I’m not surprised; I’m just disappointed.
As expected, Google launched the Pixel Tablet at its Google I/O developer conference yesterday. It’s an 11-inch Android tablet with a “charging speaker dock,” and when it’s on the dock, it looks and functions like a Nest Hub Max, Google’s top-of-the-line smart display. Google kept saying the Pixel Tablet was “like” a smart display, while insisting that it isn’t one.
The thing is, when the tablet is docked in Hub mode, it certainly seems like a smart display. The tablet acts like a digital photo frame. You can talk to Google Assistant. You can use it as a smart home controller. You can Chromecast audio and video to it. Those are all things the Nest Hub does. The dock, which comes with the tablet, makes it clear that the tablet is supposed to live out in the open, not shoved in a drawer or wherever people keep tablets when they’re not using them.
The Home Panel on the Pixel Tablet.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why an Android tablet is a better smart home controller than the underpowered, neglected Nest Hubs. I mean, the words “underpowered” and “neglected” are big ones. The Pixel Tablet is a bit of a do-over, with a fresh interface, much more powerful hardware, and a much larger app ecosystem. It has the potential to be a great smart display and smart home controller — but there’s one major omission in achieving that potential.
I just can’t figure out why the dock isn’t a Nest speaker.
At launch — words I’ll come back to — it’s just a dock. It charges the Pixel Tablet, and it has speakers that the tablet can use when it’s docked. And it enables that Hub mode I was talking about. When you take the tablet off the dock, it’s a tablet. But the dock is just clutter. You can’t cast audio to it, you can’t ask it questions, and you can’t even use it to charge your other devices. It just takes up space.
Before Google I/O, I had this whole theory in my head that it would be a Nest speaker. The alternative just didn’t make sense. It’s at least as big as a Nest speaker. It has speakers in it. It’s always plugged in, and it’s designed to be out in the open. It’s rumored to cost $130 by itself, which is more than a Nest Audio or a Nest Hub.
If it were a Nest speaker, it would still be useful when someone walks off with the tablet. If it had a Matter controller and a Thread border router in it, as several Nest Hubs do, it could work in tandem with the Pixel Tablet to be a one-stop smart home solution, even when the tablet is elsewhere. Instead, you still need a separate device (or two) to control your smart home, in addition to your $500 tablet and its bulky dock. I am not the only one to notice the missed potential here.
It makes a lot of sense to use an Android tablet as a family smart home controller, but it makes less sense for that smart home controller to be unavailable because somebody took the screen off and is playing Minecraft in the next room. A Nest speaker in the dock fixes the “where did the tablet go” problem, and the Pixel Tablet fixes the biggest problem with the Nest Hub smart displays, which is that they’re fundamentally voice-first smart speakers with an awkward touchscreen interface grafted on, running on hardware that struggles to keep up.
This is just a dock. It doesn’t have a microphone or a privacy switch.
I think the dock was supposed to do more. And either there was a change of direction or some of the hardware is there but dormant because Google just didn’t get it done in time for I/O. Consider the following.
In early 2022 — before the Pixel Tablet was announced at last year’s I/O — there was a rumor that Google was working on a Nest Hub with a detachable display. Late last year, Google seemed to be ramping up development on Fuchsia OS in advance of a new Nest speaker launch in 2023. And it has spent the last two years porting its existing Nest Hub speakers to Fuchsia. The second-gen Nest Hub got the OS last week. All to no obvious result; they all still run the same dilapidated front end as before, and no new Nest products were announced. That’s a lot of effort to go to for nothing.
For a while, I was half-convinced that not only was the dock a Nest speaker but also that the Home Panel interface of the Pixel Tablet was actually running on the dock itself and just overlaid on Android when the tablet was docked. And that, because that Home Panel interface didn’t look like the Nest Hub interface, Google was about to update the Nest Hub interfaces when the Pixel Tablet launched. Just goes to show you shouldn’t believe something is true just because you want it to be true or because you’re fed up with your Nest Hub Max and don’t want to spend $500.
If this feels like I’m grasping at straws, first of all: probably! The charging dock doesn’t have a microphone or a privacy switch, so it’s almost certainly not a Nest speaker. But second, check out what Anish Kattukaran, the director of product on Google Home, told my colleague Jennifer Pattison Tuohy: “at launch, the new Pixel Tablet will not be a Matter controller or Thread border router.”
“At launch” is a weird way to put it if what you mean is “never.” So there’s a slim hope that the smart home control capabilities at least might still be in the dock.
Just goes to show you shouldn’t believe something is true just because you want it to be true
Of course, Google did lay off a chunk of the Fuchsia dev team in January — shoutout to 9to5Google for staying on top of Fuchsia news, by the way — and then reorged the Assistant team in March, so maybe plans changed. Or maybe they tried the Nest speaker thing and decided it was too confusing, or they couldn’t get the operating systems to play nicely. Or they couldn’t get the organization to play nicely. Maybe they’re still working on it! Maybe they’ll have a different dock coming later that does have a Nest speaker in it.
Or maybe the Nest Hub is an evolutionary dead end, and the speaker dock is just a big, expensive charging stand for an Android tablet. That Android tablet will be a good smart home controller when it’s docked, thanks mostly to the new Google Home app and the fact that it’s designed to sit out in the open. But the smart home needs a great controller. The Pixel Tablet has all the right components. It’s too bad the dock is just a dock.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge