Xoom Review, the Good Stuff

The Motorola Xoom is an important product. It’s not something new or something magical. It’s just a tablet.

So why is it important?

It gives the iPad some competition. Yes, I’m aware that Samsung, Dell, and others sell Android tablets. Yes, I’m aware that the Kindle and NOOKcolor are preferred by many for reading eBooks.

The Xoom is something different because it competes head-on with the iPad in both capabilities and features, and unlike the iPad, which is essentially a large iPhone (or iPhone is a small iPad), the Xoom is not a large Android phone because Honeycomb, or Android 3.0, is something new, built for tablets.

Anyway, I bought a Xoom, and this is the first of my two-part review.

Want the short version? I really like the Xoom, and it could replace my iPad. However, I’m worried that Android tablets will find competing with the iPad tough sledding, which will slow down app development and could torpedo the whole ship.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on what I like.

Hardware specs do matter to customers. Maybe not in terms of megapixels or resolution or CPU clock speed, but most certainly in terms of speed and size.

Case in point, my non-technical wife said she liked the iPad better than the Xoom because it had a bigger screen. When I showed her that the display sizes were about the same, she changed her mind to the Xoom because it was smaller, i.e. similar display, smaller to carry. These are decisions based on specs.

The Xoom’s physical size (9.80″ x 6.61″) matches up nicely with the original iPad (9.56″ x 7.47″) because it’s much more a rectangle than a square. I didn’t expect that would matter, but it actual does. The iPad’s extra size makes it a little more cumbersome to use.

It seems that the more rectangular form factor isn’t just my preference; most of the newly announced tablets, including iPad 2 (9.5″ x 7.31″), have less square dimensions than the original iPad.

The Xoom is fast too, as you’d expect from its specs. Fast to load, fast to render.

As I mentioned, Honeycomb is something new. It’s not so new that you have a steep learning curve, so if you’ve used Android before, you’re fine.

It adds incremental features like better animation features, more widget options, better multi-touch support, better hardware acceleration, that type of stuff.

As with every Android conversation, notifications and multi-tasking stand out as differentiators.

The notification system has been tweaked for tablets. The familiar notification bar from smartphone versions of Android has been replaced with a less obtrusive bottom-right notifications center. As notifications arrive, they are displayed in the bottom bar, much like a desktop OS.

Multi-tasking is the same, as far as I can tell. If you switch away from an app, it retains state. For example, if you’re playing Angry Birds, can’t finish a level, and want to watch a walk-through on YouTube, you can do this without relaunching Angry Birds. The game maintains your state when you switch to the browser.

And no, you can’t do this on iOS 4 on the iPad. I’ve tried.

This is a big deal to many reviewers and is seen by many to be the major failing of the Xoom. See here and here for examples.

The iPad launched with several, high-profile apps designed specifically for its new form factor and resolution. There’s a very good reason; if you’ve owned an iPhone and bought an iPad, you’ll know that all those iPhone apps look pretty janky running in 2x mode on the iPad.

So, one of the first things any iPad owner does is buy tons of apps.

How many tablet-designed apps are there in the Android Market? 16.

This is where the doomsday talk starts.

Not so fast.

One major win for the Xoom (and Honeycomb) is that phone apps don’t look like crap on it like they do on iPad. In fact, some are better on the larger format, e.g. Angry Birds, which is free and ad-supported on Android. Those ads are a much larger part of the overall game play on smartphones, and you really can’t avoid tapping them accidentally, an ingenious scam in and of itself.

Not so on the Xoom, where the ads fade into the corner, out of the game play.

Stream-based apps look fine too, including Twitter and clients like Seesmic. In fact, aside from stretched form fields, the vast majority of the apps I’ve tried look and function just fine.

And lest you cry foul, I use the same set of apps on Android that I do on iOS. So, whereas I had to procure (ahem, purchase) HD versions of iOS apps for iPad, I don’t have the same cost on the Xoom.

That price difference is looking a little different now, eh? Irony alert: Macs have sold for nearly a decade against Windows using that same “real cost” argument.

I did find a few apps that were in need of tweaking, namely Pandora and Facebook. Both were usable, but had issues.

And let’s not forget the apps Google bundles with Honeycomb. They are designed for tablets, and they are really nice. I’m talking about GMail and Email; Gallery, which is outstanding if you use Picasa, Maps, and especially the browser, which finally adds tabs.

Stay tuned for stuff that needs improvement.




  1. Also worth having a look at ArsTechnica’s full review at http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/reviews/2011/03/ars-reviews-the-motorola-xoom.ars . In my twitter reply regarding “missing features” I was referring specifically to Ars’ mention of the 4G radio installation requiring the physical return of the device so it can be retrofitted after purchase; it does seem to ship with a 3G radio. There are apparently several other items requiring later software updates (like the microSD slot).

    Personally, it sounds like a device with a lot of promise, but I wouldn’t be purchasing one without all the major features actually /implemented/. Strikes me as being more along the lines of Google “beta”. I wouldn’t count it out, but I wouldn’t count it until it’s all really there either.

  2. Ah Ars, the tl;dr blog. I will set aside an hour to speed read that 🙂 As I mentioned in short form, I asked the Verizon rep about LTE, and he said it would be a future software update, no mention of sending the unit anywhere. But again, who would think to ask that 🙂 So I can’t confirm or deny with any certainty.

    Yes, it has a 3G receiver, and yes, the micro SD card slot is unsupported for now. Asked Verizon about that too, coming soon in an OTA update.

    Given the current state of the tablet market, I’d say the Xoom is good enough to release now, considering the dearth of legit horizontal competition for iPad. At least it has a camera, which we’ve learned to live without somehow over the last year of iPad 🙂

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