I got a Motorola Xoom (Wi-Fi) from Amazon on the third day of its release in the US. The 4G version for Verizon became available a month earlier, but it is too expensive, in my opinion, and I didn’t see myself really needing to take the tablet everywhere I go, much less pay Verizon for another data plan. In an ideal world, we would have just one mobile data subscription that could be used across devices, but that’s a discussion for another day. What follows here is a short review of the Motorola Xoom, based on 10 days of use.
Before I get started, I’d like to make it clear that I am an Android fan. I believe I’m critical enough to point out Android’s faults where they exist, but I might be inclined to give Android a little leeway, and you might find this review a little biased. No discussion of Android and tablets can happen without comparison with the Apple iPad, so I will just say that I have not used an iPad extensively. I know that the iPad is more user friendly, but I am a tinkerer and hacker at heart, and I find Apple’s approach too restrictive. I am philosophically against the walled garden approach of Apple. With that out of the way, here’s the review:
Anybody who has used any of Motorola device in the last two years will have agree that Motorola makes some of the most robust, understated and yet stylish devices in the market. The Xoom is no exception. The first thing that you think when you hold a Xoom is that it feels solid. It uses high quality materials, does not creak or flex in any way, and has a nice weight to it. Some people have complained that it is too heavy, but the extra weight makes it feel like a device that can withstand some abuse. So far, I have been using it in the bed, or on the couch, where I can lay it down on my lap, or put it up against something, so the weight hasn’t been a problem at all.
The screen is gorgeous. It’s the same size as my netbook, but comparing it to my capacitive touchscreen phone, the screen feels vast and much more versatile. For the first time, I can see the appeal of having a tablet as compared to a laptop. Using a touch interface for browsing, reading emails, watching video, etc. just seems more natural. The Xoom has front- and rear-facing cameras. So far, I have found the rear camera to be more a novelty because I prefer to use a “real” camera most of the time, and the phone suits the purpose much better when you need a handy camera in a jiffy. The front camera can be very useful for video calls — more on that in the software section. The Xoom also has stereo speakers on the back, which are sufficient, if not excellent. The problem with rear speakers is that the sound get muffled or too low if you prop the tablet against a pillow or some other fabric. The speakers are good enough for casual video, but if you’re going to watch a movie seriously or listen to music, you’d be better served with plugging in earphones.
As many other reviewers have said, the tablet experience lives and dies by the software. Once you have sufficiently capable hardware to drive modern applications, it’s all about how good the software is. Motorola Xoom is the first device to ship with the Honeycomb (3.0) release of Android, and I have to say that Android has come a long way in creating an excellent tablet experience. The interface has been revamped substantially to suit larger screens. The home screens can be customized extensively. Widgets are a lot more useful on a tablet as compared to phones because they can now display more information and offer more controls. One of the big strengths of Honeycomb over iOS is the amount of information you can display on the home screen without even having to launch an application. Honeycomb on a tablet doesn’t just look like a magnified phone screen.
In my opinion, the complexity of the Honeycomb interface has been overblown. Most things are very intuitive, with just a little bit of a learning curve. If you are coming from iOS, you will obviously find Android to be different, but different does not necessarily mean difficult. Until now, I had only used Android on a phone, so it took me a little while to get used to new interface elements, but once I figured that out, it was immediately obvious to me why the designers at Google did what they did. Contextual menus have now been moved to a button on the top right of the application. Native Honeycomb applications use multiple panes (or “fragments” in Android parlance). The notification area has been beefed up to provide direct control elements instead of simple notifications. Application switching is simple and quick with a dedicated button that brings up recently used applications with their thumbnail previews.
Google seems to have taken a cue from Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 in terms of defining the look and feel of Honeycomb. Interface widgets, such as sliders and buttons, are much flatter or simply two-dimensional. There is more whitespace separating the text and the borders of a widget. The scrollbars are reduced to a very thin, barely-visible line. Colour gradients for dialog box shadows are now a diffused, blue glow.
The unfortunate result of the interface changes is that legacy Android applications look ugly in comparison. Most older Android applications run fine, but it is immediately obvious that they were designed for a smaller screen, so they look too sparse. Also, the contextual menu needs to be accessed in a different manner (a menu button that appears at the bottom), which can be a little annoying. Until Honeycomb tablets become a significant part of the Android market, the early adopters will have to live with applications that don’t look quite right, or don’t fully utilize the advantage of a larger screen.
The Android web browser has been updated to display multiple tabs much like Google Chrome. Page loads are fast, and I didn’t see any lag during scrolling. It is a testament to the power of the hardware that web browsing seems almost as fast as my Core i7 desktop. Both Verizon and Motorola tried to generate a lot of hype about Flash support with Xoom, and I was skeptical because I didn’t think the absence of Flash would make much difference to my browsing experience, and Flash support on portable devices has been underwhelming. I was, however, pleasantly surprised at how useful Flash has been so far. I don’t play Flash games, but there are a lot of sites that I visit which use Flash-based video players, and when you can watch Flash video in full screen on a tablet, you feel like you’re getting the same web experience as a desktop or a laptop. I definitely want HTML5 video to kill Flash in the most horrible and messy way possible, but while Flash video is still around, I’m happy to have support for it on the tablet.
As with other versions of Android, the integration of Gmail and Google Contacts with Honeycomb is excellent. Once you log into your Google account, all your contacts and emails are synced. The Gmail app is beautiful and fully featured. I would love to have an email client that is as pretty on my desktop. Another application worth mentioning here is Google Talk. I have used the video calling feature a few times and I’m amazed at how well it works. The video is smooth and there is no lag. Even without the use of earphones, the sound quality is excellent and I haven’t noticed any echo.
Much has been said about the lack of available applications. This is where I will put on my Android apologist hat and tell you two things. Firstly, there are a lot of existing apps available in the Android Marketplace that will work just fine. Like I said earlier, they don’t look as good, but they are functional. I am not a big gamer, but games written for earlier versions of Android look great and work very well on the more powerful hardware. Secondly, if Android’s past is any indication, the market will soon be flooded with Honeycomb tablets and developers will flock towards tablet-optimised apps. I believe that Google has deep enough pockets to make the Android tablet a success just like they did with the phone market, and now they have the added advantage of already having an Android developer base.