a month with the pixel slate
I was supposed to be spending the past month or so traveling. That didn’t go quite as planned, but I nevertheless spent some time preparing for the trip, and as part of that, set up a Google Pixel Slate to take along. Even though I didn’t actually complete the experiment, most of the effort was validating it could work, and I think it would have been fine.
The Pixel Slate convertible tablet launched at the end of 2018 as Google’s ChromeOS answer to the Microsoft Surface Pro. Despite some strong points, it received overwhelming negative reviews, notably This Ain’t It Chief. It was received so poorly, Google dropped out of the tablet space entirely. Ouch.
Despite this, it’s not all bad. And there may even be some good news. First, the terribly performing Celeron model is no longer for sale, if it ever was. The software also seems to have been tuned up quite a bit. Alas, once the initial reviews are in, your ship is sunk. As a result, the price has come down a lot, too, addressing another early concern. I picked mine up as part of a Black Friday sale, although it’s been on semi perpetual fire sale ever since. Keyboard (very useful, must have) and pen (meh) included. So this changes the value proposition quite a bit. It’s still nowhere close to a do everything replacement machine, but I picked one up to play with and I think it can be made to work.
I prefer to travel light, even if that means sacrificing a few comforts. On my last trip, I looked at my backpack and it was about half tech gear. A phone, a laptop, a tablet, another phone, a (Nintendo) Switch, a wifi AP to connect them all. Chargers and wires and cables for all of that. Some of it is mostly unnecessary, especially the Switch I never have time to play. But combining the laptop and tablet would go a long way to further reducing the load. I previously used a Surface as a converged device, and mostly it went really well, but I just didn’t want to deal with Windows on my vacation. Also, the Surface I have doesn’t charge with USB-C, and going all in on USB-C has really helped reduce the number of chargers and wall adapters I need to carry, but there’s no way I’m going to spend so much on a newer model.
Enter the Pixel Slate. On sale, it’s cheap enough that even if I only got a modest amount of use from it, it wouldn’t be a total waste. And it’s a form factor I’ve been happy with in the past. Plus, I have my reservations about ChromeOS, but overall it does its job with a minimum of fuss. It wasn’t too hard to set it up to satisfy everything I’d need for a month of mostly travel, but with some software development along the way.
One, it’s got a solid browser. Two, it can run Android apps like Netflix, which often work better than browser counterparts (such as downloads for offline viewing). Three, it has a Linux mode which doesn’t require switching to developer mode or anything more complicated than clicking a single button.
I have what is now the entry level model, with m3 processor, 8GB RAM, and 64GB eMMC.
There are some really good parts to the Slate hardware. And I mean really, really good. The display is fantastic. It’s 3000 x 2000 pixels. On a black background, text is super crisp. Syntax highlighted words in different colors don’t have any color bleed or dot pattern or whatever. Battery life is also exceptional. In wifi browsing contexts, doing light development consisting of reading some documentation, writing some code, compiling, testing, the whole cycle, I would get 12 or 14 or so hours of use. I think that’s fantastic. The CPU and RAM are modest, but I was only planning on making fairly small incremental changes, not relentless computing. And ssh is right there.
Much of the appeal of the machine for my is the fact that I can rotate it into portrait mode for reading. I take just the tablet part, lounge around, and catch up on all my RSS feeds and news sites. It works great for that. Other times I maybe want to watch a movie. It can be propped up in landscape mode for that, and conveniently has front facing speakers which sounded pretty good. It also works to go split screen in portrait mode, watching a video just for the sake of having something to watch, while reading on the other half. The aspect ratio and sizing work well for this.
There are some less great parts as well. The design of the folding keyboard is just awful compared to the Surface kickstand. The magnets that hold the back panel on are almost too strong. Making small adjustments requires so much force I never end up moving only the piece I intended. Plus it weighs a lot. Microsoft is clearly killing it here. Google should be embarrassed this is the best idea they can offer. The keyboard itself is kinda mushy, but I didn’t have trouble typing on it. And of course, the whole apparatus can only be used sitting at a desk or table. So this definitely cuts into its utility as a go anywhere travel machine.
The eMMC is obviously slow, but most of my work isn’t disk bound.
The important part for me is that by clicking the Linux button, you get a fairly standard outdated Debian install. You can then upgrade that to some slightly newer packages, but it’s generally just like anything other laptop running Linux. Though with less fuss.
I generally get things going by clicking the terminal button to launch the Linux VM/container thing, then run ssh-agent tmux to start a real session, then run xterm a few times as needed until I get my fill of windows. After that, I don’t have exactly the window manager I want, but the default one is passable. And copy and paste and tmux mouse settings all seem to work in mysterious ways, but got by. Again, this wouldn’t be my preferred setup for long term permanent use, but it’s more than sufficient to check in on things and make some minor adjustments on the road.
I could install go and rust and whatever else needed. Start a web server, connect to localhost. You can even install Firefox into the Debian space, and it runs fine, although the font scaling and DPI was out of whack. Firefox on a Chromebook. Amazing.
About the only thing I wouldn’t be able to do is OpenBSD development. Unless I resorted to incepting another layer of qemu. But I also have remote machines I could access.
I believe Google was pitching this as a replace everything machine. It’s definitely not. There are too many drawbacks for sustained use. You’ll have a much better time with a real laptop for real laptop work. But it’s also much, much better than just a plain Android tablet would be. As a travel device, it’s more than decent. It excels at the lighter use scenarios, but with the option to pretend to be serious when required.
There are some alternatives. The obvious would be the Surface. The kickstand is incomparably better. But it’s also (now) much more expensive. And while I deal with Windows on the regular, it just gnaws at me when I want a computer that will just quietly do its thing without incessant nagging. I’ve never been able to get reliably good battery life out of Windows, either, even on Microsoft’s own device, because there’s always some parasitic service spinning out of control at the most inconvenient time. ChromeOS is one of only two operating systems I’ve used where that’s generally not been a problem.
Or I could stick with the laptop and tablet setup. As a laptop, my X1 Carbon is superior in just about every way. But I can’t watch Netflix on it. My Galaxy Tab S5e is a great little tablet. But it’s pretty damn slow, even just browsing the web. In a just world, that’d be an indictment of the web and not the device, but it is what it is. There’s no way you would want to use it by itself. The laptop tablet combo is not substantially heavier or bulkier than the Slate by itself, but it is a bit more clutter. Just the daily strain of packing it all up, keeping two devices charged, switching between them, etc., isn’t fun.
I haven’t actually decided what I’ll be taking on my next trip, but I still really want to give the Slate a chance.