Review: Pixel Slate for Linux and Web Development

The Pixel Slate (i7 model) can be a decent computer for web development, including Docker, Node, and Android development. My workplace recently got me one so I decided to review it for anyone curious about using it for Linux-based development.

Performance

I’m reviewing the highest-end version with an i7-8500Y CPU. Let’s break that down:

  • Y series is the 5 watt low power offering (not to be confused with the 15 watt U series which is for “Ultrabooks”).  This allows the Slate to not have any vents or fans, making it perfectly quiet.
  • The 8 stands for 8th generation which is the newest generation for the Y series.
  • The “i7” means it’s both more expensive and faster than the same class i5. But that doesn’t mean an i7 Y series is going to be faster than a very old i3 desktop K series CPU. It’s essentially the same chip with more cores enabled and a higher clock frequency.

The i7-8500Y is considerably slower than a roughly equivalent i7-8550U as seen in the XPS 13 9370. (See my review of the XPS 13 developer edition here). Since I have both, I’ll do a few comparisons. All tests on the XPS 13 are run on Ubuntu 18.10.

Basemark Web 3.0
Pixel Slate – 500.4
XPS 13 – 365.8

Wow – the Slate beats the XPS here – this is surprising! Both are running Chrome. My guess is that Chrome on the Slate has far better optimized drivers than stock Ubuntu on the XPS. This probably allowed the GPU to do more of the work, resulting in a higher score.

Webpack

I tested building Passit, the open source password manager I’m working on. Passit is built with angular-cli and uses webpack to build bundles. See the repo here if you want to compare. I ran a development build with “npm run build”

Pixel Slate – 16 seconds
XPS 13 – 11 seconds

CPU benchmark

I ran “sysbench –test=cpu –cpu-max-prime=20000 –num-threads=8 run”

Pixel Slate – 5.8 seconds
XPS 13 – 10.0 seconds

Lower is better – and the Slate wins. I don’t understand this. It should be a simple CPU test, and the XPS 13 has a faster CPU with more cores. Since this test had odd results, I ran “stress-ng –cpu 6 –cpu-method matrixprod –metrics-brief –perf -t 60” too.

6 cores:
Pixel Slate: 22839 ops
XPS 13: 46106 ops

2 cores:
Pixel Slate: 25464 ops
XPS 13: 33069 ops

This time the XPS got more than twice as many operations done in the 6 core test – presumably due to its extra cores. Even with just 2 cores, the XPS is still faster.

Docker and Django

As an example of back-end development, I’ll run the passit-backend (Django) tests in Docker. This shows the time required for creating a PostgreSQL database and running the Python tests. I ran:

– docker-compose up db
– time docker-compose run –rm web ./manage.py test

Pixel Slate – 38 seconds
XPS 13 – 26 seconds

This test involves a mix of CPU and I/O bound operations. It’s not surprising that the XPS wins.

Linux Apps

Screenshot 2018-12-23 at 16.54.29
Just a typical day in Chrome OS running Firefox, VS Code, and Docker

I installed Firefox within five minutes of opening the Pixel Slate – because why not? Linux apps run mostly well on the Slate. Setting them up is easy – just enable that option in settings. Installing apps is easy for someone experienced with the Linux command line, but harder for someone new to Linux. For example, on most Linux OS’s, you can double click a package file (such as a .deb file) and it installs. Not so on Chrome OS – you’ll need to use apt and dpkg to install programs like VS Code and Firefox.

Linux in Chrome OS (called Crostini) runs Debian Stretch in a container-based environment. That means it’s more efficient than a virtual machine and more secure that just executing Linux programs directly. It does add some inconveniences, such as having a separate file storage area (similar to Android).

Most things work just fine, but an exception was Docker. I followed the comments here to get it working. I ran into another minor kink when installing gnome-terminal because no shortcut was created (every other app I installed did so and “just worked”). Crostini doesn’t support GPU acceleration at this time, so Steam gaming with the Slate isn’t going to be a great experience. Actual virtualization doesn’t work at all, although Wine does.

One perk of using the Slate as a developer is that you can develop Android apps and run them right on the device without an emulator. This does require enabling developer mode, which leads you to a rather annoying startup screen that must be bypassed by pressing CTRL-D or waiting 10 seconds. It’s actually really handy running Android apps directly in Chrome OS and not taking the typical performance hit from full virtualization.

Mobility, Battery Life, and Other Features

The Slate weighs 1.6 lbs by itself; with the keyboard it’s 2.9 lbs. For comparison, the XPS 13 weighs 2.67 lbs – so the Slate as a laptop substitute is not a lighter option.

I get 4-6 hours of battery life on the XPS 13 when actually working. The Pixel Slate does better – more like 6-12 hours. (It’s hard to estimate because I’m typically not continuously coding/compiling things for more than 6 hours at a stretch.) This is no surprise given the lower power requirements of the Slate’s CPU.

The Slate easily goes into a suspend mode when inactive, just like an Android phone or tablet would. Ubuntu on the XPS is more finicky – it mostly works, but consumes more power when suspended and occasionally has glitches when waking. I would feel comfortable simply suspending the Slate when I step away from my work, whereas I often shut down my XPS 13 to avoid the issues just mentioned.

The Slate doesn’t have a headphone jack, and only has two USB-C ports. If I want to charge it, listen to music (through an adapter), and plug in a second monitor at the same time, then I need a USB-C dock. Google doesn’t provide much guidance on what adapters or docks are supported. I found USB-C to DisplayPort to work fine with a 4k monitor at 60hz, while a USB-HDMI adapter I use for my XPS didn’t work at all with the Slate. USB-C docks don’t support 4k at 60hz, and the ports appear not to be Thunderbolt-compatible. I found this whole connection process confusing and annoying – but in the end I got what I wanted using a USB-C dock (for power and audio) and a separate cable for DisplayPort.

The official Slate keyboard works as well as any device in this tablet-to-computer product class. It’s usable on your lap, but not good. It’s perfectly fine on a table. The round keys are a little odd, but I got used to them. It’s almost a full keyboard, including escape and F row keys – meaning I can use vim with it.

This may be a matter of personal taste, but I find the Slate too large and burdensome for reading an e-book. One advantage of the size, though, is that I can read full-size magazine articles without having to zoom or use the lite version.

The Slate’s magnets seem to be weaker than the Pixel-C’s, or maybe they’re the same but not strong enough for the increased weight. The Slate wouldn’t stay up when I tried sticking it to the fridge like I do with my Pixel-C. At the Slate’s vastly elevated price point, however, I probably wouldn’t trust it in the kitchen anyway!

Conclusion

As a developer, I’d feel confident using the Pixel Slate as a replacement for my tablet and laptop. I’d still want a faster desktop with this set up and as a backup just in case Docker or something didn’t work right. As something I got from work and didn’t pay for myself – it’s great!

Pros

  • Great battery life
  • Fast web performance
  • A good way to run Linux with a solid, stable base OS that runs without glitches
  • Running Android apps next to Linux apps all inside Chrome OS is really cool

Cons

  • Expensive – I could buy both an XPS 13 and a small tablet for less money
  • CPU performance is slower than an “ultrabook”
  • No headphone jack and not enough USB-C ports

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