Motorola Xoom review: Groundbreaking, but disappointing

Summary:The Motorola Xoom is the tablet that has been preparing to go toe-to-toe with the Apple iPad. Here's the rundown of how it measures up for IT and business professionals.

The Motorola Xoom has arguably been the most widely-hyped-tech-product-not-made-by-Apple in the past year. Motorola has gotten a lot of people excited for the first official Google tablet.

However, the Xoom faces two big challenges. First, all of the hype surrounding the Xoom and Android 3.0 Honeycomb has created extremely high expectations. Second, there's already a tablet on the market that has set the bar pretty high. Despite its well-documented shortcomings, the Apple iPad gets high marks from most users.

Unfortunately, the Xoom doesn't quite live up to its lofty expectations and doesn't deliver the same level of product experience that you get with the iPad. Still, there are things to like about the Xoom, and for some people, this will be the tablet they've been waiting for. See if you're one of them.

Photo gallery

Motorola Xoom: Unboxing and comparison photos

Specifications

  • Carrier: Verizon Wireless
  • OS: Android 3.0 (Honeycomb)
  • Processor: NVIDIA Tegra 2 Dual Core 1GHz
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: 32GB internal
  • Display: 10.1-inch WXGA 1280x800, 160 dpi
  • Battery: Lithium-ion polymer with 3250 mAh capacity
  • Ports: Micro USB, Micro HDMI, 3.5mm headset
  • Weight: 25.75 ounces (730 grams)
  • Dimensions: 9.8(h) x 6.6(w) x 0.51(h) inches
  • Camera: 5MP with auto-focus, dual LED flash, 8x digital zoom; 2MP front-facing
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, aGPS, digital compass, ambient light sensor, gyroscope, barometer
  • Keyboard: Virtual QWERTY
  • Networks: CDMA 800/1900MHz; upgradeable to LTE 700MHz
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • Tethering: Mobile Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Price: $799 (no contract) or $599 (with 2-year contract)

Who is it for?

For Android developers and devout Android fans, the Xoom is a long-awaited device that provides some exciting glimpses into the direction Google is headed with Android. For those who want a more PC-like experience on a multitouch tablet than what you get with the iPad (which has more of a mobile device experience), then the Xoom may be the device you're looking for -- especially if you want a tablet but have previously been unhappy with the ones running a version of Windows. Of course, those lusting after an iPad but avoiding the walled garden of the Apple ecosystem may be attracted to the Xoom as well.

What problems does it solve?

While we've seen Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the various Archos devices, those are basically oversized screens running a smartphone OS. Android 3.0 Honeycomb is Google's first tablet-optimized version of Android and the Xoom is the first Honeycomb device to hit the market. In essence, this is the first Google tablet. It's also the first major 10-inch tablet running Android, matching the 9.7-inch iPad.

Standout features

  • Native tablet UI - I've had my doubts about whether Google was serious about building a great tablet OS, but Honeycomb delivers a very usable and likable experience -- when you're in the native UI and the native apps and widgets that Google has built to work in Honeycomb. The UI is very smooth and works especially well in landscape mode, which Google has made the default on its tablet OS. The native widgets work well, and are a key advantage over the iPad. I especially like the ability to stack useful widgets next to each with plenty of room to spare on the large screen. It gives a more desktop-like feel. The email app, Web browser, and Google Talk apps offer an excellent experience that has been thoroughly customized for a tablet view. The Google Books app has the best UI of any ebook app I've seen, with nice touches like a night reading mode.
  • Web browsing experience - Along with widgets, the biggest advantage the Xoom has over the iPad is Web browsing. The Xoom offers tabbed browsing so that you can quickly and easily flip between Web pages like you do on a desktop. However, my favorite part of Xoom browsing is the thumb controls. You simply hold down your thumb on the edge of the screen and semi-circle menu overlay pops up and lets you open a new tab, bookmark the page, go back or forward, refresh, and more (see screenshot here). Quick tip: In order to turn this on you have to go to Settings | Labs | Quick Controls. The other advantage for the Xoom is that the Android browser supports Flash, but surprisingly, Flash support was not included with the Xoom at launch. It is promised for a future software update.
  • Performance - Nearly everything is fast on the Xoom -- the UI animations, search, loading videos, flipping through photos, pulling up Web pages (with a good Internet connection), etc. With a dual core NVIDIA Tegra 2 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and some good video chips, this thing has plenty of horsepower. And, even with all of that power, battery life doesn't suffer. The Xoom's battery life isn't quite as good as the iPad, but it still approaches 10 hours.

What's wrong?

  • Too much stuff is missing - My feeling is that Motorola and Google pushed the Xoom out of the nest a little too soon. It needed longer to develop before it was ready to fly. I've already mentioned the fact that Flash doesn't work in the Xoom browser (at launch), which is odd since Flash works in Android 2.2 and 2.3. A future software update is promised to fix that. The Xoom's MicroSD card doesn't work at launch. That's also promised to be fixed in a future software update. This first version of the Xoom is 3G-only but is ready to be upgraded to Verizon's 4G LTE network, except that in order to get the upgrade customers will have to mail the Xoom to Motorola to install the new chip. There are also too many times when the Xoom gives strange error messages or simply locks up or certain elements crash. Motorola and Google would have been better off waiting until early summer to release this, once the Flash and MicroSD issues were worked out, the other bugs were fixed, and LTE could have been loaded on every Xoom by default.
  • App experience is a letdown - Google didn't do a very good job of lining up app developers to update their apps for the tablet experience before launching the Xoom. As a result, there were only 16 tablet-ready apps when the Xoom launched. That number is growing and there are some really nice apps -- like CNN, AccuWeather, Pulse News Reader, and USA Today -- but it's not enough to make the Xoom very useful. And even some of the tablet-optimized apps like the Amazon Kindle app are still very rough around the edges. As a result, you end up using apps optimized for smaller screens and that get badly stretched when you open them on the Xoom. I wish Honeycomb would let you open these apps in smaller smartphone-sized windows and then you could use 2-3 of them side-by-side, cut-and-paste between them, and multitask.
  • Data plan is overpriced - In the US, the Xoom is available on Verizon Wireless with a badly-overpriced data plan. For $20/month you get 1GB of data ($20 for each GB over that). You can also get plans for 3GB ($35), 5GB ($50), and 10GB ($80), and with those three plans you'll pay $10 for each extra GB that you use each month. For a device like this that is made for downloading and consuming lots of media files (Web pages, photos, movies, music, etc.), that's a paltry amount of data. The situation will get even worse when the Xoom has 4G LTE capability, since you can download a lot more stuff a lot faster on LTE.

Bottom line for business

In the technology industry, we don't give products an "A" for effort. Things iterate too quickly. That's why it's tough to recommend the Motorola Xoom. There's just too much unfinished business on this tablet, plus it's roughly $100 more expensive than a comparable iPad 2 model.

Unless you're an Android developer, a devout Android fan, or a bleeding edge IT professional who wants to get an early jump on Android 3.0 Honeycomb, then I'd steer clear of the Xoom -- at least until everything gets cleaned up, LTE 4G is shipping as part of the standard package, and the price drops by at least $100.

Even then, Android is going to need a lot more really good tablet apps in order to compete effectively against the iPad, which has quickly become a favorite among business professionals for its approachability and plethora of software. Once it gets finished and gets more apps, the Xoom could be in the same league with the iPad. Most buyers should avoid it until then.

Competitive products

Where to get more info

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Mobility, Google, Hardware, iPad, Laptops, Tablets

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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