Review: Motorola XOOM, brimming with unrealized potential

Summary:There has not been a single Android device yet to hit the market with as much potential as the Motorola XOOM; sadly, it is unrealized potential in its current state.

Motorola delighted CES attendees in January with the unveiling of the XOOM, the first tablet running Google's Honeycomb version of Android optimized for bigger devices. It raced to get the XOOM released and as the first legitimate Android tablet to market, it has potential written all over it.

The XOOM will be the first tablet with Verizon's 4G (LTE) connectivity integrated when Motorola gets the hardware upgrade ready to release in the future. It will have the ability to augment the installed memory with a microSD card, when the software is upgraded to enable it. With Honeycomb onboard, it will be able to run thousands of apps optimized for the tablet screen, when they are written and released to the Android Market. The web browser will offer a desktop-like user experience, when Flash (though promised in January) is finally released. There has not been a single Android device yet with so much potential; unfortunately, it is unrealized potential in its current state.

Check out the extensive Motorola XOOM photo gallery


Image Gallery: Check out the extensive Motorola XOOM photo gallery with Honeycomb.
Image Gallery: XOOM
Image Gallery: XOOM

Hardware:
  • CPU: Nvidia Tegra 2, 1 GHZ dual core
  • Memory: 32 GB
  • Storage: microSD (not yet enabled)
  • Display: 10.1-inch, 1280x800, 150 dpi
  • OS: Android 3.0 (Honeycomb)
  • Slots/ ports: microUSB, miniHDMI, microSD, audio, SIM (LTE)
  • Battery: integrated, 24.5 W/hr
  • Connectivity: WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth, 4G (LTE 700, not enabled), CDMA 800/1900
  • Cameras: 2.0 MP (front), 5 MP rear, digital zoom, autofocus, dual LED flash
  • Dimensions: 9.8 x 6.6 x 0.5 inches, 1.6 lbs.

The XOOM is well constructed out of black anodized aluminum with a soft coating to improve the grip. The edges are gently curved giving the XOOM a nice feel. The bezel around the 10.1-inch screen is narrow which can make holding it for extended periods in portrait orientation a bit difficult without touching the screen and triggering unintentional events. Otherwise the XOOM feels solid to hold and easy to operate with a soft touch.

All of the ports are on the bottom of the device when in landscape orientation which feels a bit awkward at times. Motorola decided not to use the microUSB standard for the charging cable, using a thin proprietary connection instead. This charging stem feels very flimsy and requires care to not put pressure which would likely result in damage. The microUSB port included is for connecting to a PC only, and will not charge the XOOM.

The 2MP webcam on the top front of the device (landscape orientation) is good for video conferencing using the included Google Talk app with video enabled. Calls are of decent quality and the camera captures good video. The rear camera can be used to take both still photos and 720p HD video. The quality of the shots taken with this 5MP camera are OK, but not outstanding. The Honeycomb camera app that runs the cameras has a lot of features and is fun to use.

Next to the camera on the back of the XOOM is the power button, which is an odd placement. I quickly got accustomed to this position, and the power button has a solid feel that makes it clear when the button has been pressed. The two stereo speakers are also on the back of the device, and are capable of playing quite loudly with minor distortion noticeable at higher volumes.

The only controls on either side of the XOOM are the volume up/down buttons on the left side. These buttons are extremely small, making them hard to hit decisively. Turning the volume down quickly is harder than it needs to be which would be avoided with larger buttons.

The XOOM can be rotated to any of the four orientations to fit personal preference, and the display autorotates smoothly. This screen rotation happens quickly, although lag is detected once several apps are running at once.

This lag occurs more frequently than I would expect, and sets in after a few apps are running at once. The dual-core Tegra processor is a very fast CPU, but the XOOM regularly bogs down with several things running. This will need to be addressed, either in updates to Honeycomb or by Motorola.

Honeycomb and apps »

Software

The Honeycomb OS is the real story of the XOOM, as it is the first device to market running this version of Android. It features a whole new look and feel, with an interface designed to better use the bigger screen of the tablet. Overall it works well and is fun to use, with some minor inconsistencies in the interface doing different tasks. This review is not intended to be a comprehensive look at Honeycomb, that has already been done. If that's of interest don't miss the detailed look at Honeycomb done by Slashgear. This review will focus on the usability of the Honeycomb system.

Gone are the hardware buttons present on every Android device prior to the XOOM, and these are now represented by soft buttons on the lower right of the screen. These buttons are the Back and Home functions of old, with the addition of a button that calls up the running tasks bar. Switching to another running task is as simple as hitting the soft button and then tapping the desired app, represented by a thumbnail preview of the app window.

The search function, previously accessible via a hardware button in Android, now is accomplished via another set of soft buttons located in the upper left corner of the home screen. There is a microphone icon to trigger search by voice.

In the upper right corner of the home screen there are two soft buttons, one to access the installed applications (Apps) and another to add widgets and shortcuts to the home screens. This process has been optimized in Honeycomb to make it easier to accomplish.

In the lower right corner of the home screen is where most of the action takes place. This is the notification area, where Honeycomb signals you when email arrives, app updates are available and other situations that need your attention. Tapping the notification icon for Gmail pops up an overview of one received email at a time, making it a snap to triage multiple email without opening the app. Next to the notification area is the clock and status indicators showing 3G/WiFi signal and battery strength.

Google has updated several of its core apps for Honeycomb, and these improvements are nice on the big screen. These updates include the Gmail, Maps, YouTube and Music apps. All have improved interfaces designed to make use on the tablet much better.

Unfortunately, while some third party apps are prone to crash under Honeycomb, even Google's core apps exhibit problems regularly. I have used the XOOM heavily for over a week, and every session longer than 15 minutes is likely to have at least one app crash, the system hanging up or the entire system rebooting. This can happen while running a Google app as easily as a third party app. The overall impression is that Honeycomb is not quite ready for heavy use yet.

We should see a continual growth in the number of tablet apps in the Android Market. This is the area that will be exciting to watch unfold, and will increase the worth of the XOOM as it happens. There are only a few tablet apps currently available, but some of those (CNN app) are quite nice.

The Tegra processor is particularly good at handling graphics intensive apps, and while there are not a lot of games that take advantage of this yet I tested a couple that played very well. Video playback is quite good too as you would expect. As more games get released for Honeycomb, the XOOM should be quite the gaming machine.

Should you buy one? »

Conclusion and recommendation

The Motorola XOOM hardware is very well executed, and when LTE is enabled it will be the fastest mobile device around. Both the XOOM and Honeycomb show great potential to turn the tablet into a great mobile device. While a tad heavy for prolonged use in the hand, the XOOM is otherwise comfortable and fun to use. The display is beautiful and the Honeycomb interface looks gorgeous.

The problems I encountered using the XOOM can be attributed to the newness of Honeycomb. These will no doubt be remedied with updates by Google and Motorola, and I suspect the system will be a solid product in the not-to-distant future. Unfortunately, at $799 the XOOM is awfully expensive to be in essence a beta test device, and I can't recommend buying the XOOM until the issues get addressed.

Motorola will be providing the free hardware upgrade to enable the Verizon 4G capability soon, but it will require sending the device in to the factory for at least a week. That's a potential nightmare in the event the upgrade doesn't go smoothly. For that reason, I would recommend that those considering buying the XOOM wait until the shipping units have the hardware upgrade in place. That will also give Google time to get things in Honeycomb settled down a bit to minimize the frequent crashes.

If you are an early adopter who likes to have the latest and greatest, then the XOOM will serve you well if you're willing to put up with the growing pains I have covered. I suspect you will see the XOOM/Honeycomb combo mature nicely, and quickly at that. If however you are not one to tolerate the frustrations that a first look device like the XOOM provides, you're better off with the iPad 2.

I have no doubt the Motorola XOOM will live up to the great potential I can see in the device, but it needs a little more time. I would wait before pulling out my credit card.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Laptops, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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