Motorola Xoom review: Google Android reaches adolescence

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.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

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.

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