Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hands-on review: Motorola Xoom tablet (Ben Patterson)

Just think: a mere 12 months ago, many of us were still debating whether a consumer-friendly tablet like the iPad would make any sense. Today, the iPad is a certifiable hit, a new iPad is on the way, slates from the likes of HP, LG, Samsung, and RIM are in the pipeline, and come Thursday, a formidable new player in the budding tablet market—the Android-powered Motorola Xoom—will land in stores. Suddenly, it's raining tablets, a welcome development for gadget lovers.

The Xoom won't be the first Android tablet to take on the iPad, but it does bear the distinction of being the first tablet running on "Honeycomb," Google's new, made-for-tablets version of the Android OS. And while the previous Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Dell Streak 7 arrived with smaller, seven-inch displays, the Xoom's roomy 10.1-inch screen invites direct comparison to the similar-sized iPad.

Now, let's get something out of the way: the Xoom ain't cheap. At $800, the 3G-enabled, 32GB Xoom costs about $70 more than the 32GB iPad 3G, and there won't be a 16GB, $499 Xoom to ease the pain. (Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha has promised a Wi-Fi-only version of the Xoom for "about" $600, but there's no word on when it might go on sale.)

One way to shave a couple hundred bucks off the price tag is by signing a two-year contract with Verizon Wireless, the exclusive carrier (for now, anyway) of the Xoom. That means you'll also be on the hook for Verizon's 3G data plans, which start at $20 a month for 1GB of data.

Now, if you think $800 (or even $600) is too much to spend on a tablet (a reasonable view), be warned; nothing I'm about to say will change your mind.

And if you're not a fan of Android in general, or you're married to Apple's tight ecosystem of iOS products, you're probably better off waiting until next Wednesday, when Apple unveils the long-awaited (and probably much-enhanced) iPad 2. There's also the upcoming WebOS-powered HP Touchpad and RIM's BlackBerry Playbook to consider.

Still reading? Then prepare for a treat, because the Xoom is the most impressive tablet I've tested since the original iPad. With its peppy, dual-core processor, dual cameras (including one for video chat), and snazzy multitasking and notification features, the Xoom gives the iPad—well, the current iPad, at least—a run for its money, although it's not without faults: it's saddled with so-so Web browsing performance, some iffy design choices, and what looks to be an initially sparse selection of Honeycomb-ready apps.

Measuring 9.8 by 6.6 by 0.5 inches, the jet-black Xoom looks and feels—at first blush, at least—like a slightly smaller version of the iPad. Break out a ruler, however, and you'll find that the Xoom is actually a bit longer than the iPad, with its narrower display (which measures 10.1 inches diagonally) boasting a near-identical number of square inches (45.5, according to Motorola) as the iPad's wider, 9.7-inch display.

And while the Xoom is a hair thinner than the iPad (0.5 inches, versus 0.52 for the iPad), it's also a bit heavier at 25.9 ounces, compared to 24.1 for the iPad. Then again, the Xoom's grippier, more tactile back panel makes it much less slippery than the iPad.

Both Motorola and Google have made much of the Xoom's button-less front bezel—and indeed, the only physical controls on the Xoom are the twin volume up/down buttons on the left edge and the power/lock button that sits on the back, in the upper-right corner. You'll also find ports for power, microUSB, and mini-HDMI along the bottom of the tablet.

Instead of an actual "home" key, the Xoom's main navigation controls—Back, Home, and an icon that launches a thumbnailed column of recently-used apps—sit in the bottom-left corner of the display. Thanks to the Xoom's accelerometer, the screen orientation will twirl around automatically depending on how you're holding the tablet, meaning there's no "right" way to hold the Xoom (although you may notice upside-down Motorola and Verizon logos once in awhile).

It's an interesting concept, and after using the Xoom for a few hours, I didn't find myself missing the physical Home key that much. On the other hand, I was frequently annoyed at having to hunt around in back of the Xoom for the sleep/wake button. Personally, I would've preferred having the power/lock switch in easy reach (and in plain sight) along the edge of the tablet.

Once you click the "wake" button, the Honeycomb lock screen appears; unlocking the screen is a simple matter of touching and dragging an encircled padlock icon out of its protective sphere, at which point the home screen slides into view. You can also password-protect the display for greater security, same as with standard Android smartphones.

Google has already outlined the key ingredients of the made-for-tablets Honeycomb interface, but they're worth repeating. You've got the aforementioned navigation keys (Home, Back, and recent apps) in the bottom-left corner, with a notifications panel on the bottom right. In the top-left corner sits a Google search box (complete with a microphone icon for voice commands), while the applications launcher hangs out in the top-right corner of the display.

Zipping around the Xoom's various menus and apps is a breeze (not to mention smooth and fast, courtesy of the dual-core Tegra 2 processor purring under the Xoom's hood) thanks to the ever-present navigation controls in the corner. Another faithful companion is the new-for-Honeycomb navigation panel, which unobtrusively notifies you of incoming e-mail messages, recent Twitter mentions, apps that just finished installing themselves, and other relevant events. You can also tap the notification panel for a summary of recent happenings (which you can dismiss by clicking the "X" next to an item), or to get quick access to Wi-Fi settings, the screen orientation lock, display brightness, and other key settings.

Swiping back and forth takes you to the other available Honeycomb home screens—five in all—where you can drag app icons, install widgets, or add shortcuts for individual contacts (complete with quick links for firing off a message, mapping your contact's location, or viewing their latest tweets).

Among the best of Honeycomb's new features, though, is the multitasking button; tap it, and a column of medium-sized thumbnails pops up, each containing a snapshot of apps that are suspended (or still running, in some cases) in the background. It's a welcome, easy-to-scan representation of your recently-used apps, although it's worth noting that you'll only see five to seven thumbnails at a time, and you can't swipe the column to see additional background apps.

Speaking of apps, the Xoom offers us the first look at Google's core, built-for-Honeycomb apps—including Gmail, Maps, Books, Music, and Talk—and for the most part, they're terrific.

A key operating principle behind Honeycomb-enabled Android apps is that they allow for new buckets of content (such as additional columns or panels) that can be displayed or hidden depending on the orientation in which you're holding the tablet, or depending on whether you're using a tablet or a smaller smartphone.

You can see that principle at work in the two-column Gmail app, which starts with a list of folders in the left column and a list of messages on the right. Tap a message, and the columns slide from left to right to make room for the message body; turn the Xoom in a vertical orientation, and the app revents to a one-column view. Also nice: Honeycomb's new support for dragging and dropping e-mail messages into various folders.

Other Google apps take advantage of Honeycomb's tablet-friendly architecture in different ways; the new Music app, for instance, lets you flick through a carousel of jumbo-sized album covers, while the redesigned Android Market app boasts a trio of large graphic promos along the top, with a scrollable list of categories along the right side of the screen.

With its curved, swipable wall of videos, the new YouTube app is especially striking, as is the much-hyped Google Maps application, which now lets you tilt the map view with a two-finger gesture, complete with 3D buildings that change perspective as you swipe your way around the world. Nicely done (and effortlessly rendered by the Xoom's Tegra 2 processor, by the way).

The new Honeycomb Web browser on the Xoom is a mixed bag. I love the added support for tabbed browsing, as well as the Incognito mode borrowed from Google Chrome (and by the way: if you're a Google Chrome user and you've signed into your Google account, all your bookmarks will be automatically synced.)

But scrolling and zooming can be poky at times, with the browser often taking a moment or two before registering a tap or swipe—disappointing, given the Xoom's otherwise stellar speed and performance.

Another bummer—for now, at least—is the news that the Xoom won't support in-browser Flash on Day One, although Adobe promises a Flash update for the Xoom (and other upcoming Honeycomb tablets, for that matter) in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, developers of third-party Android apps are still busy updating their wares for Honeycomb, meaning there will be a paucity of built-for-Honeycomb applications in the Android Market come the Xoom's launch day. That's the bad news; the good news is that a variety of standard Android apps look pretty good in full-screen mode on the Xoom—indeed, they look far better than pixel-doubled iPhone apps on the iPad.

Angry Birds, for instance, looks so good on the Xoom that I had to double-check (again) that it hadn't been tweaked for Honeycomb; same for Pocket Legends, a 3D, "World of Warcraft"-style game for smartphones.

Other non-Honeycomb apps had a tougher time adapting to the Xoom's jumbo display, with large swaths of empty, unused space in some cases, or (even worse) glitchy performance in others. Both the Facebook and Twitter apps—two of the most popular apps in the Android Market—crashed repeatedly during my tests, although I was able to install a Twitter widget on one of the Xoom's home pages. (No such luck with Facebook, unfortunately.)

Such kinks will hopefully be ironed out soon as Android developers start rolling out their various Honeycomb updates. Still, early Xoom adopters should expect a bumpy ride when it comes to apps, at least in the first days and weeks after the tablet's release.

As with other upcoming tablets—Android-based and otherwise—the Xoom will arrive with a pair of cameras: a five-megapixel camera in back, capable of 720p video recording, and a 2MP camera in front that'll do video chat over Wi-Fi or 3G. Image quality on the Xoom's cameras was solid, with decent looking stills and video—in other words, pretty much what you'd expect from a recent, high-end smartphone.

Battery life on the Xoom was impressive during my tests—indeed, after more than 50 hours of on-and-off testing without a charge, the Xoom's battery still had about 32 percent in reserve. Your mileage will vary, of course, especially if you're doing a lot of surfing or video streaming over the tablet's 4G connection. For its part, Motorola is promising about 10 hours of video playback.

Unfortunately, the Xoom's micoUSB port won't charge the tablet; instead, you'll have to use the included AC adapter with its own tiny plug. And here's another odd quirk: for now, the Xoom's microSD memory expansion slot is useless, and will remain so until a "future" update arrives. Once the slot is enabled, however, you'll be able to add up to 32GB of additional storage.

Sharing space with the Xoom's microSD slot is a second, larger port for a SIM card, good for access to Verizon's just-launched 4G LTE network. Again, though, 4G support won't be available at launch; instead, Motorola and Verizon say an update will be coming in the second quarter of this year. Xoom owners will receive an e-mail from Verizon with instructions for upgrading their tablets, when the time comes.

Still, many of the Xoom's drawbacks—the lack of Flash and 4G access, the limited memory expansion, the paltry app selection of Honeycomb apps—will be addressed in the coming weeks and months. Others, like the weird placement of the power button and the tablet's overall heft, won't be going away. If you're uncertain whether you'll take to the Xoom's design, you might be better off waiting for another Android tablet, like the coming LG G-Slate or the new, 10.1-inch Samsung tablet.

And if you're not interested in going the Android way, there's always the HP Touchpad, which is based on the slick WebOS platform that powers the Palm Pre and its successors. Or there's RIM's PlayBook, which may appeal more to BlackBerry fans.

And yes, there's the impending iPad 2, which we'll finally get to lay eyes on next week.

In the end, though, the Xoom (for me, at least) makes for the most impressive Android tablet to date, as well as a promising start to the expected parade of Honeycomb-enabled tablets this year.

— Ben Patterson is a technology blogger for Yahoo! News.

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