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Pixel Tablet hands-on: Basically a $500 smart display with a detachable screen

It’s the first tablet that you can Chromecast to.

Photo by Sam Rutherford / Engadget

When Google’s vice president of Nest products Rishi Chandra told me about the company’s vision for ambient computing in 2019, he talked about a hypothetical smart display that was basically a tablet attached to a speaker dock. You would be able to lift the screen off its base, take it with you to another room and place it on another station there. Today, at Google I/O, that hypothetical device is launching for real as the Pixel Tablet, and I was able to get some hands-on time with it in April.

Though it was initially teased last I/O, the Pixel Tablet is actually ready for purchase this year. Come May 10th, you’ll be able to pre-order it for $499, and that includes the speaker base. Google won’t be selling the tablet on its own, though you can buy additional docks for $120 each so you can have stations in multiple rooms.

Clearly, the company doesn’t want you to think of this as a $370 tablet. This is more of a hybrid device, better considered as a smart display with a detachable screen. So don’t think of it as a successor to the discontinued Pixel Slate — Google said it was done with making its own tablets (or, more specifically, focusing on laptops) and it is… even if it is confusingly calling this thing the Pixel Tablet.

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In spite of its name, the Pixel Tablet will likely spend most of its time in your home as a smart display. With an 11-inch screen, rounded-rectangle shape and a mesh fabric covering the speaker base, the Pixel Tablet looks incredibly similar to the Nest Hub Max. You can get it in either Hazel (gray), Porcelain (white) or Rose if you’re in the US, and the latter two have white bezels while the first has black borders. The device has a nano-ceramic coating that Google said was “inspired by the feel of porcelain,” lending it a “textured feel unlike any other tablet.” It’s hard to describe how this felt — I liked the matte finish but it’s not like my fingers were sent into spasms of euphoria when I touched the device.

What I did find impressive was how little it weighed. I picked it up to use while it was still attached to the speaker, and didn’t feel any strain at all. Granted, I only held it that way for a few minutes, and it would probably start to feel heavy if I held it long enough. But then again, you’re not really supposed to hold the screen with the speaker connected.

On its own, the tablet is a fairly straightforward Android 13 slate. It offers the same multitasking features as most devices running the latest version of Android L for larger displays, though Google has optimized 50 of its own apps for the Pixel Tablet. It also worked with developers to optimize apps like Spotify, Minecraft, Disney+ and more for the larger screen. For instance, Gmail and WhatsApp offer two-column layouts, and when I dragged a slider to expand the width of the former to take up more than half the screen, it went from a single column to a two-column view. Speaking of WhatsApp, you can now make video calls from the app on the Pixel Tablet, making it the first slate to support this.

You can also do things like drag and drop photos between apps while in split screen mode. A row of icons appears at the bottom of the screen when you drag your finger slightly from the bottom and pause. From here, you can launch your favorite and recently used apps.

The back of the Pixel Tablet, with its grey speaker base facing the camera.
The back of the Pixel Tablet, with its grey speaker base facing the camera. (Photo by: Sam Rutherford / Engadget)

The Pixel Tablet is also the first tablet to be powered by the company’s own Tensor G2 processor, which enables AI features like voice typing, Magic Eraser and Photo Unblur. This is also the first tablet on which you can make WhatsApp video calls, by the way. Of course, you don’t have to be using the screen on its own to make use of these tools — the software works the same way whether the tablet is docked or disconnected.

Thankfully, the magnets holding the two parts together are strong enough to keep the display from sliding despite the angle it’s propped up at. It’s also possible to remove the screen with one hand, as a Google rep showed me at the demo, but it required some finesse in my experience. The dock isn’t heavy enough that you can simply peel the tablet off from the top — you’d need to use your hand as a lever along the bottom edge to separate the two. With practice, I could see this action becoming easier to do.

When the screen is attached to the base, a few things happen. The onboard speakers are deactivated and any media you’re playing will automatically stream through the dock’s more-capable system. From what I heard, the base speakers sound similar to those on the Nest Hub Max, which is to say the music was clear and had a nice amount of bass. I haven’t heard enough to judge the audio quality for sure, but it was definitely an upgrade from the tablet’s tinny output.

Another feature that becomes available when the display is connected to the dock is Hub Mode. You’ll see your selected photos on the lock screen, just like you do on Nest Hubs, as well as a home button on the bottom left. Tapping this brings up a control panel for your compatible connected home appliances like thermostats, lights, locks and camera feeds.

The Hub Mode smart home controls dashboard on the Pixel Tablet, showing four square buttons at the top followed by eight blocks below. Two of these rectangles contain feeds from security cameras, while another two are controls for lamps.
The Hub Mode smart home controls dashboard on the Pixel Tablet, showing four square buttons at the top followed by eight blocks below. Two of these rectangles contain feeds from security cameras, while another two are controls for lamps. (Photo by: Sam Rutherford / Engadget)

In this mode, anyone who can physically touch the Pixel Tablet can access this dashboard, so if you have a friend visiting, they can also turn on the lights without having to unlock your device. This only works when the tablet is docked. They’ll also be able to set timers or play music and ask Google for answers. But don’t worry — they can’t do things that require your personal info, like see your calendar events, for example. That would require unlocking the tablet, and I appreciate that there’s a fingerprint sensor on the power button at the top to make this more convenient.

During the hands-on event in New York, I used the demo unit to turn off a lamp in a San Francisco office and was able to watch it happen via the camera feed that was also onscreen.

When the tablet is docked, you’ll also be able to use it as an additional screen and Chromecast to it. Google said this is the first tablet with Chromecast built in, but to be clear, the feature is only available when the device is docked and in Hub Mode, not as a standalone slate. It’s a nice touch regardless, and great for places like your bedroom if you don’t have space for a TV. I’m definitely planning on leaving a Pixel Tablet dock by my bed so I can stream Netflix in the background when trying to fall asleep.

I also like the idea of using the Pixel Tablet as a dedicated device for my video conferences. The slate itself has two 8-megapixel cameras — one on the rear and one in front. Google has designed Meet to keep the user centered in the frame even if you’re moving around. The company says the Pixel Tablet “has the best Google Meet app video calls of any tablet,” which is a claim I’ll have to put to the test in the real world.

The Pixel Tablet on a brown bookshelf with its screen facing out.
The Pixel Tablet on a brown bookshelf with its screen facing out. (Photo by: Sam Rutherford / Engadget)

Using the Tensor G2 processor, the system will automatically adjust brightness to make sure you’re well lit. This was pretty funny to watch during our demo when the camera hunted for a person to keep in frame when I left its view. It discovered my colleague Sam about a foot away, even though he wasn’t facing the Tablet, and zoomed in on him. When both of us looked at the camera, the framing changed to accommodate us.

I’m not a fan of the low camera angle when the screen is docked, but the good news is you can still use Meet when the tablet is detached. Google also makes a case that you can buy for $79. It comes with a kickstand that doubles as a handle when unfolded all the way, so you can prop the device up on the go or hang it on a hook if you wish. I can see myself propping the tablet up on a higher surface or hanging it on a kitchen cabinet if I were to take a call from my parents while cooking dinner. What's nice is that because of the way the case is designed, you can easily snap the screen back onto the dock even with the case on, since the kickstand fits nicely around the base and the pogo pins can still make contact.

It’s worth noting that when the screen is detached, the speaker base is basically useless. You can’t cast to it, and because it doesn’t have a microphone onboard, it won’t hear your commands. It doesn’t have a battery onboard either, so this isn’t a portable system you can take to the beach or on a road trip (though I can’t imagine why you would).

The back of the Pixel Tablet Case, showing its racetrack-shaped kickstand.
The back of the Pixel Tablet Case, showing its racetrack-shaped kickstand. (Photo by: Sam Rutherford / Engadget)

The tablet battery will last for 12 hours of video streaming, according to Google, so you should at least be able enjoy an entire season of You on a longhaul flight.

But remember. This isn’t meant to be a tablet first. Most other Android slates you’ll probably pick up about a few times a month, only to be annoyed to find it’s dead and need charging. Or you’ll take it with you on a trip to watch shows on the train or if you don’t like inflight entertainment options. With the Pixel Tablet, you’ll at least not have to worry about keeping it charged.

I’ve liked the idea of a smart display with a detachable screen since Chandra first mentioned it to me and, at first blush at least, the concept seems solid. I’ll have to wait till I can test out a unit in my own home to know how practical this idea is, but so far I’m intrigued.

Follow all of the news from Google I/O 2023 right here.