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Hands-on review: How does Motorola Xoom compare to iPad?

The XOOM matches up with iPad's most important feature: you can throw this lightweight tablet Bluetooth keyboard bag rely it

The XOOM matches up with the iPad's most important feature: you can throw this lightweight tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard in a bag and rely on it as your sole computer for a few days." Here you see the XOOM with Motorola's matching, full-sized keyboard.

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Updated: April 22, 2011 10:07PM



There’s a certain question that I’ve been musing on, practically since the end of my first week with the iPad a year ago. I love my iPad. If I had to name another device that transformed how I use technology in my work and in my personal life, I’d have to go back to my first notebook with WiFi ... or maybe even my first notebook.

The Question: how much credit should Apple get for the iPad’s success? Is this specific tablet packed with the sort of Secret Sauce that only Apple has in abundance? Or could any other company have scored just as big with a tablet in 2010, so long as the device was highly-functional, lasted all day on a single charge ... and retailed for just $499?

It’s taken the tech industry a full year to respond to the iPad in any meaningful way. First out of the gate is Motorola’s 32 gigabyte XOOM tablet, running the Android 3.0 OS, and available with 3G mobile broadband from Verizon. The XOOM is roughly the same size as the iPad and it’s clearly aimed at the same consumers, who are apt to use it in the same way.

The Form Book

“How does it feel?” is something that a tablet computer needs to get just right. This is a machine that’s meant to be held, and gripped, and passed from one hand to the other, when you’re standing, sitting, walking, and lying down.

The XOOM is a nice piece of work. It looks and feels like it’s worth the hundreds of dollars you paid for it. It lacks the iPad’s cool metal back and its thin, tapered edges, but you’ll get over that quickly. I actually thought it was heavier and thicker than the iPad until I checked the sheet and discovered that those two specs are so close that no human could sense the difference (unless he’s Daredevil).

My initial assumption says all you need to know about the differences in styling. In reality, the XOOM is every bit as portable and totable as an iPad. It’s actually a little bit “grippier” than the iPad, thanks to the slightly rubberized plastic that covers the XOOM’s radio antennas.

The edges are highly-populated. Where the iPad sports a single proprietary dock connector for power, data syncing, and video out, the XOOM breaks those three tasks out into a mini-HDMI connector (which supports full 1080p output), a mini-USB, and a needle-thin port for a power adapter.

Is it better to have one proprietary connector, or a trio of standard ports? If you ask me when I’m packing for a trip and I just toss a single marshmallow-sized power adapter and one cable in a pocket of my laptop bag, I’ll give you one answer. But if you ask me when I’m at an Apple Store in an unfamiliar city spending $29 for a can’t-get-it-anywhere-else kind of cable that I left at my last hotel, the answer will be very different. And very hostile.

In addition to the headphone jack, there’s also a slot for a microSD card (more on that one later).

The XOOM’s only manual buttons are its volume controls and sleep/wake button. I wish they’d put some more money into these switches. There isn’t much positive feedback from the volume switches. And though the sleep/wake button is thoughtfully placed right where the index finger of your left hand would fall when gripping the XOOM, it’s flush with the rear case. Even after two days, I have to blindly feel my away around for it.

Battery

Battery life was excellent. Without making any particular concessions to power conservation (screen brightness was at a comfortable level, WiFi and 3G radios were on, I was watching a CPU-intensive movie) I got a little less than eight hours from a single charge.

The one valuable question is “Can I read books and watch movies all through a transatlantic flight and not worry if I’ll still have some juice left when I land?” No worries there.

Sound and Vision

Stereo sound comes out through two small grilles on the back of the XOOM. Its speaker power is adequate, if a little flat compared with the iPad.

Cameras? You want cameras on your tablet? Well, I mean, sure, if you want, but ... really?

OK, ok. There’s a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash on the back of the XOOM. It shoots decent, cameraphone-ey quality photos (and 720p HD video), but I felt not unlike a fool every time I used it. I’m out there holding this lunchtray in front of me and I’m staring at this big plane of glass — mostly at my own reflection ... honestly, I felt like this setup was ideal for taking photos of Civil War dead and nothing else.

I suspect that the true value of the rear camera will become apparent when a new generation of tablet-oriented augmented reality apps arrives.

A lower-resolution chat camera is set into the front. That’s a big deal, particularly for those who might be considering a tablet as an alternative to a bulkier notebook for trips.

Motorola chose a 1280x800 10.1-inch widescreen display. Widescreen videos seem even larger; watching movies on the XOOM is a far more cinematic experience than viewing on the iPad (if we can even use the word “cinematic” to describe watching a movie on a license plate-sized screen).

But the widescreen aspect ratio also practically demands that you hold the XOOM horizontally. It’ll auto-rotate to portrait if you turn it that way, but unlike the ambi-rotatrous iPad, when you hold the XOOM vertically it just looks and feels ... wrong.

The big problem with the XOOM’s display is its color. The screen looks fine when using apps and games. But photos and videos are a different story: the colors look a little washed-out and cheap. Rich golds become dingy browns. Blue skies become slightly overcast. While watching Pixar’s “Up,” scenes that should have looked nearly as rich and crisp and thrilling and vibrant as they do on my TV looked like they would have on the seatback video of a commercial airliner.

The display’s lack of color intensity isn’t dealbreakingly noticeable, but when you set the XOOM next to an iPad displaying the same content, it’s a complete slaughter. That’s a real shame on a device that’s genetically predisposed towards being a fantastic media player. I hope this is something that Motorola can fix with an update to the XOOM’s display driver.

The screen has the same limitation as the iPad’s: it’s not a friend of the Giant Day-Ball. In a battle between the XOOM’s screen backlighting and the Sun ... put your money on the yellow dwarf.

Performance

One of my consistent complaints about Android — regardless of the device — has been its sluggishness. It seemed as though whenever I swiped a webpage to scroll down, I was just filing a request that the UI would then hand off to the appropriate piece of code sometime after its lunch break.

No such worries with XOOM and Android 3.0. As I worked the user interface it felt as though I was interacting directly with buttons and lists and scrolling views. There’s still room for improvement, but I’m very happy with the XOOM’s speed. Even stretching a page to zoom in was interactive and responsive.

I only found one complaint with the XOOM’s performance: it often suffered from bottlenecks when playing video, particularly HD-encoded files. To be fair, the phenomenon was less something that I noticed while watching movies than something I was able to determine via testing. I rebooted my iPad and the XOOM and started a movie playing on both devices simultaneously with no other apps running. By the time I got halfway through the flick, the XOOM was a full second or two behind the iPad.

Keyboarding

The iPad surprised me: you can certainly rely on it as a “real” computer. I’ll often leave my notebook at home for short trips.

Ah, using a notebook mostly means “typing,” right? So a tablet needs to have a decent, typable keyboard if it’s going to justify its price tag.

The XOOM’s virtual keyboard is quite solid. It’s wider than the iPad’s but it isn’t quite as tall, which is what kept tripping me up. By the end of the day, though, I could type — carefully — with six fingers on it. I can put 8 fingers into play with the iPad but hey, the XOOM passed the test. If I had the XOOM with me as my sole computer, I could write an 800-word piece with it without any difficulty.

Plus, the XOOM will work with any Bluetooth keyboard, including one from Motorola that matches the XOOM’s styling. It’s the same shape, size, and price as Apple’s own Bluetooth wireless keyboard ($69). Toss it in the bag and you’ll have a full-sized laptop-style keyboard. The CPU will handily keep up with your fastest typing speed.

Plus plus, this is Android. If some developer wants to build and sell a better alternative to the XOOM’s built-in keyboard, they’re perfectly free to do so.

Incompletes

The XOOM is stable, complete, and functional as-is. But there are three notable “coming soon” elements associated with its release:

1) The XOOM features a micro-SD slot for expanding the device’s storage. The Android 3.0 Honeycomb release doesn’t support this feature yet. Google will push it out as a free system update when the feature’s ready.

2) “It plays Adobe Flash content, and is thus the only tablet OS that can deliver the full Web experience!” So spake the crimson banners unfurled by Google, as they fired ceremonial diamond-encrusted bowling balls from gold cannons in Apple’s direction. It was a nice demonstration ... but Adobe hasn’t finished the Flash Player yet. Another one for the “coming soon” pile.

3) Every US mobile carrier is leveraging their 4G networks as a point of pride. It’s the moon landings, all over again. The XOOM is a 3G tablet but Verizon promises to provide a free upgrade to 4G when the hardware is ready.

Android 3.0

Motorola has clearly produced a fab tablet. But the hardware is just half the story: the XOOM is the debutante ball for Honeycomb ... the first edition of Google’s OS that was designed with tablets in mind.

Honeycomb seems to have shaken a lot of the squirrels out of Android’s tree. That seemed clear to me. I’m not sure if Honeycomb is truly a leap forward in design, or if it’s just what happens when you pour Android into a tablet-sized screen. Every time I’ve used Android on a larger device, I’ve liked it a little more; it’s a UI that seems to flourish when given a lot of room to breathe.

Android’s notification bar has been moved to the bottom of the display. It incorporates a few features that I wish were in the iPad. Whenever an app wants to call your attention to something — via either a handwritten note on cream-colored stationery left on the sideboard, a discreet cough to catch your attention, or by bursting into the room and blasting you in the face with a fire extinguisher — it uses the notification bar. The only tool the iPad’s OS can get your attention with is the fire extinguisher.

Tapping the right corner of the bar brings up a mini-dashboard with shortcuts to common settings. Another Win over iOS. Gone is the bank of standard Android 2.x buttons ... and good riddance. The Back and Home buttons have been moved to the left side of the notification bar, and are joined by a button for a slick little app switcher.

The Home page is, dare I say it, a considerable improvement on iPad’s Springboard launcher. And for one reason only: where Springboard’s attitude is “show icons for every installed app and make it the user’s responsibility to tame the clutter,” Honeycomb’s is “Show just the bare essentials and give the user the ability to make an unholy mess of it if they so choose.”

Many carriers ship their Android devices pre-cluttered. Verizon has done the right and honorable thing: six of the XOOM’s key apps (Browser, GMail, Talk, a Music app that’s so much better than the 2.x version that you think it’s been kidnapped by a team of engineers who actually enjoy listening to music, Books, and Market) are front-and-center under a clock and that’s it. Honeycomb offers five Home pages, which, Android-style, can hold shortcuts to any app and most kinds of content on the devices, as well as active widget apps.

This is definitely an Android that I can work with and I’m glad to see that Google has been pushing the OS forward.

Finesse Matters

Honeycomb a big leap, for sure. I’m not sure that it’s completely “there” yet, but I can definitely see There from Here. My most serious complaint about the OS stands: there’s a pronounced lack of finesse and I don’t get the impression that Android’s designers think their ideas all the way through. It’s packed with features and ideas that almost work extremely well if not for some damned-fool quirk that should have been eradicated early in the testing process.

Take the notification bar. Yup, I’m a fan. But its presence at the bottom edge of the screen makes it almost impossible to pick up or hold the XOOM by its longest edge without accidentally going to the Home screen, or bringing up a volume control, or exposing a notification. That’s a problem; you’re going to spend a lot of time shifting this pound-and-a-half device around in your hand.

Another thing about that widescreen display: when you hold the XOOM in its most natural orientation, vertical screen real estate is at a severe premium. And yet the notification bar will always eat up a half an inch of that space; you can’t “hide” it temporarily.

It’s even worse when you’re using the browser. The app’s layout — which you can’t reconfigure — includes a half an inch for the tab bar and a half an inch for the address bar. Throw in the notification bar and you’re left with a strip of screen the dimensions of a dollar bill for the actual webpage.

Details, details, details. The universal “back” button still feels like a mistake. It often has no visual connection to that thing you want to step Back from. And it’s often a confusing bit of UI duplication. Even after more than a year as a regular Android user, I never quite know what the Back button will do in any given situation.

Honeycomb still lacks the connective tissue found in iOS. On the iPad, there’s a real sense that the OS, the built-in apps, and the third-party apps were all built by the same person. That’s because Apple provides iOS developers with immense resources and immense restrictions.

Tyranny, it must be said, sometimes is a terrific boon for the tech consumer.

A practical illustration: the iPad’s mechanism for moving files into, through, and out of the device. As a computer that you’re likely to use to “pack a lunch” from data on your desktop, that’s a critical feature and the iPad does is brilliantly. A single, simple, familiar button appears in every app that might want to redirect a file somewhere. Tap it, and the iPad shows a list of every app that can accept that kind of data. Make your selection and the content opens inside the second app.

It works, and it works everywhere. I rarely move files onto my iPad by syncing. I know that I can just open up my Dropbox, tap on a CBR file, and send it straight to my comic book reader app without any need for syncing or setup. Every iPad app uses this mechanism because it works great and Apple did all of the heavy lifting.

Android kind of has a feature like this one. But again, it’s hit-or-miss.

Finally, though Honeycomb functions well, it doesn’t feel as though it’s emphatically a tablet OS. It seems to seek the middle ground of design. I feel like Google could put Honeycomb on a netbook and have the user operate it with a trackpad and it’d work just as well as it does on this very slick multitouch tablet.

That’s a design problem. It indicates opportunities lost. Android is still an OS that invites confusion and complexity instead of encouraging simplicity and clarity.

Way more open than the iPad ...

One lesson that Apple should take from the XOOM: openness. The XOOM inherits a lot of this good stuff from Android. You don’t necessarily need to dock a XOOM to its host computer to toss new data onto it. Dock it via USB and you can just drag files in from Windows Explorer (Mac users will need to download a free utility).

You’ll find one of Android’s signature features on its Applications Settings page. Normally, the XOOM won’t allow you to install unknown, unsigned apps that didn’t come from the curated Android Marketplace. But if you choose to live on the edge, enabling this option will let you use any functional Android app you find anywhere on the Web.

(It’s not a smart idea. But I like the idea of the user being allowed to make an informed choice.)

Even more remarkable: Motorola has provided the XOOM with an unlockable bootloader. Among its many benefits is that it allows the user to more or less truly “own” the XOOM and make any changes they desire, such as installing an alternative ROM set to enhance the XOOM’s features or even allow it to run an entirely different OS.

These hacks are everywhere. Usually, Step One is to do a lot of hocus-pocus to get past whatever barriers the manufacturer put in place to prevent just such a modification. With the XOOM? Your money, your device, your risk. Go for it.

As with the “unsigned sources” feature, it’s something that only the most knowledgeable users would ever exploit. These are “matter of principle” features as opposed to “functional benefit” ones. But as Apple continues to exert more control on what its developers can and can’t do with iOS devices, it’s great to see alternative attitudes expressed so strongly.

... But it’s the Content that matters

By far, the XOOM’s biggest challenge — any iPad competitor’s really — is the world of content that the iPad has attracted in such a short amount of time. To put the iPad’s success in perspective, last week Apple decided to strongarm all content providers by changing the rules for how they can sell content through their apps. The short version: if Amazon, Rhapsody, the New York Times, or anybody else sells additional content via the mechanism that all iPad consumers will want to use, Apple gets 30 percent of every sale.

Apple will almost definitely get away with it all right. That’s how big and valuable the iPad commercial market is.

It’s not like there isn’t a large community of Android developers. But they’re still a fringe republic. In the mid-1800’s, people who wanted to strike it rich by finding gold didn’t drop everything and head for Delaware or Vermont, did they? Pleasant as those two states are, those people headed for California and Alaska. Where the money was. Today’s gold fields are on the iPad.

The world of iOS content is a relatively stable three-legged stool. Apple provides developers with a clear, comprehensive vision and a huge set of tools; consumers actively revisit the App Store looking for great new stuff and they spend lots of money; mobile developers target iOS before they move on to other platforms. Each supports and accelerates the other.

That’s Apple’s huge tactical advantage and at best, Android can only manage one of those three things. Even if the XOOM and Android 3.0 could match or exceed the iPad and iOS feature for feature, the content would still tip the scales in the iPad’s favor.

(For now.)

All of that presumes, however, that a user is an active one. Android wasn’t the first to get the MLB app, but they got it. Just today, I got an email from CNN announcing that they’ve released an Android tablet edition of their news app. If a typical user is just interested in a dozen core third-party apps — and this might very well be the case — the Android Marketplace is big enough.

Pricing

“Could any other company have scored just as big as Apple did with the iPad, so long as they produced a $499 tablet?”

It looks like we’ll be leaving that question on the table for a mighty long time. Other manufacturers are having a terrible time coming even close to the price point of the entry-level iPad.

Verizon sells the XOOM for $599 with 3G contract; rate plans start at $20, for 1 gig of data per month. If you want to walk out of the store and own a XOOM without any further commitments and no 3G access, the un-subsidized price is $799.

From that perspective, the XOOM is in no way price-competitive. If we compare the 3G-enabled 32 gig XOOM to the 32 gig iPad 3G instead of the 16 gig Wifi model, it’s a lot closer: $729. Though AT&T’s pricing structure is much more generous. Out the door, you owe nothing and have no contractual commitments. If you want 3G for any given month, you’re charged $10 or $25 depending on the plan you select. Cancel at the end of the month, and you’re done. That’s a compelling feature.

So, what now?

The XOOM is a powerful, functional alternative to the iPad. It’s nicely-built, it’s fast, and it can fill the same sort the sort of role in your life as the iPad.

But the state of the tablet world is still a simple one from a consumer perspective. Any tablet without an Apple logo on it has to provide a fast and clear answer to the question “But why would I buy this instead of an iPad?”

A tablet that costs a bit more than an iPad and has little by the way of extra functions is going to struggle. Particularly in the face of all of the competition that’s coming to bear in 2011. New tablets (with as-yet-unknown pricing and release dates) are coming from HP, HTC, RIM ... and of course, Apple itself. Next Wednesday, Apple will pull the covers off of the iPad 2, which will likely contain a new pair of cameras and other improvements.

On that basis, it’s hard to recommend that anybody rush out to buy any tablet at this point.

I’m very, very pleased with the XOOM, though. I feel as though I could use a XOOM daily, productively, and happily, under the right set of circumstances.

(One possible such set of circumstances: an armada of alien commandos lay waste to a third of Earth; they crush every exsisting iPad and promise to come back and finish the planet off if Apple ever builds another one.)

Damn. That was truly meant to be a compliment.

What I’m trying to say is that Motorola, and everyone whose ever tried an iPad and found it wanting, has a lot to be happy about. With the release of the XOOM, the phrase “a lightweight tablet that’s powerful enough to sub in for a notebook” no longer exclusively means “iPad.”



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