Motorola Xoom steps up iPad rivalry with Android 3.0 (March 1st, 2011)
Among a myriad of tablet introductions early this year, Motorola's Xoom arguably attracted the most attention. The device is the first to be powered by Android 3.0, the tablet-optimized variant of Google's smartphone OS. Tablets that jumped onto the market ahead of Honeycomb suffered from usability problems when scaling a smartphone interface onto a larger screen, but the Xoom aims to overcome those issues with a proper pairing of software and hardware. In our full review, we take a closer look at the new features and gauge how the Xoom stacks up against its competition.
Product Manufacturer: Motorola
Price: $800 unsubsidized
- 10.1-inch display
- First with Android 3.0
- OS optimized for tablets
- Solid hardware
- Snappy dual-core processor
- Expensive, even with Verizon subsidy
- No Wi-Fi-only model at launch
- 4G requires upgrade
- Lackluster display
Build quality and design
The Xoom does not appear to diverge from the standard tablet form-factor that we have come to expect, with slightly rounded corners and edge-to-edge glass that surrounds the LCD with a gloss black bezel. On the backside, Motorola has kept to a matte black finish that reminds us of the Droid smartphone lineup.
Like the Droids, the Xoom feels like a solid device with seemingly robust construction. Most of the back panel is metal, while the facade is likely built from a hardened glass such as Corning's Gorilla Glass.
The tablet is relatively hefty, weighing in at 730g and perfectly matching the 3G iPad. For any device with a 10-inch screen, the 600-700g range seems to be a sweet spot that is light enough for extended use but heavy enough that the build quality does not suffer.
Our only complaint regarding the overall design is a minor issue regarding the power cord. Motorola chose to use a needle-thin plug that seems susceptible to damage if a user must charge the device while it is in use. Charging via Micro USB is not supported, eliminating any alternative and forcing users to carry around an extra AC adapter.
The Xoom integrates a 10.1-inch display with a 16:10 aspect ratio. On paper, the specs are only slightly different than the iPad's 9.7-inch LCD with a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it makes a difference in the natural orientation. While the iPad is comfortable and natural to use in both landscape and portrait modes, the Xoom only feels completely natural in landscape orientation. Motorola placed the branding badges, buttons and front-facing camera accordingly.
Admittedly, we did not run into any glaring problems using the Xoom in portrait mode, but it always felt more natural to hold the device in landscape mode. The shape of the back panel also lends itself to landscape orientation, as the short sides provide a flat grip and the long sides force users to place their grip at the apex of a contour. The awkwardness seemed to become less apparent after a few days of heavy use.
Despite the Xoom's slightly longer display measurement when compared to the iPad, the overall screen area is nearly identical. Motorola also attempted to outdo Apple with 1280x800 resolution and a 160 PPI pixel density, though the slight jump does not equate to a significant leap forward.
For an expensive flagship device, we expected the Xoom to integrate a better screen. It is a standard LCD with modest backlighting, viewing angles and contrast ratio. The iPad's IPS panel seems to beat the Xoom in each of the factors aside from pixel density and resolution, with a significant lead when comparing viewing angles.
Most users will quickly find the automatic brightness settings to be poorly adjusted for real-world conditions. We turned the brightness setting all the way up for indoor light, which left the screen washed out in bright sunlight.
The Xoom display is not terrible, but definitely not a step forward from any competitors when considering most of the important criteria.
Like many high-end smartphones and some other tablets, the Xoom integrates dual cameras. Users can shoot 720p video or capture stills with the primary five-megapixel sensor, while a two-megapixel camera sits below the front glass for video calling or self portraits.
We like the dual-camera configuration, though the primary sensor will likely get little use from most owners. We view the seven-inch Galaxy Tab as too unwieldy to serve as a camera; the Xoom steps even further past the mark of practical usability. We cannot think of many situations in which the Galaxy Tab would make much sense as a camcorder or still camera, especially for users who already own a smartphone with similar capabilities built into a smaller package.
Despite our dismissal of the rear-facing camera, the Xoom's front-facing sensor makes the device a practical option for video calling. The only caveat is the limitations of Verizon's 3G network for video bandwidth, but the tablet is already setup for a 4G LTE upgrade sometime in the future.
Moving on to the internals, Motorola has tucked away the Xoom's premier feature: a dual-core processor. NVIDIA's Tegra 2 processor cores and graphics components easily handle the Android 3.0 interface and any of the apps that we tried out. Unless multitasking is pushed to the extreme, the overall experience feels faster than that of the iPad.
Aside from the dual-core CPU, the Xoom also integrates a full gigabyte of DDR2 RAM and 32GB of flash storage. The combination makes for a great Internet experience, especially with the new tabbed UI of the onboard browser. The RAM capacity made sense to us, but we would have liked a 16GB storage option to help bring the price down for those who do not need 32GB for content storage.
Like the iPhone 4, the Xoom takes advantage of a gyroscope in addition to the accelerometer for motion and orientation detection. We were also impressed with the navigation-focused sensors, which include GPS and a magnetometer for compass functionality. Motorola even one-upped the competition by adding a barometer, enabling apps to gauge atmospheric pressure and altitude.
Our issue with the brightness control was the first indication that Motorola was trying every trick to help stretch the battery life. The Xoom integrates a 24.5 Watt-hour battery, just shy of the iPad's 25 Watt-hour cells. We were curious to see how NVIDIA's Tegra 2 platform compared to the iPad's power efficiency.
The company claims 10 hours of video playback or Wi-Fi browsing, nine hours of 3G browsing, and 14 days of standby time. We used video as a benchmark, which brought approximately 8 hours of playback with the screen set near full brightness. Under standard conditions with automatic brightness adjustment, the time likely falls close to the company's promise.
Although the Xoom still falls slightly short of the iPad's battery life, we were surprised that the dual-core processor did not result in an even wider gap.
After briefly trying out Android 3.0 early this year at CES, we were eager to delve deeper into the new OS. Google has made significant changes to optimize the UI for a tablet-size screen, without losing the focus on customizability and a wide range of features.
Essential functions were relatively easy to use and intuitive, but usability became trickier as we tried to handle higher-level tasks. Certain processes surrounding the multitasking system, keyboard deployment, settings and menu layout were not immediately clear.
Users do not have to download third-party apps to customize the homescreens, as Google provides a wealth of options on the stock OS. Pages can be visually tweaked with a variety of widgets and specialized shortcuts for items such as books, contacts and Android Market content. When arranging elements, a handy grid also appears on the screen as a placement guide.
After getting acquainted with the OS, we did not find the controls or layout to be awkward; many of the quirky aspects seem unavoidable and logical when considering the medley of features. The learning curve is closer to that of a desktop OS, in contrast to the absolute simplicity of iOS on the iPad. We cannot say one approach is necessarily better; each suits different functionality and individual tastes. Owners of Android smartphones who appreciate the customizability will not be disappointed, but anyone who is a fan of iOS straightforwardness might find Honeycomb frustrating.
Overall, we welcomed the changes in Android 3.0 and look forward to seeing the OS continue to evolve in the future. The complexity benefits more advanced functions, which have yet to be fully tapped by developers. Honeycomb did not arrive on the market with the range of dedicated apps that were available on the iPad's launch, but the library will likely expand as more supported devices ship later this year. Google also appears to have refined its widget interface and information layout.
We were left with positive impressions of the Xoom and Honeycomb, a duo that finally brings the Android platform up to speed with the iPad. Aside from the hardware and software, however, most customers will also consider the price and competition in the market.
The 32GB iPad with 3G capabilities is the closest competitor when considering specific features, but many iPad buyers opt instead for the 16GB variant or a model that lacks 3G connectivity. That said, the Xoom's $800 price tag for the base model makes it 60 percent more expensive than the cheapest iPad. Tying the device to a two-year Verizon broadband contract only shaves $200 off the price.
Aside from the price comparisons, the Xoom undoubtedly takes the prize for the best Android tablet already on the market. Buyers can look forward to 4G upgradeability, HDMI output, and a number of other features that are absent from Apple's tablet. Nonetheless, we can't blame prospective buyers for waiting for Apple to unveil the next iPad.