The Pixel C Challenge, Day 98: The Adventure Continues

Forgive the tardiness of this final post. I’ve been working. A lot. On Pixel C. I know, right? Yes. Boom. Period. Comma. Moving on…

There’s much I can say about my ongoing working relationship with Google’s apparently-already-forgotten Android productivity experiment. I’ll invest a few final words on the topic here, but I’ll begin with the bottom line:

When my 30 days of forced Pixel C exclusivity came to an end in late March, and I was suddenly allowed to use my Chromebook Pixel again, a funny thing happened: With both the Pixel C and my Chromebook sitting on my desk, both powered on and ready to use, I continued to reach for the Pixel C to accomplish the next task on my list nearly every single time. Nearly. Every. Sin… sorry. That’s the highest praise I can give this device. Despite its limitations, and with a more capable computer literally right next to it, I keep reaching for the C.

Why? Well, there’s a bit of irrationality to it, I admit. I’m a total sucker for the C’s form factor. It’s obnoxious how much I love this design. The market is now replete with “convertible” computers – the iPad Pro, the Surface products, and every flippable/foldable Windows and Chrome OS machine out there – but they all look like middle-school design projects compared to the Pixel C’s integration of computer and keyboard. It’s genius. It’s inspired, and the flexibility and convenience it creates is legit and significant. The floppy keyboards on the iPad Pro and the Microsoft machines are crappy typing tools that make even crappier covers. There’s no effective way to deal with the keyboard when not in use. When folded back against the rear of the tablet, the keyboards don’t sit flush and tend to flap around. The iPad Pro’s keyboard is especially terrible in this regard. I should know. When iPad Pro envy strikes me, I often spend quite a bit of time in my local Apple Store playing with the iPad Pros on display. By the time I leave, I’m once again convinced that Jony Ive is dead and the iPad Pro’s keyboard was designed by a 12-year-old love child of his living in Newcastle. Rather than fold them back, if they are detached and set aside, the iPad and Surface keyboards are just tricky enough to reattach to be annoying. The floppy covers are the gadget equivalent of a dancing guy who doesn’t know what to do with his hands.

The foldable laptops, meanwhile, are bad tablets. Full stop. They look weird and feel weird and are way too bulky and heavy. Eventually, someone will make a foldable computer out of carbon fiber or transparent aluminum or shards of unicorn horn, and it’ll be so light and thin that our minds will blow… but the squishy keys on the back of the folded “tablet” will still feel stupid.

With its magnetic keyboard magic, meanwhile, the Pixel C transitions from laptop to tablet in a flash, and it’s equally comfortable in both configurations. <– THAT is the brass ring the C has grabbed but the other devices have chased in vain. The way the keyboard stows to the rear of the device when not needed is elegant in its simplicity. It’s always there and ready, yet it never feels like an unnatural appendage that must be managed. If I want to cut down on the weight, I can slide the keyboard off and set it beside me on the couch. When I need it again, there’s no fumbling to get the tiny little flap to suck itself onto the tiny bottom edge of the device. I simply slap the keyboard and tablet together with an oh-so-satisfying thwack!, tilt up the display, and get to work. Google nailed this design, and the Pixel C team deserves awards for it. It’s too bad that the only folks who will ever give a damn are me and the dozens of other people dumb enough to buy this thing.

Which brings us to the crux of the Pixel C argument: A device is more than the OS it runs. I enjoy the form factor of the C so much, I would adapt to virtually any OS so that I could take advantage of it. If the Pixel C ran Windows, I’d have bought it and loved it, and I would be blogging about the awesomeness of the Surface C right now. Ditto if it ran iOS, and mega dittos if the Pixel C ran Chrome OS (or, more enticingly, the upcoming Chrome OS + Android hotness). If the C ran any OS besides my previous daily driver, adjustments to my workflow would have been required to use it. Different OSes would have required different adjustments, but I would have made any of them because they would have been worth it.

Again, why? It’s because I like to switch between “work” and “life” very frequently and very quickly, and so does the Pixel C. I like to roll out of bed and immediately start working. A few minutes or hours later, I’ll suddenly stop working to play a game or catch up on the geek news. I’ll have fun with my daughters for a bit and then dive right back into my spreadsheets and editorial queue. I’ll watch a movie with my wife and then catch right back up on my email. Working from home, I can make these transitions as often and as fast as I like. The Pixel C is the right device for me because it transitions from work to play as fluidly as I do.

So, the question is not “How productive can I be using Android?” Rather, it’s “Given my lifestyle, how much does Android hinder my productivity?” The answer, now that I’ve adapted to Android’s unique set of quirks, is “Not much.”

To be fair, Android is well suited for the way I live. It’s a surprisingly capable work OS that is also a fantastic entertainment platform. The Pixel C is the best YouTube appliance I’ve ever used. The screen is bright and crisp, the YouTube app is fun and intuitive. It’s a delight to curl up on the couch and go down the auto-play rabbit hole. The games I want to enjoy are well represented on Google Play (something that can’t be said for the app stores associated with Chrome OS or Windows), and I can move from spreadsheets to Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes faster than you can say, “Get back to work!”

Pixel-C-Keepin-OnBut the productivity quirks of the OS do deserve some discussion. That is why we’re here, isn’t it?

Let’s talk about multitasking. Android N does a little bit of it, but I rarely partake. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve engaged split-screen multitasking in the last week. Alt-Tab to fly between apps has been serving nerds well for decades, and it’s been good enough for me. Does “monotasking” occasionally make something a bit more difficult? Maybe, but I’ve learned to deal with it. When split-screen comes in handy, I use it, but it’s telling how rarely I’ve fired up the feature. The double-tap of the recent apps button to quickly jump back and forth between your two most recently used apps is actually Android N’s killer multitasking feature. The one multitasking trick I still envy in iOS, though, is the ability to “float” a video or video call on top of the UI. That’s cool and useful.

The biggest Pixel C quirk (for me) should be the easiest to fix, though I have depressingly little faith that it will be. Active spell check – the red line that appears under misspelled words as you type – only works sporadically throughout Android. Its absence in the full-screen compose window of Inbox by Gmail pisses me off the most. When I need to compose a new email on the Pixel C, I’ve actually set up a button on my homescreen that will open a new compose window in Gmail itself so spell check will function. Active spell check is also missing from the new note creator in Google Keep and from many comment fields in Google+. Because so many apps are affected, I can only assume this is an Android system bug, one which appears no better in the Android N Beta release than it was in Marshmallow. What? This bug is news to you? I’m not surprised. It was to me, too, until I started using the Pixel C. The autocorrect feature of software keyboards for phones and other tablets almost always corrects our spelling mistakes before we make them, so there’s nothing for active spell check to underline. The Pixel C’s hardware keyboard, however, has no autocorrect feature, so my typos are going uncorrected and also un-underlined. This is muy, muy bad. I’ve filed bug reports more times than I can count, but so far it appears no one is listening. I wonder if Google even cares.

There’s no way to set “desktop” versions of websites to show by default in the Android version of Chrome or in the custom Chrome tabs that are now everywhere throughout Android. That, like the mobile version of a website that too-often fills my Pixel C’s screen, is a joke.

Likewise, the lack of tablet optimization among my most-used apps is still a major bummer, but I’ve learned to accept it. I don’t really have any other choice, do I? Slack, Hangouts, and Inbox are the biggest offenders (notice how two of them are Google apps). I’ve chatted with the developers of the Slack Android app. They have no plans to optimize it anytime soon. Inbox almost gets away with it, since the app is all about white space anyway, but Hangouts is a lost cause with Allo on the horizon.

Speaking of Allo, the Google Play listing for the upcoming chat app already shows that it will not be compatible with the Pixel C. Since Allo is “based on your phone number” à la WhatsApp and Snapchat, it’s not unexpected that the app will be phone-only. But the fact that my new $650 Android device won’t be able to run Android’s latest and greatest new messaging app is still super-lame. It also means there will likely be no desktop client, either, so at least my Chrome OS friends and I can cry in our beer together and console each other back on Hangouts.

Did you hear? Android apps are coming to Chrome OS, and the line between a Chrome OS device and an Android device will be virtually invisible soon! We know the Pixel C is an Android device built on a Chrome OS core, so what does this new marriage of the OSes mean for the innovative Pixel C?… Nothing, apparently. To my knowledge, the Pixel C wasn’t mentioned once during the recent Google I/O developer conference keynote or the Chrome OS/Android sessions that followed. Either Google is keeping a big secret about the future of the Pixel C, or they’ve already forgotten that the device exists. I suspect the latter.

Wow, those last few paragraphs were a slog of negativity. I must hate this device. No. Instead, I love it so much that its tiniest remaining flaws drive me to drink. Like people, the things we love the most tend to have that effect on us. There’s a satisfying minimalism to the Pixel C, a comfort that comes from the knowledge that I can make my whole living on a device so small and so efficient in its own proportions. It feels like a single-purpose device that can instead do just about anything. And the battery life is amazing – 12 hours easy on a charge with 6-7 hours of screen on time. There’s also an interesting Zen that comes from having only one OS in my life. My computer and my phone aren’t just compatible anymore, they are identical. As I switch from one device to the next, I don’t have to retrain my brain or my muscles to keep the productivity going. Everything works the same. Everything is the same.

Does this mean I haven’t used my Chromebook Pixel at all since I fired it back up about 60 days ago? Don’t be silly. I recently needed to spoof a MAC address to connect my Roku streaming box to a public WiFi hotspot that was behind a Web-based login portal. MAC spoofing requires either a rooted Android device or a Chrome OS machine in developer mode. Hacking the Chromebook was easier to do, and I didn’t mind the required data wipe (’cause, you know, I’m not using it that much anymore). I seem to recall needing the Chromebook for something else in the last month, but I can’t remember what it was. Are you picking up my sarcasm?

So, I’ve lived and worked in Chrome OS, and I’ve now lived and worked in Android. When Android apps are fully baked into Chrome OS, will I switch back to a Chromebook to get the best of both worlds? Sure, as soon as they ship a Chromebook that features the same keyboard/tablet integration as the Pixel C. I’ll be first in line to buy it. Until then, I’ll be sticking with the C for the foreseeable future – not because it runs Android or even despite the fact that it runs Android. I’ll continue my Pixel C Challenge because I’ve finally found the device that fits my life better than the competition. It’s a device which manages to be greater than the sum of its admittedly flawed parts.

Aren’t we all.

This is the final post of a series chronicling my  journey with the Pixel C as my only laptop/desktop computer. You can read the other posts in the series here.

12 responses to “The Pixel C Challenge, Day 98: The Adventure Continues”

  1. “There’s no way to set “desktop” versions of websites to show by default in the Android version of Chrome or in the custom Chrome tabs that are now everywhere throughout Android.”

    Owner of a Pixel C too, I admit this is a huge downside. I use the app Hermit now which can make any website as an app and have the option to use desktop website by defaut.
    Check :

    1. That’s a good workaround, but geez, it shouldn’t be necessary. The “always desktop” treatment of websites is one of the causes of my occasional iPad Pro envy… until I go play with it, that is. 😉

  2. I’m holding out hope that later this year they’ll release another one with Chrome OS on board. Now that it’s getting Android apps, I find it to be a more appealing tablet OS than Android, even with split screen coming with N.

  3. I have enjoyed this series and I think I would be in the same boat if I could justify buying another gadget. I am very interested in what is coming with Chromebooks though and maybe in the near future I’ll just have to bite the bullet, sell the different gadgets I’ve already got and just buy one that will pretty much cover all my needs. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

    1. I appreciate that, Mike. I have to keep reminding myself what the Pixel program is for: It’s basically a publicly available prototype program that gives Google a chance to try new ideas, and it gently nudges OEMs to do better. So, I’m hoping either Google or a gutsy OEM will fall in love with the Pixel C’s form factor as much as I have and produce a Chrome OS/Android machine in the same vein. We’ll see.

  4. Great series, thank you for that. It would be a shame if Google forgot about the Pixel C. Successes worth building upon.

    1. Thanks! From a consumer standpoint, it looks like the Pixel C was abandoned immediately after it launched. There’s certainly a team of Googlers pushing out new software builds and fixing critical bugs, but it’s slow going. I’d love to see a Pixel C 2 with perhaps a slightly larger screen and backlit keyboard, etc., but I’ll be stunned if it happens. My wallet will be ready, though.

  5. Hey Chip,

    I wanted to say that I really appreciate this post! I was hoping to see your last post before ordering the Pixel C but I went ahead and did it last week(should be here in a couple days). Anyway, awesome series. You’re the man.

    1. Thanks, Drew. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it. I hope you love it as much as I do!

  6. Dinsan – Bangalore, India – Digital Minimalist & Content Developer. Drinks Tea and writes Stuff (mostly about Chromebooks). My views are mostly copied from others.

    Now I need to find another reason to make you write here again 🙂

  7. Hey Chip, awesome review! And as a very happy Pixel C owner myself I completely agree with you! I use my C as my primary device with my phone (6p) second and my mac as a last resort, basically only when I need to use Sketch.

    About the keyboard, have you tried using SwiftKey? They provide 3 predictions (like a software keyboard) and I have set it up to have the spacebar drop the main prediction. This allows me to not only have spell checking, which is vital for me because I’m a horrible speller, but I don’t actually have to type out the full words. Usually just a letter or two and SwiftKey knows what I want to say. That alone makes typing on my C faster and more enjoyable than any other device I have ever used.

  8. Loved the review! I always imagined I was the only one crazy enough to buy something largely for its form factor and build. If something is awkward in my hands or awkward in my bag I’ll hate using it. The chromebook pixel was heavy and bigger than I wanted it, but it was so well designed and well machined that I didn’t even care. Hoping to get my own pixel c this summer.

    I did have a question: you mentioned uploading dSLR photos from an SD card using your oixel c. What hardware/cords/adapters/methods did you use to get this done?


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