Making sense of Pixel Slate’s crazy CPU options

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In the leak-laden leadup to this week’s official announcement of the Pixel Slate, Google allowed public benchmarking tools to capture what appeared to be four different Intel CPUs in testing for the tablet: a super low-end Celeron, a basic Core m3 laptop chip, and two step-up Core i5 and i7 processors. Heading into the Made by Google event, my only question was which of these chips it had selected for the device codenamed Nocturne.

The answer turned out to be “all of them.” As a result, there’s a $599 Pixel Slate with a Celeron inside that looks physically identical to a $1,599 Pixel Slate with a Core i7 — they share the same aluminum body, 12.3-inch screen, 7.0mm thickness, and 48 watt-hour battery. Look at Google’s tech specs page, and you might assume that you can choose from performance that rivals Apple’s iPad, iPad Pro, or MacBook Pro, depending on your needs.

In theory, I love that Google went in this direction. Eight years have passed since Apple released the first iPad, and there’s still no agreement on whether tablets are actually laptop replacements. Does a tablet need a mobile-class processor? A laptop-class processor? A detachable keyboard? A rotating keyboard?

Apple chose an answer eight years ago and stuck with it. Every one of its tablets gets a best-of-class but decidedly mobile processor, plus the option — not the mandate — of a separate physical keyboard.

Microsoft never picked just one answer, and its Surface lineup is confusing as a result: Go, Pro, Laptop, and Book all represent different takes on the same idea. Rivals like Asus keep churning out so many Zen and Transformer variants that no one can keep them straight. So it’s great that Google has Pixel Slate as a potential single alternative to all of these convertible tablet concepts (and if that doesn’t work, it still has the Pixelbook).

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However, it remains to be seen whether a one-size-fits-all tablet chassis is practically a wise decision. I would normally have serious concerns about the engineering wisdom of putting an Intel Core i7 inside a 7mm thick tablet: CPU thermal issues nearly killed the July launch of Apple’s Core i9-equipped MacBook Pro, and that machine didn’t have to stuff a full touchscreen into its bottom frame. It wouldn’t be surprising if the $1,599 Pixel Slate gets super hot when it’s playing games or otherwise pushing its processor.

But there’s a reason to think that might not happen. Early Geekbench 4 benchmarks for the Pixel Slate’s CPUs suggest that — Celeron aside — their performance won’t vary as much as their names. If these results are correct, the entry-level Celeron Slate will fall below the old, discontinued fifth-generation iPad (single-core 2523, multi-core 4387) in performance, while all three of the Core models will roughly compare with Apple’s current (but soon to be replaced) iPad Pros, which have single- and multi-core scores of 3900 and 9324.

Spending $599 to get a tablet that underperforms Apple’s current $329 sixth-generation iPad doesn’t strike me as a wise move, but if you want a Molecular Display and twin USB-C ports, knock yourself out. Anyone with possible professional aspirations would be advised to step up to at least the Core m3, which offers around twice the Celeron’s performance (to say nothing of more RAM and storage) at a higher price.

Unfortunately, the supposed numbers across the higher-end processors are fine for tablets, but poor by laptop standards. If they’re accurate, they suggest that buyers will be better off with the Core i5 model than the supposedly higher-end Core i7. One might guess that the i7’s performance is being limited for thermal or other reasons. It’s also possible that these benchmarks will improve by the time Pixel Slates hit stores “later this year.”

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Another concern here is battery life. Even assuming Google has done all its due diligence to properly cool the high-end Pixel Slate, the battery drain is not going to be the same on a Core i7 as on a Celeron. Google’s tech specs page claims “up to 10 hours” of battery life, and reps at the Made by Google event were apparently saying “up to 12,” but I find either static number very hard to take seriously as applied across four different CPUs.

One takeaway from the CPU benchmarks is that they’re not completely different. The Celeron is a basic option, and despite their different names and supposedly significant Turbo clock speed distinctions, Google is running all of the Core chips at real-world performance levels pretty close to one another.

We’ll only know for sure how the Pixel Slates perform when they’re in the hands of independent reviewers. For the time being, however, I’m somewhat skeptical that either the low-end or the high-end models will be worth their price tags. There’s also the question of whether adequate workstation-class apps will be available to make great use of the higher-end chips. For these reasons, there’s a lot that we still need to learn about these machines, and the mid-range Pixel Slates may well wind up being more compelling than the others.

Source: VentureBeat

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