With the release of the developer preview of Android N, and a developer coupon code for 25% off the Pixel C, Google is providing developers an early look at the future of Android well in advance of Google I/O 2016—and with fewer barriers to entry than before. Users with a Nexus 5X, 6, 6P, 9, Player, Pixel C, or General Mobile 4G (Android One) device can register to receive an OTA update with the latest build of Android N, rather than manually flashing their device.
Perhaps the most visible added feature in the N developer preview is a splitscreen mode, allowing users to run two apps at the same time—a prominent feature of Microsoft's Surface and Apple's iPad Pro tablets, both of which are marketed as "productivity devices." With this feature being added to Android only now (save for OEM implementations, most notably on Samsung devices), Google is playing catch-up in a big way.
A brief history of Android productivity
In the Android ecosystem, there is a long-standing preoccupation with attempting to sell productivity as a feature. It hasn't worked out very well thus far—the Motorola Webtop was a revolutionary "dockable Android" that converted into a theoretically usable desktop interface. This was limited by the relative lack of processing power and RAM available to smartphones at the time, like the Droid Razr Maxx, and was swiftly discontinued after Google bought Motorola. Other peculiar-though-unique attempts at productivity devices include the foldable Sony Tablet P and pico-projector wielding Samsung Galaxy Beam.
While the aforementioned phones are now roughly four years old, it is also worth mentioning the checkered past of Android on full-size tablets. Motorola Xoom, the first true Android tablet, had only 19 months' worth of version updates. The Nexus 10 fared much better, though the vaguely oval device shape was never seen again. The Nexus 9 got great reviews from CNET, though early models had manufacturing issues that were swiftly corrected. Ultimately, this is all in the past, and Google's obvious message is that the Pixel C represents the future.
Pixel C and Android N: A splitscreen adventure
Although Android N brings splitscreen to all the test devices (counting picture-in-picture on the Nexus Player), the most obvious immediate beneficiary of this is the Pixel C. The unique screen ratio of 1:√2 (a resolution of 2560x1800) prevents splitscreen apps from feeling cramped, as opposed to the squeeze on 16:9 displays intended for media consumption.
Presently, the splitscreen mode allows the use of only two apps at a time. If you hold the Pixel C horizontally (or are using the Bluetooth keyboard), the apps are split to each side, while in vertical orientation they're split to the top and bottom of the screen. Although this is still only a developer preview, things tend to work rather well with Gmail and Chrome.
When putting Gmail into splitscreen mode, a toast alert indicating that the app might not work appears. Fortunately, nothing goes catastrophically wrong, though the main panel becomes blank—it seems necessary to switch to a different folder (thereby refreshing the display) to see any email. Chrome updates properly when changing from fullscreen to splitscreen, changing TechRepublic to the mobile layout, which is more convenient in this view. However, that is not always the case.
Google Play in Chrome looks a fair bit better (though somewhat tiny) in splitscreen mode, though the Play app is all over the place. In the app, it takes moving around two or three screens before it looks quite right. It seems to fare somewhat better when resizing it to two-thirds of the screen.
Presently, the app pinned to either side of the screen can't be switched out when changing apps—you must exit splitscreen to do so. Bearing in mind that this is a developer preview, there is some crashing when using splitscreen mode, a problem that seems to become more frequent the longer the mode is used. This is not production software, so some issues are to be expected. In testing for this article, only the apps themselves generally crashed. The entire system went down only once, though the cause of this could be practically anything.
The home screen can't be displayed as one of the apps while in splitscreen.
It is possible to run a YouTube video in "full screen" in splitscreen, while having another window open. Captions draw correctly in the YouTube window. This could be useful for typing notes using the Bluetooth keyboard when watching a video.
Best candidate for "Top Android Tablet"?
The Pixel C is a stunning device, and in comparison to its Nexus-branded forerunners, the most premium-looking Android tablet yet. The Pixel line is very much the "aspirational" reference product for Android OEMs to draw inspiration from. Conversely, the Pixel C is also the reference device for Google developers to tailor the Android experience to tablets. The Pixel C is a malleable device—the promise of software updates about six weeks, as mentioned in the announcement in September, is absolutely being fulfilled.
CNET's review of the Pixel C provides a more in-depth look at the hardware, though references to the software reflect the state of the tablet as it existed in December 2015. Firmware updates to the keyboard in February have fixed issues that the CNET reviewer reported, and the February update of Marshmallow (6.0.1) provided improvements to touchscreen responsiveness and some WiFi issues reported by users on XDA-Developers, among other places. Custom ROMs appear to improve WiFi performance further. As the N developer preview is roughly beta-quality software, commentary on performance here is of minimal utility, though the Pixel C well outperformed other tablets in the 3DMark Ice Storm test from the initial CNET review.
Ultimately, the Pixel C inherits some limitations of Nexus devices, like the lack of an integrated microSD slot, a confusing omission considering the addition of adoptable storage in Marshmallow, and the inclusion of full-size SD slots in the Chromebook Pixel. This can be remedied with accessories like the Meenova Dash. While not integrated, it can be quite useful in certain cases where the tablet is relatively stationary, like watching a video stored on SD during a long-haul flight. Although the 2013 Chromebook Pixel had an LTE option, the 2015 model and the Pixel C lack the option entirely—which seems conspicuous for a mobile device, particularly as the underpowered Lenovo Tab 3 Business has both microSD support and optional LTE.
In terms of software, the Pixel C is the best Android tablet available, and the updates in the pipeline as Android N reaches general availability make the future of both this tablet and the Android tablet experience across the board a bright one. Aesthetically, the only potential competitor is the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet. Owing to Sony's reputation for updates, this too will receive an update to N upon general availability. As for hardware features, if the inclusion of microSD or LTE is a must-have, the Z4 is probably the better bet.
What's your view?
Do you have a Pixel C? Did you purchase it as part of the developer discount program? Have you installed the N Developer Preview on any of your devices? Share your experiences in the comments.
- Android N: Here are the new top features (CNET)
- Video: 5 new features coming to Android N (CNET)
- 8 bold predictions for Android in 2016 (TechRepublic)
- Android Marshmallow: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
Note: TechRepublic and CNET are both CBS Interactive properties.
James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.