The Motorola Xoom is one of the main Android-based (3.1/Honeycomb) tablet competitors to Apple’s iPad. With dual cameras, a 10.1″ screen (capable of 720p HD), 3G and wi-fi capabilties, 32GB of onboard storage and a 1GHz dualcore processor (see full specs), it certainly shows promise.
Because this is my first tablet review, the format may be a little different than my typical phone reviews, but I’ll try to cover the bases. My main focus is on what it can do, rather than comparing it to the iPad or other tablets.
As it turns out, it can do quite a lot.
I actually have video shot for this review, but was having a case of epic fail with getting my video editing software to work correctly. I will try to get it up here in the next week or so, but didn’t want to hold off the review any longer.
The setup process was the smooth, simple, and quick procedure I’ve grown to love about Android devices. It activated the 3G connection quickly, found my Wi-fi instantly, and I was off to the races inside of 5 minutes total. One thing that was particularly cool was that it looked at my Android Market profile and automatically downloaded some applications I frequently use — very cool!
There were some weird usability issues with it that I noticed at first – the Power button is in a weird spot. When you’re holding it in landscape mode (as pictured above) your finger rests right on it, so it is conveneint, but it was NOT obvious. To be fair, this was my first tablet, but it took me almost a full minute to find the power button, after looking everywhere but the back. (No, I did not read the manual). Finding the “Settings” (ie. to set up wi-fi on a different network) was a little tricky, since there is no “menu” button like on an Android phone; you have to load it through the on-screen “Apps” menu.
The screen consistently shows a “lower third” bar for most apps – this bar has ”back”, “home”, and “window picker” buttons, as well as also showing the status notifications, clock, battery life, and wireless/wifi signal. This was a terrific feature, and allows you to easily switch between tasks very quickly. Chat programs like the Facebook app, TweetDeck, and gTalk all notify the status bar, as do apps like gMail and the Android Marketplace update manager.
Most Android phones feature panels now (typically 5-7 panels). The Xoom has a similar feature, except they are animated as if you were inside of a rotating hex-cube. Adding apps, widgets, and shortcuts to the desktop shows a real-time wide-shot of all panels simultaneously, and you simply drag and drop the item onto the panel (even the location OF the panel), where you’d like it to show up.
The people I’ve shown this to have commented that it’s “heavy” (730 grams, or 1.6 lbs), and when comparing it side by side to the iPad (613 grams, or 1.35 lbs), I suppose it weighs a few ounces more — but I found it to be very lightweight, regardless.
The screen is terrific – the image is very crisp, great color depth, and it spans almost the entire area of the tablet. One minor gripe is that the surface is prone to getting finger prints, which create visibility problems when using in a high-glare area (ie. when I use it on the bus when the sun is out, I have a hard time reading what’s on the screen). It would be worth getting some sort of screen protector to make it easier to clean the fingerprints off.
The Xoom is very quick, and has a rock solid core; HOWEVER, it still suffers from some of the 2-d acceleration deficiencies that most Android devices I’ve used typically have. When flicking from panel to panel, for example, there is some visible lag — purely cosmetic, but consumers that are comparing it to the Apple iPad may perceive that as being weaker on the hardware end. I ran a number of games (a high-speed racing game, a side-scrolling game, Angry birds, etc) and they all performed wonderfully — it just takes a split-second for it to get going, and unfortunately that is most noticeable on menu browsing.
Two cameras, one front-facing and one traditionally-oriented, seem to be standard on the newer Droid devices. The front-facing camera has a “privacy light” to indicate when it is activated (presumably so you don’t pick your nose while someone else is watching). The front-facing camera (2MP) is slightly lower-resolution than the rear-facing one (5MP), but works fine for video chat. In low-light conditions, they artificially adjust the digital ISO, which degrades the picture quality significantly; but in a well-lit area, they look fine. Most apps that allow you to use one camera have typically allowed me to switch to the other camera by tapping a button on-screen. I have not found any apps that allow for simultaneous use of both cameras, although that would be SUPER COOL for making tutorials.
Volume control is through buttons on the side that require clear intention to push in either direction. Earphones plug in at the top of the Xoom, above the camera. I found this to be awkward, and for people with short ear-bud cords, it could also be problematic. The speakers were decent enough for private listening in a quiet area, and sounded slightly better than speaker phone settings on other Android phones.
At the top, near the headphone port, is a slide-out piece for an SD card.
Like the other modern Android devices, the Xoom also appears to have native support for tethering. It is worth noting that the “Mobile Hotspot” app is free on a trial basis, and after that there is a monthly fee for usage. It does work well, provided you get a solid 3G signal, but if you have regular access to Internet connectivity elsewhere, it’s silly to pay the monthly fee.
The Power Cord is a strange pin-plug variety, rather than the mini-USB type I am used to. The pad does have ports for both mini-USB and that other type that’s similar (I forget what it’s called). Connecting the mini-USB cable between the Xoom and my laptop did not prompt me to mount it on my computer. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out how to do that.
My brother was playing with it and we were trying to figure out how to put music on it, since I was not able to mount it as a drive. His phone had Bluetooth, so we decided to try sending files over Bluetooth. I was really surprised how easy it was to pair the Xoom with another device and send a file to it, even from a phone. Making the pairing was a little tricky, since you have to go into the settings menu first, then Bluetooth, and work it out from there — but once it’s found, it’s quite easy and will provide on-screen instructions to guide you through the pairing. The file transfer was quick (one mp3 in a matter of seconds). The Xoom does not have native support for the ZIP compressed file format, unlike some phones. Music / photos received over Bluetooth are available for viewing / listening easily.
One app I immediately discovered was the “Movie Studio” app, which allows you to take the videos you shoot with the Camera app and arrange them into a longer video. The feature set is somewhat limited, but it’s functional for simply stitching together a bunch of clips, and you can preview the results live. The clips are shown in timeline format, and are manipulated through drag and drop on-screen. I view this app as a work in progress, and expect that future versions will allow for some really cool stuff, as hardware allows; this is definitely a solid opener though.
Speaking of video recording, the Camera app, which records both video AND audio, displays the video you’re shooting in full-screen. Even though this isn’t exactly a miraculous feat or anything, it’s still really impressive, and makes shooting video really fun.
The App store has a section enabled that is specifically for tablet-apps, which I found to be very useful. They are a random mix of apps: games, utilities, communications, entertainment, etc. I downloaded a painting app for my son to play with, but I was disappointed to see it did not support multi-touch. The Xoom itself does do multi-touch, along with all the traditional gestures, but not all apps do. I found a really sweet racing game that uses the accelerometer (ie. tilting the device) for steering, a USA Today application with a really easy to use interface, and of course, Angry Birds. Angry Birds looks AMAZING and works very smoothly. My 4-year-old son was absolutely ENTHRALLED with that game, and the large touchscreen interface allowed him to figure it out quickly (he actually beat several levels I was having trouble with, amazingly).
There were a few bloatware apps, but they were less noticeable because of all the desktop space. One pre-installed game, Cordy, was a cute side-scrolling pseudo-3d (the game features 3-d rotations on screen, but the action is all 2-d only) platformer that reminded me a bit of Sonic the Hedgehog — lots of fast running and widget collecting. The buttons for the game are on-screen, and placed in a way that when you hold it in landscape mode with both hands, your thumbs rest on the buttons. It was awkward at first, but got easier with practice. The other pre-installed game, Dungeon Defender, was very unintuitive and I gave up on it after a few minutes of trying to figure it out.
YouTube & Gmail
YouTube and Gmail have tablet-specific versions created, and they are amazing. YouTube displays the videos as a concave “wall” of videos, and the videos look very good in full-screen. Gmail uses a full-screen display with folder/tag/menus on the left panel, and lists/messages on the right. The interface is absolutely brilliant and even easier to use than the website version. Composing emails is painless and you can almost get away with two-hand touch typing, except that you need to watch your hands to make sure they stay on the correct keys. The device is responsive enough to handle rapid input, though.
eReader / books
There is a native book-reader, with a few demo books. It looks very clean and has a nice intuitive interface (drag your finger across the screen to turn the page). One caveat, if you are reading a book with pictures/ illustrations: view it in portrait mode so that the entire page displays on-screen. When it’s held in landscape mode, pictures occasionally get split, rather than being bumped down to the next page. This was most noticeable with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The eReader app supports text-size adjustment, contrast, line-height, and quick-access to the table of contents. In the case of “Alice” (and perhaps in others as well), you can view either the OCR “text” version or the original “scanned” version. The latter is presumably a faithful recreation of the original text, whereas the former is digitized and allows for greater readability. Books can be purchased and downloaded through the Android market. There are also free public-domain and promotional books available.
For Kindle users, there is a Kindle app in the marketplace. I think there is also a Nook app as well. An official Adobe Acrobat reader can be downloaded for viewing PDFs.
The Google Suite: Google Reader, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Calendar — all function beautifully and have interfaces custom tailored for the tablet. Google Earth functions typically, and is fun to use on the large screen.
Tweetdeck has an Android version that also capitalizes on the large screen space.
Netflix / Hulu
As of today (late May), Netflix is not yet available on the Xoom. However it is being rolled out for Android, one device at a time. I don’t know whether or not the Xoom may get it. Over wi-fi, I am pretty confident the Xoom would do very well with Netflix streams.
Hulu is not currently available on the Xoom, and I do not know if they have plans to make it available.
N.B. It is possible to watch Hulu on the Xoom, if you don’t mind some clever trickery.
A turning point for me while testing this device was when I was sitting in the back of my parents’ car, driving back from my sister’s commencement ceremony. I was using the 3G wireless connection and browsing the Internet for apartment listings (she’s moving to Cincinnati for an internship), chatting on Facebook with a friend who’s going to be also interning down there at the same time, pasting URLs from the browser into the chat window, finding the apartments on Google Maps, and checking my Gmail, all concurrently, using the window picker and notification bar to switch between apps. Midway through the conversation, I realized all that I was able to do with just the tablet, and it was really amazing. The device suddenly validated itself to me, in that context — it wasn’t just a cool gadget to play Angry Birds while riding the bus downtown, I could actually get stuff done on it!
Initially, this was one feature that I was concerned about – Apple has that fancy “Facetime” app, and try as I might, I could not seem to find any applications that were analogous to Facetime (Qik claims to be, but it seemed that both people needed Qik to do it, which made it seem less useful). Skype, even the “official” Skype app, does not yet support video chatting on Android.
In Google Talk, I noticed that next to certain users it would show the “video chat” icon, as it does on the desktop version. I was able to run a video chat session with Melissa and Rev. Jon. It was ridiculously easy – tap on the “video chat” icon after selecting them in the list. It auto connects and starts the session.
In the lower-right corner, it shows what they see, and the rest of the screen is what they transmit to you. An on-screen button allows you to switch between front and rear-facing cameras, allowing you to do some easy broadcasting of what you see without having to awkwardly hold turn the device around (that was a particularly cool feature). The internal microphone and speakers work well with video chatting. There is some basic zoom-in/out, although it acted a little funny when I messed with it. Melissa said that the video feed she was receiving from me was so-so; not as good as Skype video chatting. Given the convenience, though, and that Skype for Android does not yet support video conferencing, this is a terrific facsimile. I was duly impressed, and disappointed I hadn’t thought of it sooner.
My video chat session with Rev. Jon had a few hiccups — there were occasionally lulls (and also lulz) in the chat due to lag, although I can’t be sure that it was the device and not their internet on the remote side.
I was very impressed with this device when I first used it. I expected that it would cost around $400 and that seemed very reasonable to me. In reality, it actually costs $600. When I heard that, my opinion of the device dropped a bit, for two reasons: The Apple iPad has a price-point right around there and is generally considered to be the “premium model” for tablet devices, right now. Secondly, you can buy a workable laptop from most outlet stores for round $600, which should be able to do everything the Xoom does and more.
But after using it for a while since then, I’m having a change of heart. If I had the disposable money to buy a tablet, and felt the need to own one, I could see buying one of these, particularly once Netflix and Settlers of Catan become available on it. The videochatting feature was what ultimately sold me; I had previously viewed this device as “nice, but not really a contender against the established devices” due to the still-developing app ecosystem (which gets better every year, I might add). But with discovering these last few features, I think it’s good enough. It holds a charge for a long time, fits into most bags, is capable of “getting all that stuff done”, and as time goes by its capabilities will only improve as the app store is fleshed out for tablets.
Personally, I think $600 is a little pricey for ANY tablet device, which is why I don’t own one, but as the technology becomes cheaper, the price will drop. If you can pick it up for $400-500, it would definitely be worth it.
I really like it. It’s solid and well done. In a way, this device reminds me of the first generation Motorola Droid: an explosive entrance onto market, with the implicit understanding that, while followup devices will continue to improve, this device will do you right in the meantime.
Thumbs up, for sure.
Disclosure notice: Reviewed tech hardware provided indirectly by Verizon; however, I am not compensated and my participation in this program is not affected / determined by the views expressed in my reviews.