The Motorola Xoom Android tablet feels like a crash dummy for Google’s Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system. It’s almost as if Moto and Google decided to put it out there against the iPad 2 and see what happens, then check the damage in post-mortem and slow-mo replay. Does the Xoom stay the course? Should Apple be worried? Read on for our full Motorola Xoom review and find out.
We’ll say it up front: the Motorola Xoom is the best Android tablet yet, and Honeycomb is so feature packed that we can see this becoming the second big tablet OS, and very, very quickly at that. If only Google gave its software to people, not engineers, to test.
Design and build
Laid flat, the 10.1-inch Motorola Xoom is almost indistinguishable from the first Nvidia Tegra 2 tablet, the cut price Advent Vega. It’s a bezelicious, smudgy affair, and the 16:9 ratio screen lends itself well to video, but not to being held in portrait mode.
Flip it around and Motorola’s design aesthetic is much more obvious: it feels like a cross between a Motorola Defy and the original Motorola Milestone, with its black rubber and matter silver shading.
The top edge houses the 3.5mm audio port and the microSD card slot (which won’t be activated until a future firmware update, so you’re stuck with 32GB), while the bottom half fits in the micro USB and HDMI connections along with the charger – that’s right, the Xoom uses a proprietary charger, and it comes with a rather chunky power brick as well. It’s the price you have to pay for charging a huge battery efficiently we suppose, but more confusing is the positioning of the screen lock and power button: it’s on the back, so you’re constantly performing a er, “reach around”, to get at it.
When held, you’ll certainly feel the heft: the Xoom is around 100g heavier than the iPad 2, and at 12.9mm thick, almost fifty percent as deep. But it’s sturdy and not really any less portable, so don’t discount it for this reason alone: just know you’re getting some functional, not beautiful.
The 1280×800 screen on the Motorola Xoom is actually slightly sharper than the iPad 2′s touchscreen, though whether you prefer the widescreen ratio will be a matter of preference. It’s also set much closer to the surface than the Vega’s screen, although the glass is just as prone to garnering fingerprints.
If we had to choose, we’d probably still opt for the IPS display of the iPad 2, since colour and viewing angles seem to be more satisfactory, but hardware isn’t the reason you’ll be buying an Android tablet. It’s the software.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb
Android tablets are nothing new: we’ve seen a cascade of them over the last eighteen months turn into a waterfall. The thing is, none of them have been ones Google has been willing to endorse – and the few it has given its Gmail and Android Market blessing to were only on a technicality (That their 3G connections still made them phones).
The Motorola Xoom however is the first slate to run Android 3.0, which has been designed by Google from the ground up for tablets, and not phones – it’s as the search giant intended, with no rogue manufacturer modifications, and we hope it stays that way. Already we can see Android 3.0 is hugely ambitious, productive, and full to the brim with handy features.
Gone is the cartoon layout of Android of old in favour of a more Tron-like design theme, and the physical buttons have been moved to the bottom left corner of the screen itself, but the core OS is still the same. You get homescreens on which to slap widgets and shortcuts, you can multitask with ease, and the keyboard is almost identical to the QWERTY found on Android 2.3 – it’s much more efficient than Apple’s keyboard stretched over such a large display.
“Adult” is the wrong word, but the experience definitely feels less patronising than that of the iPad. For one, you can actually see the current state of the apps you have running by hitting the multitasking bar, not just some stock icon. The browser is scorchingly fast and feels just like Chrome on a desktop PC, right down to the visible tabs along the top and Incognito surfing mode.
Then there’s the notification system: it’s country miles ahead of Apple’s obtrusive alerts. Updates from apps and emails simply appear in the bottom right hand corner: you can tap to review them, or simply ignore them. The point is, they don’t get all up in your grill until you wave them away.
Throughout all of this, the Tegra 2 dual core CPU powering the Xoom never faltered – except when the software did.
You see, Android Honeycomb packs as many user unfriendly features (most of them bugs when apps like the browser crash) as it does helpful ones. Google really needs to give this slate out to people who’ve never used a tablet before, and get them to try and figure it out. Some things make no sense: the settings and options for an app will sometimes appear in the top right or bottom left, like a frustrating game of whack a mole, and the ability to switch accounts in the Android Market will confuse more people than it’ll gratify.
Then there’s the app issues: while the games we tested mapped to the sharper screen just fine (including Angry Birds Rio), many mobile Android apps don’t make best use of the space. The Facebook Android app’s menu screen for instance takes up about three percent of the entire display, which will likely leave newcomers confused. As for Honeycomb apps themselves, well, there aren’t many – we’re hopeful this will change, and there’s plenty to be getting on with in the Android Market in the meantime.
Why would you use a tablet to take photos? We genuinely don’t know, since anyone interested in a tablet is almost certainly going to be equipped with an equally capable smartphone camera on their person at the same time. Maybe that’s why Motorola put so little effort into the mediocre five megapixel sensor on the back of the Xoom: shots are washy, and 720p is a chore to film simply because it’s so much heavier than a pocket camcorder or mobile.
On the plus side, Google Talk is a whole lot more useful than FaceTime for video chatting, since you can phone a lot more people than just your friends with iPhone 4s who happen to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot at the time you dial. It’s seamless, although picture quality from the 2MP front camera on the recipient’s end is noticeably pixellated compared to a GTalk chat conducted through MacBook webcams. Better than nothing though, right?
We’ve got no cause to complain about battery life on the Motorola Xoom. While the Samsung Galaxy Tab tanks out after just a few days on standby with push email the Motorola Xoom holds its juice for much longer, and we found it genuinely lives up to Motorola’s claim of 10 hours of use on a charge – that’s on a par with the iPad. Kudos has to go to Google for working on Android’s power consumption issues.
Android Honeycomb isn’t quite ready for prime time. It’s frustrating at times, and the optimised apps aren’t out in force yet.
But it is ready for the sizeable army of people already willing to put up with cheap hardware and terrible UI just to avoid Apple’s clutch. Ultimately, these problems combined with the chunkier build make the Motorola Xoom an item only Android devotees should choose over an iPad 2 – but they’ll be very glad they made the decision. This is just the start.