The Pixel Slate and why I still really love it

Google Pixel Slate

The Pixel Slate has had a rough ride. When it was initially revealed, there was a level of excitement around it which built a big bubble of hype. When it was finally released that bubble burst, spectacularly.

The Slate had a lot of problems. There were performance issues in tablet mode, which meant doing something as simple as having two windows snap side by side was a laggy experience. There was the design of the Keyboard Cover, which made the device almost impossible to use in your lap unless you had the kind of length of thigh bone that would place you into NBA levels of height (or extremely weirdly shaped legs).

But the biggest and most damaging question was one that should have been obvious to Google prior to launch: why should you buy the Pixel Slate when the Pixelbook still exists, and even though it has an older processor and bezels as wide as the Grand Canyon it actually did everything that anyone would want from a Chromebook, in a more familiar form?

I have both a Pixelbook and a Pixel Slate. I had expected the Pixel Slate to effectively replace the Pixelbook. All the things the critics said are true about the Slate, and that’s why I never sold the Slate — but despite the Pixelbook being, in many ways, a superior device I still love using the Slate, and just when I think I’ve put it down for good it finds a way to sneak back into my life. 

Why? The first reason is the screen — and no, I’m not talking about the bezels. I can live with the bezels on the Pixelbook, and the reality is that those on the Slate are not that much smaller. But the screen itself is genuinely joyful to look at over a long period of time. The only screen that I’ve ever used that rivals it is the iPad Pro, which is the best screen on the planet for ordinary use at the moment. 

Images on the screen are soft without lacking sharpness or clarity. Colours are absolutely perfect. I can look at this screen for a long, long time without wanting a break (note: I do take breaks anyway, and you should too!)

The second reason the Pixel Slate keeps luring me back is the keyboard. Yes, I know: you can’t use it in your lap, and it has to lie flat on a table because there are no clever magnets to keep it angled up like there are on the Surface Pro keyboards.

But the keys themselves are brilliant to type on. Round keys take a little while to get used to, but Google’s user testing was right. I find myself making less typing errors on it, and when you type all day that adds up to a lot of time spent not doing corrections. 

Also, one for Apple: find a way to steal the bit from this keyboard that lets you put it at any angle. The two angles on the iPad Pro keyboard are a big improvement, but they just don’t cut it when you’re used to being able to work at any angle, as you can on the Pixel Slate.

I can’t speak for the lower end versions but the Core i5 that I have in my Slate performs perfectly well now, in laptop or tablet mode. Everything feels as snappy as you would expect. And battery life is fine: you can never have enough battery life, but the Slate will get me through a full typical working day. 

I think the biggest problem the Slate faced was that Google never really answered a simple question for themselves: Why make a tablet at all? What role is this device going to play in someone’s life? If it’s going to replace a laptop (or even “replace a laptop 80-90% of the time”) then it needs to be better than a laptop at a wide range of tasks. The iPad is the best example of this: it’s got a better screen, it’s easier to use, the battery lasts and lasts, it’s more powerful given the price, it has really good software, it integrates brilliantly if you have an iPhone, it’s hugely better for consuming content, and thanks to that processor power and easy to use software  it’s often better for consumer-level content creation. 

And yet… I doubt I’ll ever regret buying the Slate. It’s a big barrel of contradictions and half thought out ideas, but it’s also just one of the most pleasant and compelling devices I own. Even when it’s frustrating you over some little thing, it’s a joyful piece of design that misses the mark in places but delivers in others. 

My week with the Pixel 3 XL

Never let a bunch of people decide anything that you have to do via a Twitter poll. In my case, very definitely don’t let them condemn you to a week-long trial of any product other than the ones you favour.
That’s how I ended up spending a week or so using the Google Pixel 3 XL rather than my beloved iPhone XS Max. My Apple Watch sat on the sidelines and in its place on my wrist came a Fossil Sport watch running Wear OS.
I gave it a shot. But how did it actually do? And did I end up tearing my hair out?

What’s better

I’m going to leave the camera to one side for a while, but there are a few areas where the Pixel 3 XL is a clear winner.

Top of the list: Google Assistant. Although there are a couple of ways that Assistant is worse than Siri, by and large it’s a huge step upwards. Even though it still hasn’t got totally to grips with my accent (no, Google, “hole” does not mean the same thing as “hall”. I do not have any lights in my hole) Assistant’s ability to answer queries and generally get things done is outstanding.

What did I miss?

There were quite a few things though which made me constantly want to run back to iPhone. Mostly, they were small, but when you start to add up the small things, they matter.

First, there was FaceID. Once you’ve got used to just glancing at your phone and opening it up instantly, going back to having to press your finger on a fingerprint reader makes you feel like you have gone back to some kind of technological dark age.

Next there’s Siri. Now I know that I said Google Assistant was way ahead — and it is — but there’s one area that Siri still stands head and shoulders above its Google rival, and that’s home automation. Even after all this time, Google Assistant does not understand that homes have different regions where you might want to turn off and on a bunch of lights: or, as we sometimes call them, “upstairs and downstairs”.

Apps, too, are still behind. There are plenty of streak trackers, but none as good as Streaks. There are plenty of task lists, but none as good as either OmniFocus or Things. Google Fit is fine, but as a hub for all your health information, it’s laughable compared to Apple Health and as a fitness app it’s not as good as Fitness.

Then there’s the hardware and software eco-system and how everything just works together. You would think this might be an area where Google could lead, but instead it lags. Android and Chrome OS still feel like strangers sitting next to each other on a train, rather than a couple.

Then there’s Apple Watch: boy, did I miss Apple Watch. Although I used a pretty decent recent wear OS device (the Fossil Sport), it’s pretty laughable as a wearable. Design-wise, the hardware is fine: this, after all, is a company that knows how to make good looking objects for your wrist. But the software and speed of the device itself are probably compatible to a first generation Apple Watch. Google Assistant, which should be a star on the wrist, is a laggy joke. And the lack of decent applications makes it pretty useless on the whole.

That camera

Of course, there’s one thing that I really haven’t touched on much here: the camera. The Pixel 3 series is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, camera on a smartphone at the moment. Google achieves this not through hardware – although there’s certainly nothing back about the 12 megapixel rear-facing camera – but through its “computational photography”, machine learning algorithms which use multiple shots, the shake of your hand, and other features to improve every single image.

And it is a really good camera, capable of producing consistently excellent images across a huge range of lighting conditions. You just won’t get many duff shots out of the Pixel 3.

However, what you are not getting is anything close to images that are true to life, and every now and then the computational photography approach just completely messes up. Portrait mode, for example, will do wacky things like blur out the frame of someone’s glasses rather than correctly interpreting them as part of the face. Occasionally, the Pixel’s desire to make colours pop out at every opportunity also betrays it. For example, taking a wide picture of a kitchen while a friend was cooking, the Pixel decided that because they were wearing a yellow sweater, it should also add a pale yellow tinge to their face. Perhaps that algorithm needs to learn that “jaundiced” isn’t a natural human skin tone.

Portrait mode is also an interesting area. When the iPhone XS Max first came out, Apple’s algorithms for portrait mode over-smoothed skin to a crazy degree. Apple has tweaked these since, and now it’s the Pixel 3’s face smoothing looks over done. It’s not bad: but as soon as you look closely at an image, it’s pretty obvious what the Pixel is trying to do.

Then there’s Night Sight. This is widely – and rightly – regarded as something of a miracle. Even outside, on a pretty dark night with little illumination to work with I can get a clear shot of what’s going on in the garden. But it’s also weird looking, like Jeff Brouws work, and looks absolutely nothing like what you’re seeing in front of you.

There’s no optical zoom on the Pixel 3. And amazingly, you will very rarely care, because Google has done an absolutely amazing job of creating a digital zoom that’s almost as good as having a second lens. Almost – but not quite. This is an area where optics will always beat computation, but unless you’re constantly using zoom, the digital zoom on the Pixel will make you very happy indeed. Good job, Google.

At the end of the day, you are not going to go wrong with either of these cameras. Is the camera better than the iPhone XS Max? It depends on what kinds of images you prefer. Do you want something that looks more or less like what you’re seeing in front of you? The iPhone is your better option. Do you want something that’s “better” in the sense of brighter, more energetic and with lighting that looks bright but not over-lit? The Pixel is probably the camera for you. The colours you end up with on screen will look great – but they will be nothing like the colours that your eye will have seen at the time.

What next?

So am I going to stick with the Pixel? Nope. I’m too embedded in the Apple hardware ecosystem and too much in love with Apple Watch to make that leap for too long. But I am going to spend some more time with it, and in particular I’m going to spend some time with Android Q.

Android Q’s third developer beta just came out, and for a bit of fun I decided to install it – and I very much like what I’ve seen so far. The gesture interface (which is so copied from iOS) is more consistent and coherent than the current version, and I like the dark mode even if – as yet – not many applications support it.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, as I have some SIM swapping to do…

The Pixel 3 XL experiment

Here’s a lesson for you: never, ever ask your Twitter followers whether or not you should use a particular kind of hardware or software. Ever more so, never allow them a Twitter poll vote on whether you should do something or not.

Last week, I did this:

Don’t do this. Ever.

For the next week, starting from today, I’ll be forsaking my beloved iPhone XS Max in favour of the Pixel 3 XL. Perhaps more painfully, I’ll also be putting my Apple Watch on to charge and leaving it there, with a Fossil Sport WearOS smartwatch taking its place.
Next Sunday, I’ll write up what I think about it. I’m trying to keep an open mind, and I know that there are some aspects of the Pixel that I like already (the camera).

This is all your fault, Twitter followers.

Learning to love silence

I’ve always been someone who has background noise around them. Growing up, the TV was always on, and my dad spent his time singing around the house – he couldn’t hear a silence without filling it with a song. My mum said that she knew my dad was seriously ill when he stopped singing.

I’ve been the same. Get home, turn the TV on, or – more recently – turn the radio on. When I lived in houses where the TV wasn’t the centre of the world, or I didn’t have one (strange to think I’ve lived in places with no TV!) then I would sing, or listen to music. I swam in noise.

Silence was a stranger.

And deeper than that, silence made me feel lonely. I used to listen to the radio late at night, while going to sleep, because the soft background hubbub of quiet voices made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world. Noise, and especially talking, showed me the world was still alive, that things were still as they should be.

Since starting to meditate regularly I’ve become much more comfortable with silence. I still lapse into singing, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but the ongoing song in my head in no longer automatically there. I can be silent inside, and sometimes just appreciate silence around me – as I am now, with no one else in the house, the cat fed (so not filling my ears with her “starved” little voice) and nothing on. No radio, no TV, no music. Just me and the sounds of my fingers clacking across the keyboard. There’s a certain comfort in that, too.

You’ve got to know when to fold ’em

Lots to agree with in Owen Williams piece on “Foldable phones: right tech, wrong place?”, starting with this:

If I consider it for a while, the largest advantage would be to merge the tablet category with the phone, but it’s a confusing proposal: do consumers desire a phone and tablet that will require charging even more often? Perhaps foldables are like adding a second monitor to your desktop: useful for power users to get a bit more space, but most people don’t care.

There’s two other problems with foldable phones of the kind we’re seeing at the moment. First, when unfolded they are too wide to thumb type on, but too narrow to have a meaningful keyboard. Second, the most popular size of tablet is around 10-11in: halve that and you have a very wide or very narrow phone, depending on which axis you put the fold.

Foldables actually make more sense applied to larger devices, such as the iPad Pro or something more complex along the lines of the Surface Book. While I never really wished my phone was a tablet, I’ve certainly mulled the idea of a tablet and laptop combined, adaptable to the situation I’m in, without the awkward detached keyboard kicking around somewhere.

Surface Book, for example, could simply be a single ultra-thin device that folds into itself to become a slate, rather than detaching. The lower half, in ‘laptop’ mode could transform into a simple display-based keyboard, and adapt dynamically to the form-factor it finds itself in at any moment.

I’m not sure about this. Part of the advantage of tablet form devices is that you don’t have to have the additional weight and bulk of the keyboard. Surface Book works because if you take off the base, it weighs less than half as much, making it easy to use when held. Surface Pro and iPad Pro work because you can remove the keyboard altogether and still have a usable slate.

In theory I would love an iPad Pro that folded in half to reduce its size. In practice, that would more than double the thickness once you account for the inevitable hinge mechanism. Folding devices are just bulky devices, and who wants that?

Most of the tech news sites are going absolutely crazy over folding devices. I just don’t think they have any kind of use case yet. Perhaps they’ll find one, but I can think of a million technologies in the past which never made it past this stage.

Becoming a creator

OK, this sounds trite. But…

The difference between you and the creators you follow is simply they are creating while you are consuming.

Source: 13 tips for making the switch from a consumer to a creator | Nathan Barry

You can’t create more than you consume. Consumption is quicker and easier by definition – it takes far longer to write a novel than for even the slowest reader to consume it. The key question is how much time you’ve investing in each.

Nathan’s tips are well worth reading. I think my favourite is this:

Decide what you are going to do before you sit down at the computer — Too often I sit down at my computer and think, what should I work on? That’s dangerous. It usually starts with checking social media, reading slack, and catching up on email. The trick is to decide what you are going to do before you approach the computer.

In other words – and this is something I come back a lot at the moment – be intentional about what you’re doing. If you’re just sitting there with a device playing around with it, you’re not doing anything that’s actually of value. Know what you’re going to do before you do it. Be intentional.

Remembering Project Marklar

Nick Wingfield mentioned something which took me back a long way:

It’s well worth reading the whole thread, as much of it typifies Steve Jobs, but describing the reporting of Nick dePlume and Matthew Rothenberg at eWeek on Project Marklar as “rumours” is wrong. In 2002, they absolutely nailed the details of the nascent Intel project. I know the work that went into that story, because I talked them about it at the time.

I was tangentially involved in it. At the time, I was news editor on MacUser UK, and a year before they broke the story, Nick called me to see if I’d heard anything about Transitive, the UK-based company whose PowerPC to Intel code translation software Apple was using.

Nick and Matthew worked on that story for a good 18 months before publishing anything. It was solid, dogged reporting. Calling it “rumours” is what Apple did at the time – basically, anything Apple didn’t want you to report, they called “rumours”.

Worth remembering: Jobs was so pissed off about the Marklar story (and many others) that he made closing dePlume’s site a priority – and eventually sued it out of existence. And way too many journalists covering the Mac gave Apple a free pass about this, effectively shrugging their shoulders.

Coda: one of our reporters, the wonderful and much missed Paul Nesbitt, asked Jobs the same question in about 2004. He got barred from Apple press conferences for it. Jobs had many fine qualities, but tolerance for a free press was not one of them.

Extra coda: there were quite a few writers about the Mac at the time who insisted that “it’s a rumour until Apple announces it”. This is a great tell that a writer isn’t a reporter and doesn’t understand that by that standard, Watergate was all rumours till Nixon resigned.