Thursday, February 24, 2011

Motorola's Xoom: The iPad Gets Some Serious Competition

When Steve Jobs strode onstage and unveiled the iPad in January of 2010, he should have ended his presentation by firing a starting pistol. The news left nearly every other big computer and consumer-electronics maker racing to get into the tablet market that Jobs' iPad had suddenly created.
As it happens, the competition turned out to be a marathon. More than a year later, we're still talking about tablets that are huffing and puffing their way towards the showroom floor. There's RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, slated to arrive by the end of March. HP's Web OS-based TouchPad is due this summer. And dozens of other models are on their way. The pace has been so plodding that Apple's second-generation iPad - which it will announce next week - will apparently beat most other companies' first-generation models to market. (See the latest geek culture stories at

Then there's Motorola's Xoom, which goes on sale at Verizon retail locations this Thursday. (I've been testing a pre-release unit provided by Motorola and Verizon for the past few days.) It's the first honest-to-goodness, no-qualifications-necessary iPad rival from a major manufacturer to hit stores. That's in large part because it's also the first to pack Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the operating system that Google designed specifically with tablets in mind. The Xoom has its fair share of raw edges, but it's a great leap beyond earlier Android-based tablets such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab, which took the unsatisfying shortcut of using earlier versions of Android that were meant for smartphones.

Verizon will sell the Xoom for $799.99, a hefty $300.99 premium over the current iPad's starting price of $499; you can get a $200 discount if you commit to two years' worth of data service. The pricing disparity between Motorola and Apple isn't as alarming as it looks at first blush, though. With its built-in Verizon wireless connection and 32GB of storage, the Xoom is most directly comparable to the $729 AT&T version of the iPad. And it has far beefier specs than any Apple tablet, including a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of RAM, and two cameras - a 2-megapixel model up front for Google Talk video calls and a 5-megapixel one in back for taking snapshots and capturing HD video. (The first-gen iPad has a single-core processor, a quarter of the Xoom's RAM, and zero cameras.)

Unlike the current iPad, the Xoom will also be a 4G wireless device, thanks to Verizon's zippy LTE network - but not until the second quarter of this year, according to Motorola. For now, it comes with 3G and the promise of a free upgrade. That's one of several telltale signs that it was rushed out the door. Adobe's Flash Player software, which will let Xoom owners get at Flash Web videos and games that don't work on the iPad, won't be ready for a few weeks. And there's a dormant slot for MicroSD memory cards that Motorola plans to enable it in an upcoming software update.
Even if the Xoom is a work in progress, it already does many things well. The tablet is sheathed in a plastic case rather than the iPad's aluminum, but it's pleasing to the eye and touch; slightly thinner than the iPad, the Xoom tips the scales at an identical 1.6 pounds. It also out-iPads the iPad by doing away with even that tablet's single physical button on the front. (Curiously, however, there's a button on the back - the power switch, which sits next to the right-hand speakers.) (See the best netbooks and netbook accessories.)

The display measures 10.1" diagonally, giving it a skosh more elbow room (and more pixels) than the iPad's 9.7" screen. When you meet a Xoom in person, though, the most striking difference is aspect ratio, not size. Apple's tablet has a 4:3 display that's reminiscent of a book or magazine; Motorola's has a 16:10 widescreen that makes it look more like a miniature HDTV.

Of course, wider isn't always better: The iPad's less exaggerated dimensions are superior for reading e-books and other text-centric tasks. But in landscape orientation, the Xoom's extra space makes for comfier typing on the on-screen keyboard. It's also well-proportioned for HD movies.

You may have noticed that I didn't unequivocally say that the Xoom's screen beats the iPad for movies. That's because it doesn't. I found videos, photos and other graphics to be blockier, blurrier, and/or duller than on the iPad and the Galaxy Tab. Video calls in Google Chat, which you can make over both 3G and Wi-Fi connections, also looked murky. The display looked better when I manually cranked up the brightness - it may err on the dim side to conserve battery juice - but it was still no knockout.

(Speaking of battery life, I haven't had the tablet long enough to render any definitive verdicts about its endurance; Motorola claims ten hours of video playback on a charge, which seems plausible based on my limited experiences so far.) (See "Laptop Battery Life Has Officially Reached Insane Levels.")

On the software side, the Xoom brings major benefits in the form of Honeycomb, an operating system which upsizes Android for bigger screens and also solves some long-standing flaws. It's slicker and less nerdy than earlier versions of the OS as seen on phones such as Samsung's Nexus S and Motorola's Atrix, and no longer reliant on physical buttons and menus that tend to obscure features rather than reveal them.
Instead of using an excess of buttons, Honeycomb puts options such as the ability to step backwards through apps on a control strip that lives at the bottom of the screen no matter how you hold the tablet - a much more elegant and approachable solution than previously used. There are still menus, but they're at the top of the screen where they're easier to spot, and they feel less like they've had a kitchen sink's worth of features jammed into them.

Honeycomb also smartly reworks the standard Android apps, including a browser, Google Maps, Google Talk, YouTube, a music player, a photo album, a calendar, and more to take advantage of a spacious tablet display. YouTube, for instance, incorporates both a video viewer and thumbnail images of clips on a single screen. Like the iPad's Mail program, the Gmail and Email clients show folders on the left and the contents of your inbox on the right. (Yes, there are still separate email apps for Gmail and for everything else, continuing a lingering Android mystery.)

Several more-powerful-than-the-iPad features which feel cramped or overcomplicated on Android phones realize their full potential on the Xoom. A status panel in the lower right-hand corner is a slicker version of Windows' System Tray, tracking incoming mail, downloads in progress, and the like. Widgets - itty-bitty applets that sit directly on the desktop - benefit greatly from the roomier display.
All in all, the Honeycomb-powered Xoom feels like Motorola and Google took a powerful subnotebook computer, sheared off the keyboard, and replaced it with a nicely-designed touch interface. That's a very different experience than the ultra-streamlined, push-button world of the iPad, but it's a legitimate one in its own right. (Can you be in love with your gadgets? Study says yes.)

As with other aspects of the Xoom, parts of Honeycomb do have a not-quite-finished quality. Both the browser and the photo viewer have crashed on me - one time apiece - and I've encountered a few odd freezes that were likely the result of glitchy software rather than underpowered hardware. Otherwise, the tablet's high-end innards delivered an experience at least as fluid as the iPad, even when I had a bunch of programs open.
The fact that the Xoom will be joined by Honeycomb devices from Dell, Lenovo, LG, Toshiba, and other manufacturers should encourage third-party developers to build apps that take advantage of this Android upgrade. Honeycomb is compatible with existing apps in Google's Android market (most of them, anyhow - I had trouble with Facebook and Twitter). But they tend to wind up with vast amounts of unused screen space, as if they were wearing an XXL user interface when they'd really fit into a Small. Like iPhone apps on the iPad, phone-sized Android programs are really just stopgaps until a critical mass of true tablet apps come along. (The iPad got over that hump quickly - there are now 60,000+ apps designed just for it.)

At a recent Google press event, developers demoed some attractive upcoming Honeycomb programs, such as a version of TIME's sister mag Sports Illustrated; I was also able to try a few promising ones on the Xoom, including the Pulse news reader. Apps for streaming or downloading music and movies will be particularly essential: There are rumors of an imminent Google Music service, but the Xoom I tried doesn't incorporate anything that competes with Apple's iTunes Store.

So, what's the best buying strategy for would-be tablet buyers now that the Xoom is here? That's easy: Wait! At the very least, you want to see what Apple has to say about the new iPad next Wednesday. Bide your time a bit longer, and you'll have even more tablets to choose from. Chances are that the Xoom will remain a contender no matter what the next few months bring. And the Xoom of the near future - with 4G wireless, Flash, a working SD slot, more tablet apps, and, with any luck, a less crash-prone version of Honeycomb - will be that much better equipped to compete.

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