The Motorola XOOM checked a lot of boxes in the “first” category when it launched in February. It was the first tablet computer to ship with a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor. It was the first tablet to run Google Android 3.0 Honeycomb and the first to be updated to Android 3.1. And it was the first tablet that many analysts thought had a real shot of taking on the Apple iPad 2.
So does the XOOM live up to its potential? Yes and no.
On the one hand, there’s a lot to like about the XOOM. It has excellent hardware, a fast processor, and an attractive and responsive operating system. On the other hand, there aren’t that many killer apps for the platform yet, and I find myself wondering over and over again why I should use the tablet when I have my smartphone or laptop handy.
I’ve had a Motorola XOOM sitting on my desk for the last few weeks, and honestly that’s where it’s stayed most of the time because it just hasn’t managed to become a gadget that I take with me when I go out. My Android smartphone is smaller, lighter, and can do almost everything the XOOM does. While the XOOM has a larger display which is great for viewing full web pages, watching videos, or writing documents, I can do all of those things just as well, if not better on a laptop. So the XOOM sits on my desk waiting for killer apps to make me want to use it more often.
Overall the XOOM is still a device that’s full of potential, three months after the tablet hit the streets.
The recent update to Android 3.1 certainly makes the tablet feel a little faster and the web browser and home screen are a little easier to use. But the XOOM still feels like a phone that’s too big to fit in my pocket in many ways.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, on to the review.
The demo unit I was loaned has a 10.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel capacitive touchscreen display, a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, 32GB of storage, 1GB of RAM, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth, a 5MP rear camera and a 2MP front-facing camera. This model has a 3G modem, but it hasn’t been activated with Verizon Wireless so I only tested WiFi performance.
The Motorola has a nice solid feel to it with a soft finish on the back and a front that’s virtually all glass. There is a thin bezel that stretches around the display area, but the glass stretches nearly from one end of the tablet to the other.
There’s a camera above the display, as well as a bit of branding. If you you get the Verizon model, you’ll be greeted by a Motorola logo on the left and a Verizon logo on the right.
The left side of the tablet features volume buttons. There’s nothing at all on the right.
The bottom of the XOOM features a microUSB port, a mini-HDMI port, and one of the tiniest charging jacks you’ve ever seen. The rest of the connectors you see on the bottom are designed to be used with optional docking accessories.
At the top of the tablet you’ll find a headset jack and a pull-out tray for a SIM card and microSD card slot. Unfortunately the XOOM can’t currently read SD cards, and the SIM card won’t be necessary until Motorola and Verizon offer a free upgrade that lets you use the tablet with Verizon’s 4G LTE network.
On the back of the tablet there are more logos… oh yeah, and a second camera with an LED flash, stereo speakers, and a power button.
It took me a few days to get used to the power button placement. Since it’s on the back of the tablet, odds are you won’t actually be looking at it the button when you press it. But once you get the hang of things, it’s pretty easy to locate the fingertip-sized button without your eyes.
The tablet weighs about 1.6 pounds, which makes it light by laptop standards, but pretty heavy by smartphone or eBook reader standards. I find that I can hold the tablet in one hand to read a web page or a book, but it’s much more comfortable to hold the XOOM with two hands or while to prop up an edge of the tablet on a table, lap, or other surface.
The XOOM is designed so that you can use it in landscape or portrait mode, and as you change your grip on the tablet the view rotates. But the tablets’ 1280 x 800 pixel widescreen display looks best in landscape mode.
While some tablets, such as the Apple iPad have a 4:3 aspect ratio, the XOOM has a 16:10 aspect ratio. That means you can watch widescreen movies with just the faintest hint of black bars at the top and bottom. But it also means that if you rotate the tablet and try to watch a video or read a book in portrait mode, your eyes have to scan up and down much more than you’d expect. This is probably something you can get used to, but most web sites and many apps were designed to be wider than they are tall, and so I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing things wrong when I’m surfing the web in portrait mode.
On the other hand, smartphone apps are often designed to be viewed in portrait mode — but most smartphone apps are also designed for 480 x 800 pixel or lower resolution displays and look absolutely ridiculous on the XOOM’s high resolution screen. I’ll get into this more in the software section below, but as far as design goes, suffice it to say that the tablet works best in landscape orientation.
The XOOM has excellent viewing angles, and colors don’t wash out when you look at the from the side. This makes it great for looking at pictures or watching videos with a friend. You can also set the tablet on a tablet without a stand and see the screen reasonably well — although you’ll still probably want to hold the tablet in your hands or prop it up with a stand most of the time.
I held off on writing this portion of the review until Android 3.1 was released. I was told that the software update would bring a 20 to 30 percent performance increase. Now that I’ve had a little while to play with the latest software, I can tell you that the tablet feels faster. But only a handful of benchmarks will show you that performance boost.
That’s because OpenGL performance really does seem to have jumped by around 25 percent — but not every Android app relis on OpenGL.
I ran the Nenamark graphics benchmark with Android 3.0.1 and got a score of 27.8. When I ran the test again with Android 3.1, the score was 35 — which is an increase of roughly 26 percent. I didn’t run GLBenchmark 2.0, but NVIDIA sent over some test results showing a 20 percent boost on that benchmark.
The XOOM scored almost the same on the Linpack test before and after the update, and the tablet actually achieved lower scores in Quadrant and SmartBench after installing Android 3.1.
That’s likely because these tests measure CPU performance as well as graphics performance, and when it comes down to it, Android 3.1 doesn’t offer any real benefits in terms of number crunching power — just graphics.
That said, a graphics boost doesn’t just affect video games. The Android 3.1 user interface relies on hardware graphics acceleration, so after updating all sorts of animations and other visual effects are faster and smoother. And that really does make the tablet feel faster.
Even before the update, the Motorola XOOM was one of the fastest, most powerful Android devices around thanks to the 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra dual core processor.
It has no problems with 1080p HD video playback. There’s not a single Android game available today that requires higher performance hardware. And there’s very little lag when pressing buttons, switching menus, or performing other navigation tricks.
With Android 3.1 installed, the tablet can also handle 720p HD Flash video in a web browser window.
One frustrating thing hasn’t changed with the software update. When you rotate the screen from landscape to portrait mode or vice versa there’s still a 2-second delay. That might not sound like very much, but it takes less than half the time to rotate the screen on my Google Nexus One smartphone or iPod touch. I don’t have an iPad handy to test, but in my experience, screen rotation also feels much faster on an iPad than on the Motorola XOOM.
I’m betting the delay is at least partially due to the tablet’s high resolution 1280 x 800 pixel display. It takes a lot of power to redraw all of those pixels on the fly and adjust the behavior and position of home screen widgets and other software elements. But it’s still annoying.
The Motorola XOOM has stereo speakers on the rear side of the tablet which are surprisingly loud and reasonably clear. You may get a bit of distortion when playing music at full volume, and don’t expect a lot of base. But the tablet is much louder than any Android phone I’ve ever used and the sound quality is good enough that I’d have no reservations about watching a movie or playing a video game without using headphones as long as I was in a reasonably quite room.
It’s very difficult to test battery life on an Android tablet such as the Motorola XOOM because use cases vary so widely. Motorola says you should get up to 10 hours of run time when watching videos or surfing the web from the tablet’s 24Whr battery. When listening to MP3 files with the screen turned off Motorola says the tablet should run for up to 3.3 days.
I never got around to listening to music for 3 days, but I found that during day to day usage, the battery meter seemed to hold steady for very long periods of web browsing. Battery drain was much higher when playing video games. The two things that seem to drain the battery most are leaving the screen on and using 3D graphics.
That said, I’m a bit skeptical of the music for 3 days claim, because I also noticed that the battery tended to drain more quickly than I expected when I simply left the tablet unplugged for a day or two without touching it. It’s possible that disabling WiFi, automatic data synchronization, or some battery-killing app running in the background might amend the situation, but in my experience while you can definitely get all-day use out of the XOOM battery, I wouldn’t want to go on vacation with this tablet while leaving the charger at home.
While the Motorola XOOM has an attractive, sturdy case and a speedy processor, it’s not the hardware that sets the tablet apart from the crowd. It’s the software. The XOOM was the first tablet to ship with Google Android 3.x Honeycomb — the version of Android which Google developed specifically to run on tablets instead of phones. While several other device makers have released Honeycomb tablets since Motorola launched the XOOM in February, it’s still one of the only devices that offers Honeycomb pretty much exactly as Google designed it, with few customizations.
In some ways Honeycomb is a huge departure from Android 2.x. In other ways, using most Android apps on the tablet feels like using Android apps on a really large smartphone.
Honeycomb is designed to work just as well in landscape mode as portrait, if not better. The home screen can be viewed in either orientation — and there are on-screen buttons for home, back, menu, and search functions so that hardware makers don’t have to build them into the case — and so that you can access those functions easily no matter which way you’re holding the tablet.
One of the things that sets a Honeycomb tablet such as the XOOM apart from a phone is the high resolution screen. You can fit a lot more content on a 10 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display than on a 3.7 inch, 400 x 840 pixel screen.
So Honeycomb uses a new “fragments” framework which allows developers to write applications that use multiple panels in landscape mode or single panels in portrait. For instance, an email application can show a list of messages on the left and full messages on the right in landscape, while showing just one or the other in portrait. I recently took a look at Plume, a Twitter application which makes great use of this feature to show a traditional phone-like single-column twitter experience in portrait mode, but a 3-panel view in landscape.
Honeycomb apps can also make use of a new toolbar at the top of the screen which offers access to settings and other app-specific functions. Plume, for instance, puts New Tweet, Refresh, Search, and Trends buttons in the toolbar.
But the number of Android apps which are optimized for Honeycomb tablets at the moment measures in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Fortunately most apps designed for Android smartphones work well on Android tablets, scaling up to fit the large display. I’ve run across a few apps which insist on running in tiny windows and ignoring most of the tablet’s screen space, but those apps are the minority.
Still, when you blow up an Android app designed for a small screen onto a big screen you get mixed results. Some apps look just as good on a tablet as on a phone, but others just look wrong on a big screen. The VEVO music video app, for instance, includes tiny text, a lot of empty space, and video quality that looks good enough on a 800 x 480 pixel screen but which looks horribly pixelated on a higher resolution device.
The New York Times app hasn’t been optimized for tablets either, and offers tiny pictures, a lot of tiny text, and a sub-par reading experience.
Fortunately the web browser is pretty good and allows you to view the New York Times web site or pretty much anything else on the web much as it would appear in a PC web browser. There’s even support for Adobe Flash content which works reasonably well with video. Flash-based games and other apps are a bit more hit-or-miss, since many Flash apps haven’t been designed for touch input.
For instance my wife tried to do the LA Times crossword puzzle on the XOOM, something she’d never tried on an iPod or Android phone because the screens seemed to small. But it was one of the first things she thought of when grabbing the XOOM. Unfortunately while the puzzle loaded, there was no way to actually enter text.
That said, the browser supports tabs, displays just as much text or imagery as you’d expect from a desktop web browser, and can play in-page Flash videos. It’s a huge improvement over the web browser that comes with most Android phones. And if you don’t feel like moving your hand to the top of the screen every time you want to enter a URL or switch tabs, you can enable a “Labs” feature called Quick Controls that lets you bring up an on-screen menu by swiping your thumb from the right side of the screen.
There are also a number of third party web browsers for Honeycomb tablets including Opera or Dolphin Browser HD if you’d prefer to try something different. The Firefox Mobile web browser for Android also looks great on tablets, even if it was designed specifically for phone-sized displays.
Unfortunately most mobile browsers for Honeycomb still identify themselves as mobile browsers, and you may end up viewing mobile versions of web sites if publishers configure their web sites to automatically detect your device type and display a mobile web page when appropriate. There are some hacks to get around this issue, and other web browsers allow you to change your browser’s user agent which may help. But the default experience can be a little frustrating since most web sites look great and then every now and again you find one that simply doesn’t load properly. It feels sort of like using the Opera web browser for desktop PCs a few years ago.
Overall though, the web browser is one of the best things about the Motorola XOOM. Surfing the web on a 10 inch screen is a very different experience than browsing on a 4 inch display, and if you find a typical smartphone screen to be cramped, a tablet like the XOOM may be the way to go.
Another thing that sets Honeycomb apart from Android 2.x is the keyboard. If you’ve ever tried touch-typing on a tablet running earlier versions of Android such as the Archos 101 or Augen GenTouch78, you know that it’s next to impossible. The keyboard simply wasn’t designed for touch typists.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 inch tablet uses a version of the Swype keyboard which is reasonably comfortable for typing with your thumbs, but again, you’re not likely to use all 10 fingers to type on that tablet.
The Motorola XOOM almost gets things right. The keys are nice and big and well spaced. If you place your fingers over the tablet, you can reach every key with your fingertips. But for some reason, it just doesn’t work all that well. When I tried to type large amounts of text, the results were riddled with errors. It also takes a long time to figure out which special characters you can trigger simply by tapping and holding a key and which ones require you to hit a special key first to change the keyboard from letters to numbers.
For instance, a long-press on the “/” key will bring up a “:” character. But in order to type an “@” you have to hit the “?123” button first — unless you’re typing in a text input box that expects an email address.
I’ve also noticed a moderately annoying lag between the time you press a key with your finger and the time when a letter pops up on the screen.
I’ve spent very little time with the Apple iPad, and I really don’t want to spend too much time comparing the XOOM to Apple’s tablet — but the first time I walked into a Best Buy to check out the iPad I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could touch type on the keyboard without any difficulty. The learning curve with the XOOM is much higher, and after using the tablet on and off for about a month, I still find myself using 1 or 2 fingers to type instead of all 10.
Some apps that are designed for tablets look amazing on the XOOM. The CNN tablet app looks gorgeous, presenting you with nice big picture previews for each story, and intuitive touchscreen navigation.
The photo gallery app looks great, and makes viewing pictures stored on your device or in your Picasa Web Albums a pleasure. And games such as Pinball HD, Glow Hockey, or Dungeon Defenders are remarkably well suited to the 10 inch tablet form factor.
Google Books provides a reasonably good experience for reading digital books, with a two-page view in landscape mode and a single-page view in portrait orientation, although the tablet really feels a lot easier to hold in landscape mode — and the amount of text on the screen in portrait mode feels kind of overwhelming unless you increase the font size enough to make eBooks look like large print books.
The Barnes & Noble NOOK app offers an experience that’s at least as good as the Google Books app in landscape mode. For some reason the latest Amazon Kindle and Kobo eBook apps, on the other hand, only offer single column views — which look kind of funny when you’re holding the tablet in landscape mode because there are either huge margins on the left and right sides of pages (Kindle), or very long lines of text (Kobo).
I really want to like using the XOOM to read eBooks, but the truth is it’s just a little to heavy to hold comfortably and not all eBook apps look right on the high resolution display. But I’m also weird, because I really like reading eBooks on an iPod touch with a 3.5 inch display because it’s light, fits in my pocket, and offers a small amount of text at a time so my eyes don’t wander. Most people I know prefer reading on larger displays and might find the XOOM more comfortable, although a lighter tablet such as the 0.9 pound HTC Flyer might make a better compromise.
The Motorola XOOM has a list price of $599 for the WiFi model and $799 for the 3G model — although you can also get the 3G version for $599 if you sign up for a 2-year service contract with Verizon. The wireless carrier will also soon offer a free upgrade letting you use the tablet with the company’s faster 4G LTE wireless network.
When you look at what you get for $599, the price doesn’t seem completely unreasonable. The tablet has 32GB of storage, a dual core processor, a high resolution display, and two cameras. In fact, at $599, the XOOM is exactly the same price as the 32GB WiFi-only Apple iPad. But there’s a key difference: Apple also offers a cheaper iPad with 16GB of storage for $499. Motorola doesn’t currently offer a cheaper tablet, which means that you have to shell out nearly $600 to get your hands on the XOOM.
Meanwhile Acer, Asus, HTC and Samsung all offer cheaper Android tablets. The lack of a cheaper entry-level tablet certainly puts Motorola at a disadvantage. The company is expected to offer a 16GB model eventually, but for now Motorola offers one of the most expensive Android tablets on the market — which makes the XOOM a bit of a tough sell.
As the first Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola XOOM is designed to show what Android looks like when it’s redesigned for a larger screen. Unfortunately the XOOM feels more like a demonstration product at this point than a full-fledged gadget that fills a need. Because there just aren’t that many things I can do with a XOOM that you can’t do just as easily with a phone, I find that the XOOM sits on my desk while my phone comes with me.
Honeycomb is definitely a huge step toward making Android more tablet-friendly. But the keyboard still isn’t as easy to use as it should be, the web browser still doesn’t display all web content as well as it could (particularly Adobe Flash elements that haven’t been optimized for mobile devices), and most importantly, there just aren’t enough killer apps for Android tablets… at least not yet.
If you’ve been frustrated by the small screen size of your phone — or if you’re looking for a device for surfing the web, watching videos, playing games, and running other Android apps and don’t want a smartphone, then the XOOM (or another Android tablet) might be for you. But as a Google Nexus One user I’m still waiting for the killer apps that will make me want to use a Honeycomb tablet like the XOOM on a regular basis. I’m not sure why I would spend $599 on one.
Or if you want to make a bet that the Honeycomb apps will arrive en masse soon, the XOOM isn’t a bad option. Motorola has a cozy relationship with Google, and the XOOM was the first tablet to receive the Android 3.1 software update and XOOM users were among the first to gain access to Google’s new Music Beta service. — so if you want to keep on top of new Honeycomb developments there may be advantages to choosing the XOOM.
While Motorola isn’t the only company with a Honeycomb tablet at the moment, the specs are still pretty much state of the art. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer, Acer Iconia Tab A500, and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 all have the same basic features as the XOOM: and NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor, 1280 x 800 pixel display, 1GB of RAM, and so on.