Normally it would be hard to compose a review of a tablet computer on the same day Apple’s iPad 2 is unveiled, but Motorola’s Xoom, the first slate based on Google’s Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” operating system, makes it easy.
I imagine a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making this tablet with a 10.1-inch HD screen with 1280-by-800 resolution because I’m getting a lot of joy out of using this loaner unit from Verizon Wireless. The device weighs 1.6 pounds, and measures 9.8 inches long, 6.6 inches wide and only half an inch thick.
When Verizon began selling the Xoom Feb. 24 for $599 with a two-year contract, or $799 without a contract I was skeptical. At $20 a month for 1GB of data, that drove the cost of the Xoom to $1,040 over two years.
Who wants to add another contract when folks who buy tablets are likely already bound to a smartphone plan, or when they can get a WiFi-only iPad for $499? Sure, you can go off contract, but that’s still $70 more than what you’d pay for a comparable iPad. Where was the value prop?
For me, it’s in the Xoom’s multitasking, which is better than on the iPad. The Xoom presentation just looks and feels better than the iPad, which I’ve spent a fair amount of time with. The 3D graphics, courtesy of Honeycomb’s Renderscript engine, make the Xoom pop.
Some folks reading this have no doubt heard about the 3D capabilities of Google Maps 5.0 on Honeycomb. Buildings on Google Maps raise as users zoom in and tilt. Very cool. The Xoom is also preloaded with games such as Cordy and Dungeon Defenders, which look and play fantastic. And you can’t go wrong with the trusty Angry Birds time waster.
Indeed, the Xoom leverages Google’s fresh approach in Honeycomb, which includes lively widgets that users can drag and drop with their fingers to any one of 5 customizable homescreens. “Grid widgets” appear stacked in little quadrants, and a simple tap whisks users straight to Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and other Websites. Users may also scroll through the Google Calendar widget.
A YouTube widget offers a “stack widget,” sort of like a deck of playing cards. This feature was authored by none other than Matias Duarte, whom Google lured from Palms after he designed similar technology for the mighty fine webOS.
Google’s eBooks app is preloaded with access to 3 million free books, as is a music app with pre-selected songs from a variety of artists. The dual speakers on the Xoom make music clear and clean to the ear. Users may also copy music from their computers to the Xoom.
Xoom Faster Than iPad, Boasts Fine Productivity
The Xoom is also faster than the first iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab because it is powered by Nvidia’s Tegra 2 dual-core processor. That proved true whether I was connected via WiFi at home or via Verizon’s 3G network on a train to New York.
Searching Google via text input and via Google Voice Search from the search bar on each homescreen proved snappy. Voice Search is particularly good because you don’t have to practically put the Xoom in your mouth the way you do an Android handset to help the microphone pick up your words.
Productivity on the Xoom is decent. Gmail has been refreshed to be more PC-like, with folders along the left-hand rail, and inbox messages on the right, making it much more user friendly than using the app on a smartphone.
Users may also sync their Microsoft Exchange corporate e-mail, contacts and calendars, and work on documents, spreadsheets and presentations from the virtual QWERTY keyboard.
I’m typing the review in an application I downloaded from the market called Gdocs. It takes some getting used to, sort of like texting did on my Droid X’s touchscreen, but these keys are nice and wide, obviously more generously spaced than they are on the smartphone I use for work and play. If pressed, I’d still rather type on the iPad’s virtual keyboard.
The camera is excellent. While I’ve appreciated the 8 megapixel capability of my Motorola Droid X, I’ll take this 5 MP shutter on the Xoom over it easily. Sure, it’s awkward to hold up a 1.6 pound tablet to take a picture, but it’s actually easier than on a smartphone because the view finder is wider.Also, there was no shakiness or latency when I pressed the camera button to snap a photo.
Switching from camera to the video recorder is easier and it captures video in 720p HD. You can then port the pics or videos to HDTV with an HDMI cable, or pipe them to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Flickr.
I tried the video chat capability using Google Chat, which is cool because you get notifications when a friend comes online. When you see their profile picture pop out below, it’s hard not to resist pinging them for a video chat.
Battery life on the Xoom is great. I used it for several hours over the course of a day and got about 9 to 10 hours worth of time before it wound down. I’d kill for that on my Motorola Droid X, or any of the other Android handsets I’ve tested. The Motorola Atrix 4G comes close.
What Needs Work on the Xoom
Criticisms. One obvious one about the software is the lack of apps tailored for Honeycomb. Sure, you can choose any of the 130,000-plus Android Market apps, but most won’t fit on the Xoom properly because they weren’t optimized for tablets.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs said there were 100 Honeycomb-tailored apps compared to 65,000 for the first iPad. I’m certain I’ll never need 100 apps ever on a device at one time, let alone 65,000, but choice matters to people.
One annoying hardware detail is the tiny, almost non-existent volume buttons on the left side of the Xoom. Slightly less annoying was the mini power button on back. These are not ideal for clumsy fingers like mine.
Also, wiping the screen clean is a constant chore. Unfortunately, I prefer darker wallpapers, so when I switched from a bright Android background to a darker one, I saw my smudges. We need a screen technology where finger oils evaporate on contact. My guess is Apple will nail that one first.
Should you buy a Xoom? Depends. Do you prefer Android products and loads of integrated Google apps, such as Google Talk, YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Places and Google Latitude? They, along with games such as Angry Birds and others, are rendered deliciously on the Honeycombed Xoom. If so, a Xoom is right for you.
We now know the iPad 2 is cheaper, priced from $499 to $829, depending on what version you get, making it more cost effective than the Xoom. But part of the justification for the Xoom’s higher cost is that it’s 4G-upgradeable for free on Verizon’s 4G LTE network later.
It’s important to note the iPad 2, sports a new A5 dual-core processor, but won’t know whether the Xoom or iPad 2 are faster until the latter ships March 11.
So even if the iPad 2 is as fast or faster than the Xoom, there is the promise of greater speed to consider if you’re Verizon-inclined. Folks who prefer Android to Apple iOS will likely grab a Xoom. You can’t go wrong with the Xoom if you’re looking for speedy Web surfing and multitasking.
You just have to be willing to spend a little more… or wait. That’s right, with the iPad 2 priced the same as the first iPads, I predict we’ll soon see a Xoom price drop to $499 with contract, maybe $699 without contract, just as we saw all 4 major U.S. carriers slash the 7-inch Galaxy Tab when it failed to sell.
You may also wait to see the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, LG Slate or Toshiba tablet pricing later this year. But if you need a Honeycomb tablet now, the Xoom will serve you well.