As smartphone screens have got bigger, and laptops more powerful, tablets have gone through something of an identity crisis.
Once pitched as an obvious middle ground between the computer in your pocket and the one on your lap, the thinking behind them seems increasingly muddled.
There are iPads for people who want a keyboard and powerful processor (but not a laptop?), and those who want a small screen (but not a bigger phone?).
Samsung makes tablets, occasionally with a stylus, while also making phones that fold out into screens even bigger than some tablets. And don’t forget Amazon‘s various Kindles and Microsoft‘s array of Surfaces.
If your head hurts thinking about them all, you’re not alone. As someone who recently helped research a new family tablet purchase, it’s more difficult than ever to know which models to choose from as use cases vary so wildly.
But that hasn’t stopped Google from coming up with yet another use case for a tablet – what if it was also a smart home display?
The Pixel Tablet launches today into a field more crowded than ever, priced £599. It’s got the same chip as the company’s flagship Pixel 7 smartphones, an 11-inch screen, and a bunch of apps optimised to take advantage.
But the standout feature is the dock, which you slap the tablet on to with some powerful magnets and effectively transforms the device into a home hub.
You can see information like time and weather, have it cycle through photos, play music from the in-built speakers, control your lights, and its “Hey Google” voice assistant is always listening.
No dock, no dice
The idea is that rather than leave it teetering on the arm of the sofa, down the side of the bed, or worse still at the mercy of your children, you pop it on the dock and make it the centre of your smart home.
Google’s so committed to this idea, you can’t buy the tablet without the dock.
It’s a very different approach to that taken by other tech companies, and almost seems as much designed to target Amazon’s dominance in the smart speaker market as Apple’s in the tablet space.
Of course, at £599, it comes in much more expensive than your average home hub – even the pricier ones like Amazon’s Echo Show and Google’s own Nest Hub.
Google has long made great and popular smartphones, and its Pixel range is one of the very best for anyone who favours the Android operating system.
But the search giant has never quite found solid footing in the tablet space, and its previous attempt offered a completely different pitch to today’s release. The Pixel Slate, from 2018, was a pricey Frankenstein-esque bid to combine tablet with Chromebook, and it was discontinued after just two years.
Sceptics will no doubt suspect a similar fate awaits the Pixel Tablet. Google certainly has history when it comes to killing off products and services beyond just misguided tablets, with its Glass headset and Stadia games platform (dead after two and three years, respectively) among the most high-profile examples.
But as you’d expect, its executives are bullish about the Pixel Tablet and the tech is impressive.
The thicker bezels and matte finish make it nice and grippy, albeit less premium feeling; it’s really fast; offers eight megapixel cameras on the front and back, which work especially well for video calling; and Google promises the battery will survive 12 hours of video streaming.
And while Android has never felt nearly as at home on a tablet as on a phone, during our hands-on time we found popular apps – from Google’s own like YouTube and Gmail to others like Disney+ and WhatsApp – were rather well optimised and could be used split-screen.
The Pixel Tablet also supports multiple accounts, making it more shareable among a household than Apple’s iPad, which will help put parents’ minds at ease.
Most importantly, the dock works as advertised, turning the tablet into an attractive fixture of your living room, with pretty solid speakers for playing music, radio, and podcasts.
Given that ever more muddled space between smartphones and tablets, Google will hope its decision to have it flirt with the smart home market proves a master stroke.
Considering its history with new products, we’ll know in about two years.