The Android tablet is like one of those genetically engineered super-species from a sci-fi thriller. Each successive generation is smarter, faster and bigger than the one before it, and the pace of evolution gains momentum with each iteration. The Dell Streak (6 verdict, August 2010) wasn’t a viable challenger to any device in the tablet universe, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab (8 verdict, December 2010) showed the potential of what an Android tablet could be. Now the Motorola Xoom—almost a defacto reference design for the new Honeycomb OS—emerges as an evolutionary leap forward, and a direct threat to the iPad’s top-of-food-chain status.
Indeed, as we post this review four days before the release of iPad 2, we can tell you that if you’re in the market for a tablet device—today, right now—it’s a toss up between the Xoom and Apple’s first-gen, category-creating leader. Apple may regain dominance with iPad 2, but at least until this Friday, the tablet competition is a dead-heat between two very capable devices. In fact, the Xoom trumps the original iPad in every relevant way, save for a tablet’s most important feature: the depth of its app marketplace.
Pixel for pixel, the Xoom’s display isn’t as quite as bright and saturated as the iPad’s, but we love its higher-res, 1280x800 resolution, and its slightly larger size (10.1 inches to Apple’s 9.7 inches). The aspect ratio of the Xoom screen is almost 16:9, so HD video fills nearly the entire visible display. The iPad, meanwhile, has a 1024x768 screen, and at this 4:3 aspect ratio, HD content is significantly letterboxed. Both tablets are limited to 720p when playing HD video on their built-in screens, but the Xoom can output 1080p (a trick unavailable in the first-gen iPad).
Relative to the iPad, the Xoom also has a significantly thinner black border around it’s viewable display area -- a half-inch to the iPad's three-quarters of an inch. But the main benefit of the Xoom’s display is that it’s larger than 7 inches, the previous high-water mark of Android tablet screens. Certain tap-computing tasks like web browsing, touch typing, gaming and e-book reading really come alive once you graduate from 7 to 10 diagonal inches, and, in this respect, Motorola has elevated the Xoom to an echelon that the iPad once held alone.
There’s no physical home button on the Xoom, and the power button is located on the rear of the chassis. We didn’t miss the former, and don’t object to the placement of the latter. An onscreen home button resides in a Taskbar-like strip at the bottom of the display, and using it quickly becomes second-nature. Ditto the power button, which falls right underneath your index finger when using the Xoom in landscape mode.
Other physical features include two barely protruding volume controls (vaguely tactile at best, and not as easy to locate as the power button); a Micro USB port for data I/O; a Mini HDMI port to send 1080p video to an external display; a proprietary power connector; a 3.5mm headphone jack; and a slide-out tray that will accept a 4G SIM card and MicroSD card—once the Xoom’s firmware is appropriately updated.
Besides offering a 10.1-inch display, the Xoom’s outward-facing hardware features are ostensibly standard for an Android tablet. However, the tablet’s rear-mounted, 5-megapixel camera impressed the hell out of us with surprisingly sharp image quality and a full slate of onscreen controls for flash, white balance, special effects and shooting mode presets (e.g., Action, Night portrait, Steady photo and nine others).
And, of course, that same 5-mepapixel camera can shoot video as well (at 720p). Until playing with the Xoom, we had sneered at the utility of high-res cameras on tablets. Why shoot anything with your tablet when smaller, more conveniently toted smartphones boast perfectly capable cameras as well? Well, we discovered that the real utility of Motorola’s video package comes in the form of on-screen video editing.
When in video mode, the Xoom’s camera boasts controls for white balance, special effects, and time lapse, and even allows for persistent, always-on lighting via its twin LED flash (alas, poor battery life, we knew ye well). But after you’ve shot your video—and this is where the fun really begins—you can dice and splice your movies in the pre-installed Movie Studio app. Here you can insert individual photos, an audio soundtrack, titles, special effects, and frame-by-frame transition effects. Almost unfathomably, Movie Studio comes with no documentation of any kind, but it’s a surprisingly deep app for a freebie, and makes video shooting, editing and uploading a single-device affair. In one fell swoop, video capture on a tablet becomes an intriguing proposition.
Now, none of this would be possible if not for the Xoom’s internal hardware, which comes correct with a wicked-fast processor and loads of internal storage. Fueling your video rendering is a 1GHz, dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. This chip takes tablet performance to a whole new level. Overall, we found application response to be fluid and zippy—especially in the browser, where screen draws are faster than on the iPad—and benchmark results back up the promise of this dual-core chip (at least they did when the tests actually ran). There’s also 1GB of DDR2 system memory (the iPad includes just 256MB), as well as 32GB of storage space with support for another 32GB when Micro SD card functionality is granted by a future software update.
All in all, the hardware build evokes “Dream Machine: The Tablet Edition,” and as such, you’ll be paying top dollar. Support for 3G data connectivity isn’t a configuration option; it comes built-in whether you want it or not (though a WiFi-only Xoom version is imminent). Likewise, you can’t opt for storage capacities of less than 32GB to save money. It all adds up to a $799 purchase, which is $70 more than a similarly equipped iPad. That’s not a hellacious premium to pay if you subscribe to the Dream Machine ethos of “maximum performance, by any means necessary.” And once you factor in the benefits of the Honeycomb OS (aka Android 3.0), as well as the Xoom’s built-in apps, you’ll be ashamed that you even sweated a $70 pricing differential.
As the first Android OS to support display resolutions befitting a 10-inch screen (the previous high of 854x480 just wasn’t cutting it), Honeycomb has been custom-designed for tablet deployment. We particularly like the new browser app, which offers liquid-smooth performance, tabbed screens (just like a desktop browser) and a nice set of quickly accessed options, such as “Find on page,” “Incognito” browsing (which eliminates all digital trails of your online exploits), and Google voice control. In fact, across the entire OS and its built-in apps, you get a higher degree of user control and functionality than you’ll find on the iPad. Contextual option menus can be accessed from within an app (as opposed to having to open an OS-level settings menu), and from the Browser to the Calendar to Gmail (aka the email app), you’re afforded a higher degree of customization and user autonomy. The onscreen keyboard feels nearly identical to the iPad’s save for everything is a bit larger, thanks to the Xoom’s widescreen dimensions. While the keyboard doesn’t expose numerals in their own row of keys (you have to access a second keyboard layout, something that really bugs us), it does include a Google voice button right on the main interface so you can verbally enter URLs and such.
And, of course, Honeycomb supports home screen widgets, which provide app-like functionality right on the desktop, with no app launching necessary. For example, you can stream CNN’s top stories, WeatherBug’s current conditions, your Twitter feed, your Calendar responsibilities, and other data, all in real-time for sort of a “total command center” effect. It’s a very clever OS trick that gives Android an advantage over the competition, and might be worth that $70 price premium alone.
Unfortunately, for some, the Xoom’s many advantages could be erased by the poor depth of its app marketplace. Compared to other Android iterations, Honeycomb delivers a much more friendly browsing/shopping experience in its Market app, but the actual offerings in the app just don’t compare to what’s available for the iPad’s iOS. Sure, you’ll find Angry Birds and Doodle Jump, but the games section lacks marquee-level talent, and the same holds true for other important app categories. Similarly, besides the apps that come pre-installed in the Xoom, just a handful of currently available Android apps (let alone their associated widgets) are optimized for Honeycomb’s larger screen size and dual-core processor support. What’s more, Xoom won’t support Flash until Adobe releases Flash Player 10.2 (though that could be any day now).
Experientially, in terms of hands-on, everyday use, the Xoom offers an excellent tablet experience. It’s 1.76 ounces heavier than the iPad, but that’s an imperceptible amount in real-world terms, and the Xoom actually just feels a bit better in our hands—maybe thanks to its more rectangular shape. The Xoom’s interface and in-app performance is fast and fluid, and we applaud the way Honeycomb exposes user options and functionality. All these benefits would seem to propel the Xoom past Apple’s first-gen tablet, but because Honeycomb app support is woeful compare to what you’ll find in iOS, we have to say the two supertablets actually stand on equal footing. If you’re looking for superior hardware and a solid foundation for future riches, the Xoom is your tablet of choice. But if you’re all about software options in the here and now, or have your eyes set on all the various apps that are only available on iOS, then the iPad emerges victorious.
And as for iPad 2, well, we’ll know within a matter of days whether it makes both the Xoom and first-gen iPad obsolete. But for now, the tablet war is stuck in a deadlock. We’re loving the Xoom, and using it as our primary tablet—until we need an app that’s only available for iOS. For more details on our Xoom testing experiences, check out this first look.
NOTE: As we wrote in our Galaxy Tab review, "We originally gave [the iPad] an 8 verdict, but now with its new multitasking support, it would warrant a 9." To be clear, we never changed the official score of the original iPad. That would be revisionist history. Nonetheless, with its post-launch OS updates, the iPad is now a much better tablet device.
$799 off-contract, $600 with 2-year contract, www.motorola.com