The Pixel C tablet. Photo: Google

At long last, Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google has finally released its first tablet. Originally unveiled in September, the Pixel C tablet made its retail debut on Dec. 8. Reviews for the device so far might best be described as lukewarm, but it represents a major shift in Google's Android strategy, and could finally provide some real competition for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad.

The first Android device from Google
The Pixel C isn't the first Android tablet to carry Google's branding, but it's the first Android tablet from Google. Its previous Android tablets, including the Nexus 7, Nexus 10, and last year's Nexus 9, were sold under its brand, but were made by its various hardware partners (HTC, Samsung, and Asus). The Pixel C, in contrast, is made in-house, with a design and finish similar to those of Google's laptop, the Chromebook Pixel.

At upward of $1,000, the Chromebook Pixel is about five times more expensive than the typical Chromebook. Although Google has never disclosed exact sales figures, it's unlikely the Chromebook Pixel has had much success, perhaps moving a few tens of thousands of units at most.

The Pixel C, in contrast, is relatively affordable, sitting somewhere between Apple's iPad Air 2 and its iPad Pro. The Pixel C starts at $499, the same price as the iPad Air 2, but offers twice as much storage (32GB). An optional keyboard cover bumps the price up to $648, but that's still far less expensive than the iPad Pro when paired with its Smart Keyboard ($968).

The Pixel C could aggravate Google's hardware partners, given that it will compete with their own Android-powered tablets. But none are offering anything that's particularly compelling at that price point. On its last earnings call, Apple's management pointed out that it currently dominates the market for high-end tablets. "Recent data from NPD indicates that iPad has 73% share of the U.S. market for tablets priced above $200....[and] iPad has 74% share of the U.S. commercial tablet market," said Apple's CFO Luca Maestri.

Strong hardware without the software to take advantage of it
Reviewers have heaped praised on the Pixel C's hardware, but ironically, have found fault with its software. The Pixel C runs Google's stock version of Android, free of the heavy-handed modifications its partners often make to their Android devices. That strategy has won Google's Nexus handsets praise, but that may actually be a bad thing when it comes to tablets.

Apple's latest iPads, including the iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4, and iPad Pro, include a variety of multitasking features, most notably the ability to run two different apps simultaneously. Windows-powered tablets have included this feature for some time, and some of Google's partners, including Samsung, added split-screen to their versions of Android long ago. Stock Android, however, does not include it, which limits the Pixel C's ability to work as a productivity device. "Unfortunately, Google still hasn't added any sort of split-screen functionality in you'll be stuck using one app at a time as always," wrote Engadget in its review.

The Verge found fault with the Pixel C's lack of tablet-optimized apps. Apple's iPad has around 850,000 mobile apps designed for its larger screen. The same isn't true for Android tablets -- owners are often stuck using apps designed for handsets:

One big problem is that most of the apps I use on Android tablets still aren't truly optimized for tablets. Most apps are comprised of wide, wasted expanses of open space that are technically designed for any screen size but actually aren't utilizing all this screen real estate.

Issues aside, both publications found the Pixel C to be an attractive and well-built device, with a particularly solid display. The optional keyboard cover also garnered a great deal of praise, in contrast to Apple's Smart Keyboard, which was largely derided by reviewers.

Finally a solid Android challenger
Android tablets are more popular than the iPad, but most are priced under $200, with smaller displays and lesser quality hardware. The Pixel C gives Android something it has somehow lacked for years -- a legitimate, high-quality alternative to the iPad.

There's a lot of reasons to doubt the Pixel C: its price could turn away many Android tablet buyers, and power users could scoff at its limited multitasking features. Google's history as a hardware maker is limited, and it doesn't have Apple's retail presence. Still, Apple's iPad business -- which has seen its shipments decline on an annual basis in each of the last seven consecutive quarters -- doesn't need any more competition.