Hands on with the Motorola Xoom: Five initial insights

The Motorola Xoom is more of a PC replacement than the iPad, but it still has some frayed edges that need to be evened out before most early adopters will want to jump on board.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

I typically take about a week to use a product before I'm ready to write a product review. At the very least, I prefer to use it extensively for several days. I recently asked my readers about that approach and got confirmation that you appreciate the extra hands-on time, since most of you aren't planning to purchase the average tech product on launch day.

However, a few of you said that you'd be interested in me writing a "first impressions" post near the product launch and then follow up with a full product review after I've put it through its paces. I've decided to give that a try with some of the biggest and most anticipated tech products. The first one that fits that meets that standard is the Motorola Xoom, the first Google tablet based on Android 3.0 "Honeycomb."

Below are my initial insights about the Xoom from my first three days with the device. Next week I will publish my full review.

1. It's more of a PC replacement

Within my first couple hours of using the Xoom, after downloading some of my favorite Android apps and widgets and trying to do a bunch of common tasks, I immediately started to have the feeling that this is much more like a full PC experience than the iPad. The iPad is basically an app machine. Everything that it does has to be contained within an app. Android widgets have always been a nice feature on smartphones, but with the extra screen real estate on a 10-inch tablet like the Xoom they become even more useful. The ability to have a lot of at-a-glance information and favorite functions at your fingertips gives the Xoom a more desktop-like feel. Other things add to the desktop-like experience as well. You have more direct access to the file system in Android, so I was able to take a photo (see it here) on the Xoom and then go to the Flickr site in the Web browser and upload that photo just like I would on a PC. You can't do that on an iPad. The Web browser also has a more PC-like feel because of the tabbed browsing. Combine that with the tablet-optimized thumb controls (see those here) and the Xoom has a solid advantage over the iPad in terms of Web browsing.

2. The UI is better than expected

I didn't have very high expectations from Google when I heard that the company was working on a tablet version of Android. My initial impressions of Android when it was first released in 2008 were very poor. It was a badly unfinished OS. The 2.0 version that came along with the Motorola Droid in 2009 was a marked improvement that essentially brought Android out of beta and launched the Android revolution. Still, the OS was much more functional than flashy or ground-breaking. It was largely an iPhone clone with a handful of its own innovations (primarily widgets). In the past, I've even questioned Google's commitment to building a high-quality OS. However, the company has raised its game with Android 3.0 Honeycomb. I suspect a lot of it has to do with Google hiring Matias Duarte (the design chief behind Palm webOS) and making him the Director of User Experience for Android. Honeycomb is one of Duarte's first big projects and the Android 3.0 UI has a very pleasant experience that is not just a copy of the iPad. It looks great, flows well, is generally pretty intuitive (even though it departs from past Android conventions), and introduces some UI ideas aimed at tablets (like the browser thumb controls).

3. Needs more tablet-optimized apps and widgets

The biggest disappointment with the Motorola Xoom is that very few apps and widgets are optimized for the tablet experience. There are a few good ones that show what the tablet is capable, such as the CNN, AccuWeather, and Google Books apps and some of Google's home-grown widgets, but a lot of the other apps end up looking like badly stretched smartphone apps, including the Kindle app. Google has only recently launched its final development kit for Android 3.0 Honeycomb, so Android software makers haven't had much time to adapt their apps (compared to the two months of lead time that Apple gave developers before the iPad launch). I expect that Android developers will catch up pretty quickly and produce some good software, but the early app experience is a bit of a letdown.

4. Functionality is still a little buggy

As I mentioned above, the 1.0 experience for Android smartphones was a mess. I feared that the first tablet version of Android might repeat that experience. Thankfully, it didn't. The core functionality of Honeycomb is quite good. That said, there are still times when things don't work correctly or as expected. There are instances where you have press things several times to make them work or you get a strange error message or things unexpectedly shut down. This is especially the case in some of the apps. For example, I downloaded and opened the social app Seesmic, but when I tried to hit the button to add an account, nothing happens. I'm sure these annoyances will be fixed in the next few months but it serves as a caveat emptor for early adopters.

5. Price overshadows the technology

As much as there is to like about the Motorola Xoom and as much as it provides a refreshingly alternative to what a multitouch tablet can do, the one factor that casts a long shadow over the product is its price. The Verizon-subsidized version of the Xoom with a 2-year contract costs $600 (the forthcoming Wi-Fi version of the Xoom will also cost $600) while the unsubsidized version of the Xoom costs $800. Both versions of the Xoom are essentially $100 more expensive than the comparable (unsubsidized) iPad models. Some will argue that the Xoom has much stronger specs than the iPad but that's in comparison to last year's 1.0 iPad. The iPad 2.0 tablet will hit the market in the coming months and will likely provide upgraded specs for the same price and Apple could choose to continue to sell the existing iPad for an even lower price. That will put a lot of pressure on the Motorola Xoom and other upcoming Honeycomb tablets that start at a price point over $500. If the Motorola Xoom had been able to undercut the iPad on price, I think it would have had a great chance to earn a big chunk of market share. However, at the current price, it will mostly be relegated to a niche device.

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

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