Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

Summary: The Motorola Xoom is the first tablet computer to use Google Android 3.0 Honeycomb. Is it ready to rival Apple's iPad? Read on.

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At long last, here is a worthy competitor to the Apple iPad: the Motorola Xoom. It's not a reasonable one (more on that in a minute). It is most certainly a formidable one. But it has arrived nonetheless, leaving an electroluminescent wake in its path.

It certainly took long enough. Apple's "magical, revolutionary" savior was announced nearly a year ago, giving the iGods in Cupertino yet again a year without challenge to test the waters of a market that until now simply didn't exist.

(And test they did: the company sold a million of the things in 28 days. And on the 29th day, God rested.)

We've seen this film before, with the iPhone in 2007. At the time, it took the good folks at Google almost two years to come up with a competitor, the T-Mobile G1, which was at once underwhelming and wonderfully exciting.

Now, three years later, we have the Xoom. It arrives in a cardboard box no bigger than a hardcover cookbook. Its emotionless 10.1-inch widescreen display leaves no hint as to what secrets the artifact holds. A lift with an index finger takes a surprising amount of strain. It may be just a half-inch thick in the center, but at 1.6 lbs., it weighs in as heavy as a paperback copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. (Imagine hauling that back and forth to the office.)

Discovering how to turn it on is no easier for the user than for a 16-year-old fooling around with a date in the back of his father's Malibu. Thankfully, closer inspection reveals a shallow plastic disc of a power button on the back side, hidden among the hardware for the 5-megapixel camera lens. (There's another 2-megapixel pinhole on the front side.)

But we persist nonetheless. Technological promise awaits, after all! At first, a whisper: a red Motorola logo and a "dual core technology" insignia. A ripple of digitized honeycomb follows. The excitement builds. Suddenly, a new image: the date, time and a glowing lock with a halo around it. Silence. Nothing happens. It has ended before it ever begun.

This Xoom, she is a cold mistress. She leaves the user no instructions on how to get started, no suggestive text, no digital hand to hold. A light touch on the padlock icon makes yet another appear -- this one unlocked! -- and a curious tap on its twin pulls back the curtains.

Now wait just one moment -- this is Google Android? Why yes, it is, but an all-new version, 3.0, nicknamed "Honeycomb" and built expressly for tablet use. The icons look vaguely familiar but nearly everything else that is presented to the user is new: in the bottom left corner, icons of arrows pointing left and up and a series of boxes; in the right corner, a grid with the word "apps" next to it and a simple plus sign. A glowing blue clock rests in the center of the screen, flanked by six fingertip-sized icons (Browser, Gmail, Talk, Music, Books, Market) and a swipe of the finger reveals widgets and more icons hidden on other screens. It's like a futuristic haunted house: eerily quiet, altogether empty, with many glowing doors to unlock.

But oh, what awaits behind those doors. a browser that is Chrome-like in all the best ways, a dual-pane Gmail client that instantly upgrades the long-free service, a multimedia player that's taken its fair share of Aero Flips in the lab, and a "Books" app that offers a page-flipping satisfaction not yet seen on Android to date.

For all of these, the Xoom is eminently capable. Its 1Ghz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor keeps interstitial animations mostly jitter-free during the most intense of multitasking activity, including Maps navigation and playback for both music and the 720p video the Xoom is capable of capturing and displaying.

But a trip around town reveals that this digital dish, while whipped up with panache and skill, is not yet fully baked. That is to say that the Xoom's distinctive interface is both a fascinating exercise in imaginative thinking and a baffling hindrance. Navigation is too often not where it's supposed to be. Important functions and menus are hidden away beyond the reach of a finger. Notifications disappear into the ether.

True, this is not your father's computer, but this is not your son's, either. Sometimes, it feels like it's from another planet altogether.

The hardware is in a different boat, but one headed in the same direction. The aforementioned power button is certainly within reach for most people, but you will spend lots of time aimlessly pressing against the Xoom's metal backing in search of it. (Or, to the disappointment of more creative types, smearing your skin's oils all over the camera lens.) Volume buttons don't quite protrude enough for fat fingers. And the Xoom's 1280x800-pixel WXGA display, while powerfully bright, is not quite as crisp as it should be.

This is nitpicking, of course. Much of what you see and feel is on par with the best on the market, and thankfully, the form factor of the device is much more in line with Cupertino's offering, which is a testament to the seeds of industry agreement on how users are expected to use slate-style tablets: for multimedia consumption. (For the Xoom, it's preferably of the high-definition video kind. Apple's device strikes a happy medium between print and video sources; Samsung's Galaxy Tab, none of the above.)

The device is equally as capable an e-reader, and its agnostic approach to direction means you can hold it any way you please. Just don't set it on your lap, or you may never hear the dialogue to that episode of Mad Men you're watching. (Apparently, the audio engineers thought that the best sound should emanate directly out the back of the device, much to my dog's chagrin.)

However, to the delight of business partners and grandmothers everywhere, the Xoom comes equipped to handle face-to-face videoconferencing, via the Google Talk application. It's out-of-the-box functionality, and in testing worked without fail over a Verizon Wireless 3G connection. The only snag: while incoming video quality was acceptable, outgoing is so bad that it makes a Connectix Quickcam Color look like a RED ONE, rendering my expressive Boston Terrier as a series of black and white splotches on a Macbook Air.

But no matter -- it can be done. And it's far more pleasing than using a smartphone for the purpose.

If there is one banner moment for the Xoom, it's in the battery department. The device took an astounding nine hours to discharge. It is difficult to convey how delightful it is to play music and browse the Internet and watch videos of cats playing keyboards without so much as a dip in battery life, but I assure you, I spent Sunday afternoon working very, very hard to bring you this review.

Which leaves us with one last point: price. The Motorola Xoom costs $800, a difficult-to-swallow sum for anyone but the most fervent early adopters. If you add up the kind of technology you're getting for that price, it more than makes sense. But there are two major potholes in the Xoom's way: first, that its execution is not as refined as the market leader in the space; second, that the market leader starts $300 cheaper, for a number of reasons that include a series of savvy moves to vertically integrate production.

This is a pair of tough lumps for Motorola, freshly independent from its corporate telecom sibling and aiming to prove its moxie to the mobile industry. But there's an upside: an $800 tablet comes before a $600 tablet, which comes before a $400 tablet. The more tablets on the market, the more competition, the more prices are driven down, the more commoditized it becomes. The iPad was, and is, a benchmark for the industry. But it cannot, and will not, stand alone for much longer. And judging by what many of you readers have told me in private conversation, there exists tremendous interest in a Google tablet. For you, the market is simply too early to invest at this juncture. When the time comes, Motorola will no doubt be prepared with an even better device.

Is the Xoom the first evidence of Android, all grown up? Not quite. Despite an impressive array of hardware statistics and a novel new approach to user interface, there are many wrinkles still left to iron. With the Xoom, one can't help but feel after a session with it that the device in some way left the factory a few days too soon -- accomplished, with direction but without the experience to execute flawlessly, like a college graduate still wearing her mortarboard.

But make no mistake: this is by far the most impressive Android device to date. And it arrives to the party far, far more prepared than its forebears.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Laptops, Tablets

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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78 comments
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  • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

    Wow! What a clear example of what I assume is an Apple Fanboy looking for excuses to pan a good device merely because it dares to be different from the ipad! All this confusion about how to start it and operate it is blather -- it comes with very clear directions and I've not heard of others who had so much confusion they would have needed half an article to describe them -- true there are those who don't like the placement of the on/off button but none of the seemed to have so much problem finding it. And where does the positive qualities get their due? This article is not worthy of ZNet!
    Brucewilsonpa
    • Nah. He pretty much said what most everyone else

      is saying about Honeycomb. Slow, confusing, cluttered and underwhelming, but with potential. He just said it more colorfully.
      fr_gough
      • And barely mentioned it is unfinished

        @frgough@...

        A bit sentence at the end. The Xoom was shipped 6 months early and, if they hit sale predictions, comes with a 100,000,000 USD liability in a built in recall to replace/add missing hardware. Most of its supposed advantages are not even working yet. 4G? Micro-SD? Flash? The list goes on.
        Bruizer
      • don't get it either.. think he was fair and complementary to moto..

        @frgough@, @Brucewilsonpa... he basically said.. power button and speaker placement aside, that hardware wise.. i.e. Motorola's contribution.. is pretty good...<br><br>Software wise.. Google's contribution is a bit of a dog's breakfast though.. and not yet ready for prime time... but attractive and has potential<br><br>When i first looked at honeycomb i thought.. hmm.. doesn't seem too bad.. a bit gnarish, tacky.. kitschy.. but not bad.. <br><br>but then my UI designer with 12yrs experience hat went on.. as i started to see people use it and demo it, it became clear.. its design at the most basic level is fundamentally flawed.. its actually designed such that it maximize the distance one's fingers need to travel to do different sorts of activities i.e. different sorts of activities are spread in the four corners of the device (diagonal is the longest distance than can be traversed).. so yeah, you can be different as long as you are different for a reason and not different at the cost of usability and learnability.. when you see people using the device, right away you see this.. tonnes and tonnes of hand movement back and forth to do the simplest, most basic sorts things.. look at iOS and WebOS for tablets.. almost all controls found along the top.. less often along the bottom.. simple.. this means that finger travel is less in general and slightly farther when you are slowed down anyway... i could go through the gamut of smaller things.. things like i now takes one more click to get to the app tray than before.. they're actually going backwards and reducing efficiency instead of improving it... but i think that the basic layout error is a huge glaring error and a very amateurish mistake.. they obviously got carried away with eye candy and forgot the basics.. they had the WebOS designer working on it, but i think they didn't have the rest of his team for sober second though..
        doctorSpoc
        • cont..

          @frgough@, @Brucewilsonpa... the point about the unlock is that for iOS the unlock is self-documenting, honeycomb it is not at all.. it's a sort of puzzle.. people don't want a puzzle people just want to turn the thing on... iOS is used by everyone from 1.5yrs old to 100 yrs old (my 1.5yr old uses one almost everyday).. educated and uneducated, technical or non-technical.. you actually have the words and you have an arrow.. everyone gets that.. iOS is easy and approachable to use and learn.. honeycomb is WAY busier, complex and inconsistent at times.. i hear people saying that it more of a desktop experience.. and i think that might be its downfall.. what i think many are missing is that iOS for iPad has been a success precisely because it has dispensed with the complexity and maintenance requirement of desktop OSs and gone beyond iOS for iPhone just enough that make sense.. iPads success is a testament to the fact that the majority of people have rejected the desktop's complexity, bloat and maintenance requirements.. regular people.. 99% of people.. people that don't come to tech forms like this.. are tired of the BS of traditional OSs and top for a simple, pared down, virtually maintenance free computing experience.. and they get that with an iPad.. honeycomb just has way too much going on.. i don't think i could just hand it to my 1.5yr old or my grand mother or my mother and they'd know what to do with it..
          doctorSpoc
      • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

        @doctorSpoc
        You spend an incredibly long time pretending to be knowledgable. Really?,you have 12 years of UI ex. and have watched people fiddling with Honeycomb enough to know their problems with it.
        Do you work at Best Buy and update your myspace page in your spare time or something?
        I mean, I'm not arguing for Xoom here, but I hate it when people add fake credentials to support an argument that almost always eventually morphs into some sort of selling point for another product (that they probably own and want to reassure temselves that they made the right choice).
        Which by the way, brand loyalty is just an excuse for complacency and stupidity.
        nickmcel
      • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

        @frgough@... Agree. And between the two, the software is much easier to upgrade down the road than the hardware. How quickly people forget what the initial release of iOS was like all those years ago. I wrote evaluations of that first iPhone which ran into several pages just on its shortcomings. It took several patches before the OS stopped crashing on the majority of applications I ran. While I enjoy my current 3GS, that first iPhone was a definite love-hate relationship. In 6 months, the Xoom will likely be patched into full usefulness.
        BillDem
      • i know what your talking about but you are wrong in this case... lol..

        @nickmcel... i have a BSc in Industrial Design, but have worked as a User Interface Designers for 12yrs for a large multi-national, designing Network Management software. Pretty much established as the most complex systems you can work on as a user interface designer.. i know what i'm talking about..
        doctorSpoc
    • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

      @Brucewilsonpa
      I have to agree with you. I purchased the Xoom on Thursday and had never used Android before. I was able to figure it out very quickly. The quick book that came with it covers where everything is in 2 pages so the original review here seems a bit out of touch.
      dcm2010
      • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

        @dcm2010 If it needs a manual, it failed.
        kent42
    • hey, smart guy! Flash in NOT on honeycomb out of the box.. LMAO..

      @i2fun@... time to wake up and smell the coffee.. it's not on there.. it won't be available for probably another month, it has no SD card support, no 4G support.. all these supposed advantages are not shipping with the product.. this IS a product that was birthed prematurely for sure...<br><br>and this 2011 device still only gets just over 1/2 the battery life as the 1yr old iPad 1.0.. has only a handful of tablet specific apps..
      doctorSpoc
    • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

      @i2fun@... comment for the doc... your math sucks lol. All the reviews say xoom 8-10 hours battery. The original iPad battery life 9-10 hours. How is that 50% less back to school for you lmao
      technobubble
    • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

      @Brucewilsonpa <br>This review is pretty consistent, and falls right in line with how the majority feels in regards to the software and hardware of the Xoom. Even Android sites review that the software felt unfinished and that there was something missing. If Moto plans to sell a decent amount of these, the price NEEDS to come down to be more competitive with the iPad. If the iPad 2 comes out less expensive than the Xoom then this Android tablet is in trouble.
      pablo.station
      • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

        @pablo.station Missing, unfinished? Compared to the iPad? Really? What specifically? When you are used to an OS like the iOS that forces you to do things in a certain way, I can see why you might feel it's unfinished. It feels like it's unfinished because you have choices. There isn't just one way to do something. The simple fact of having widgets on your home screen is much much much better than the limited functionality of icon aliases.

        Why aren't people reflecting backwards towards the iOS now and saying how limited the iOS feels now?
        mrxxxman
      • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

        @pablo.station Why does the price need to come down for something that does much more than the ipad?
        The_Omega_Man
    • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

      @doctorSpoc: the fact that it would even have the support for this stuff is worth it already. Over 1/2 the battery life but over a dozen more features and a better OS overall. thanks for playing.
      adriankeith@...
    • iPad gets 10hrs pure **VIDEO**... just general use is like 2 days..

      @i2fun@... look at Walt Mosberg's review.. 11.5hrs of straight looping video.. vs 7.5 for Xoom..

      i see manufactures are quoting 7 - 8hrs.. but they are being disingenuous... because of Apple's 10hr, backed up claim... but that is for 10hrs of solid video playback..

      Walter S. Mossberg

      "I performed the same battery test on the Xoom as I have on other tablets. I played video constantly with the connectivity turned on and the screen at almost full brightness until the battery died. Alas, while the Xoom claims up to 10 hours of video playback, I got just 7 hours and 32 minutes. By contrast, on the same test, the iPad, which also claims 10 hours, logged 11.5 hours, or four hours more."

      http://ptech.allthingsd.com/20110223/motorolas-xoom-starts-tablet-wars-with-ipad/?mod=ATD_skybox
      doctorSpoc
      • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

        @doctorSpoc And that was on a new battery right?

        How is this 50% of the ipad?

        Also, the Xoom does do real multi-tasking, so i'm sure that some battery life is being consumed by other apps or processes.
        The_Omega_Man
    • RE: Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

      Its better than an Ipad(I own an Ipad) It will support Flash and 100% of the internet,
      rparker009
      • I thought I'd miss Flash

        @rparker009 ...but I don't. There are sites requesting that player but they are often badly designed anyway. Forget about it, they will have to open 'cause from what I know, flash doesn't work much on androids neither, does it...<br><br>But I never really relied on flash-based entertainment sites, so it's not much loss for me when browsing with iPad. Except this one:)
        Ondrax