Revisiting The Google Pixel C - Better, But Not There Yetby Brandon Chester on February 17, 2016 8:01 AM EST
The main takeway from my review of the Pixel C was that the device's hardware is completely let down by the software. As far as Android's existing tablet issues go, the firmware update for the Pixel C obviously doesn't improve anything, and so there's nothing to change my verdict about the usability of these large Android tablets in general. However, the Pixel C also had a great number of issues that were specific to it, and many of them were bugs that Google was actively aware of at the time. Why the Pixel C shipped with known bugs that made it unusable is a question I cannot answer, but what I can do is compare our updated unit to the original one to see where Google has improved things.
The first area of improvement is to touch input. To be frank, the only statement that properly characterizes the Pixel C's current touch input is "completely dysfunctional". Josh and I, along with many other reviewers have encountered severe issues with touch input registration. The problems range from touches not being registered, swipes being registered as touches, and touch detection disconnecting in the middle of swipes which causes your action to be reset. As I said in the initial review, these bugs basically make the Pixel C impossible to use properly, and seeing them on a device shipping in 2016 was absolutely shocking.
Fortunately, the firmware on this new Pixel C appears to resolve the problems with touch input. I've included two videos below, which show me attempting to do several very basic things using the Pixel C. Looking back on my original review, I don't think explaining these problems in text was able to effectively communicate just how bad the problem is. Showcasing all the issues in a video alongside the updated version gets the point across much more easily, although in this case I actually encountered better registration on the original unit than I usually do, which really doesn't speak well of how it normally functions.
Original Pixel C
Updated Pixel C
As you can see, the difference between the two units is dramatic. The unit with the original firmware is just completely unusable. Taps almost never register at first, you can't complete swiping actions properly, and in general it's basically impossible to navigate anywhere in the UI without making multiple attempts. Something else worth noting is that many animations exhibit a "lag" of sorts due to the tablet moving the UI to track with the inaccurate touch input, which can be clearly seen when swiping between home screens without removing your finger. On the original unit, the icons move in a very jerky manner, while on the new model the animation remains very smooth. Unfortunately, Android itself still exhibits a great deal of input lag, which becomes more pronounced on these larger devices as your finger moves over a greater physical distance. That's not something specific to the Pixel C, so I wasn't expecting any improvements there, but it's important to note that even after these fixes we're definitely not talking about parity between the responsiveness on Android tablets and the responsiveness of iPads.
As for UI performance, that has been greatly improved as well. I've seen fewer frame drops in the UI, especially in the areas where it honestly never made any sense for there to be problems with performance such as pulling down the notification drawer. Scrolling performance appears to be much better as well.
One area where I have not seen much improvement is in Chrome. I assume that these issues have more to do with Chrome than with the Pixel C, as I see them on every Android device, but they really become more pronounced on these larger displays. Chrome just really don't handle multitouch well. Gestures like pinch to zoom don't track with your fingers at all, and they can be really janky. On tablets this becomes more noticeable because you're moving your fingers a greater distance than on a phone, and so you can easily see the latency and tracking issues.
The video above shows the behavior of Chrome's pinch to zoom on our Pixel C with the updated firmware. As you can see, multitouch really doesn't work well here. In an ideal pinch to zoom implementation your fingers would remain on whatever object you originally placed them on. Both iOS and Windows get very close to this, with only a big of movement due to latency and imperfect tracking. Android and Chrome is not even close, with my fingers ending up near completely different clusters of words after I zoom in. The tracking almost feels like it's completely independent of how much I'm pinching in or out, and it really breaks the metaphor of direct manipulation. This is something that the Android team and the Chrome team really need to address, because the competition has had this nearly perfected for over five years now.
Ultimately with the new firmware from Google the issues I noted that were specific to the Pixel C itself are essentially all resolved. The crippling issues with touch input are gone, and performance is definitely improved, although Android itself needs some work there, and arguably all of these mobile platforms could use a year or two focused on eliminating the regressions in performance that we've seen as their complexity has increased. Android itself stil has issues with responsiveness and latency that bother me, but none of these things are specific to the Pixel C and are just something you currently have to deal with on these tablets.