machines are correct, that means you're looking at about $1,200 for a system on par with the thousand-dollar Pixelbook — and when it comes to real-world usage, as we've established, it actually isn't on par in oh-so-many ways. (Of note: The Pixelbook is currently marked down to $699, which makes the comparison even more skewed — though there's no telling how long that discount will last.)

Putting it all together...

So what to make of the Pixel Slate? Who is this product for? Honestly, that's a question I've been struggling to answer since I started using the device about a week ago. I guess if you only want a tablet and don't care at all about having a physical keyboard, you could make an argument for buying one of the lower-end Pixel Slate models — which start at $599 for fairly limited-power configurations.

But once you start getting into actual productivity, that recommendation gets trickier to make. I don't think anyone doing serious work will want anything less than the $799 Pixel Slate model, and once you throw in the keyboard, that's a $998 investment — the same as a high-end convertible Pixelbook, which does all the same stuff as the Pixel Slate but in a superior all-around arrangement and without all the pesky compromises. (And that's to say nothing of the Pixelbook's current $699 pricing, of course, which wildly changes everything.)

If you really, truly just have to have a tablet that detaches from its base instead of swiveling around, the Pixel Slate might be worth considering. But I'd strongly suggest rethinking why you need that form and whether the swiveling setup might actually address your needs more effectively — especially when you consider the bigger picture of everything else involved.

Here's what it boils down to: The Pixelbook is a top-of-the-line convertible that feels like the best of both worlds — a powerful and versatile machine equally well-suited to productivity and entertainment. The Pixel Slate, on the other hand, fails to excel in either domain — and it's downright disadvantageous in the one most relevant to our current focus. If productivity matters at all to you and you're looking for a best-in-class experience, the Pixelbook (which is guaranteed to get OS updates all the way through June of 2024, by the way) is still the one to get.

In an era overrun with endless options and ambiguous choices, thank goodness some decisions are still easy to make.

Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.

AI Newsletter

[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon