This article is part of a 30 day Pixel C Challenge by Chip Colandreo. Read all the articles from this series here. Pixel C Challenge.
Wow. Just wow. Out of nowhere, Google decided to drop a nuke on the Android community this week with the release of the very first developer preview for Android N, the next version of the mobile operating system. No one expected to see or hear anything about Android N until Google’s I/O developer conference in May. Included in the preview is plenty of new hotness for rank-and-file Android phones and tablets, but the Pixel C is far and away the big winner. Googlers have said publicly that multi-window app support (the ability to run two apps side-by-side on the screen at one time) was in the Pixel C’s future, and all of a sudden, the future is now. The #1 gripe about productivity on the Pixel C has suddenly been addressed with the Android N preview, and I’ve been running it since the announcement on Wednesday.
Clearly – obviously, even – Google knew about my 30-day challenge to use the Pixel C as my exclusive desktop/laptop computer, because they even provided a way for me to install the developer preview without connecting to a Windows or Mac OS X (or Linux!) machine, something that was never before possible. With the announcement of the Android N preview, Google also launched the official Android Beta Program. By visiting google.com/android/beta, I was able to enroll my Pixel C (and any other compatible devices associated with my Google account) into the program with a couple of taps. Within seconds, I was prompted to download the developer preview and install it over my existing OS without wiping any of my user data. Amazing!
Once installed, I couldn’t fire up multi-window fast enough. To describe the process as easy and intuitive is an understatement. It’s slick, simple, and despite the fact that this is literally an initial beta build, it worked almost without fail on every app I threw at it. As a friend of mine said, Android’s new multi-window implementation is basically identical to what Apple offers in iOS… and that’s perfectly OK. It Just Works®, to coin an overused and irritating phrase.
But, has it actually made me any more productive on the Pixel C. Yes, but I’d argue the benefit is as much psychological as it is tangible. In all but the most literal sense, multitasking is an illusion. As human beings, we almost always do one thing at a time. As I’m writing the words of this post, if I need to research something, I stop writing and turn my attention to the topic in question. When the research is done, I return to the physical act of typing these words. It’s a linear system – I must research before I know what to type. I literally, physically, can’t do them both at the same time. Likewise, if two apps are on my screen simultaneously, my eyes can only focus on one of them. Unless you’ve reached a new evolutionary plateau, you can do no better.
So, really, is the difference between multitasking among two apps by moving our eyes from one side of the display to another actually that much better than multitasking via alt-tab? Well, yes, but I’ll bet it’s not because of the speed, it’s because when we divert our attention from one task to another, we just feel better knowing the previous task hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s waiting there patiently, subconsciously visible in the corner of our eye and our mind.
Enough with the psychobabble. What am I doing with multi-window on my Pixel C? My favorite use-case so far is a trick to address the #1 complaint in my previous Pixel C Challenge post: Active spellcheck doesn’t work in my email app’s compose window, meaning I’m typing out emails to clients and colleagues with no spellcheck safety net. My solution has been to write emails in my word processor of choice (with its functioning spellcheck) and then copy/paste the content into a new email. Problem is, as I’m working fast and furious in my inbox, I’ll often just start a new email out of habit and then find myself too mentally/physically lazy to stop, open my word processor, and restart the body of the email over there. With multi-window, I can now open the word processor right next to my email app and quickly move back and forth between them. But to my points above, nothing functional has changed with the multi-window capability. I’m still stopping the email, starting another app, and then going back to the email with completed text ready to paste. But, the fact that I can do it all without ever losing sight of the email with its address fields and subject line already complete, just makes me more inclined to go through the whole process. So, yes, my emails are now more likely to be spelled correctly thanks to multi-window support. My productivity cup runneth over. Let the record show that you can drag/drop highlighted text from one window to another to copy/paste it. It’s a neat trick, but it’s slower than ctrl-c/ctrl-v. Again, multitasking is an illusion. Sorry to ruin the party.
Here’s a more functional example of multi-window at work on the Pixel C: When I installed Android N, my favorite file explorer app (Solid Explorer) was suddenly crippled. It took an uninstall/reinstall to get it working, but that forced me to re-enter the login information for my office’s file server. This info, which I store in Slack, includes an IP address, a username I can never remember, and a complicated password that includes plenty of obscure alphanumeric characters. This is a legit case where multi-window is clearly superior to alt-tab. With Solid Explorer open, I brought up Slack on the right-hand-side of the screen, and I was able to reference the login information in Slack and type it into Solid Explorer without ever having to leave the app. Nice. Productive. Nicely productive.
Speaking of Slack, it does highlight a major problem with split-screen apps in Android. Like many Android apps, Slack’s main navigation takes place in a hidden drawer which slides in from the left edge of the screen. If Slack ends up on the right-hand-side of your split-window display, that left edge is now the multi-window slider in the middle of the screen, making it impossible to open the drawer. Whoops.
Perhaps my favorite new productivity feature of Android N is the double-tap of the recent apps button. Tapping it twice instantly cycles between the current and most recent app. Think of it as the soft key equivalent of alt-tab. It’s great when using the Pixel C sans-keyboard and does make moving between two apps quickly a much more pleasing process. It works when in split-screen mode, too, toggling the two most recent apps in the right-hand panel while the app on the left stays fixed.
As with every Android developer preview, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Like my Solid Explorer experience, there are some app compatibility problems. Chrome Beta is especially (surprisingly) bad. Sometimes it just won’t render specific URLs, and it will randomly stop accepting text input in the address bar. Killing and reopening the app fixes things for awhile. Some apps, even Google’s apps, have major layout trouble when used in split-screen. Inbox (the email app) is probably the worst I’ve seen so far. Content in the app doesn’t scale, so you either end up with UI elements that are too big for the suddenly-50%-smaller space or email text that simply becomes too small to read comfortably. Google Docs is a mess in split-screen, too.
One very annoying change in this first dev preview is the behavior of the search key on the Pixel C’s physical keyboard. Previously, the search key would bring up the Google search overlay with the search bar highlighted and ready to accept a typed query. In other words, you could hit the search key and immediately start typing. Now, the search key triggers Now on Tap, which is slower, and the search bar at the top is not active right away. You must physically tap the bar with your finger to place the cursor there. Only then can you return to the keyboard and begin entering your search queries. This is lame, but I imagine it’s an easy fix. I’ve filed feedback. We’ll see what happens.
Battery life on the Pixel C seems unaffected by the new build. Wish I could say the same for Android N on my Nexus 5X. I’ve yet to really push the Pixel C, though, so battery issues may yet rear their heads.
I guess that’s it… Oh, wait, did I mention the Pixel C got 25% cheaper!>?!!1 Yeah, I saved the best part for last. I was too busy being productive to mention it earlier. Out of the kindness of its heart, Google has decided to offer developers a 25% discount on the Pixel C. That amounts to $125 off the 32GB version and $150 off the 64-gigger. Said another way, you can buy a Pixel C and get the not-really-optional keyboard for free. What? You’re not a developer? It doesn’t appear to matter, as Google is letting anyone punch their email address into pixel.google.com/developer-discount with the promise of a discount code delivered “within a few days.” For the heck of it, I signed up and got my code in a matter of minutes. I am not a developer. Nor am I in the market for another Pixel C, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this is just a somewhat silent discount on a product that too-few people bought at launch.
Which brings us to the critical question: Why, oh why, did Google bother to launch the Pixel C before it’s productivity potential could be fully realized? The Pixel C was very obviously rushed to market with software that was feature-incomplete and extremely buggy. Early reviews blasted the C for it’s software derps and keyboard connectivity issues. They also laughed it out of the room for claiming to be a productivity device without the (real or imagined) Holy Grail of productivity features, the mystical multi-window support. Was Google desperate to put the C on sale in time for the holiday shopping season? If so, that was a dumb call. If more than 10,000 Pixel Cs saw the light of day before Christmas, I’ll eat my mousepad. And, who in their right mind would buy it after reading any of the initial reviews? I am not in my right mind, so I, of course, am exempt from the question.
Had the Pixel C been announced in tandem with the new productivity features in Android N, that would have been something to blog home about. The damage has been done, however, and I don’t think v1.0 of the Pixel C will ever be able to recover in the marketplace. That’s fine by me, but with a new, lower price point and software that finally deserves to run on hardware this good… Let’s just say if you’ve made it to the end of this article, you and the Pixel C were probably made for each other. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. The future for the Pixel C is now, and the future is bright.