The Xoom is a handsomely built tablet, though at a glance, you'll think you've seen this before. Maybe it's that little can be done within the constraints of the tablet form factor (or Motorola isn't really trying), but the general shape and build of the Xoom comes off looking just a teensy bit like the iPad's longer, more dangerous cousin. The back and sides of the device are a similar, machined metal (though Verizon's version is painted a matte black, which is a real fingerprint magnet), the corners are similarly curved, and the front is, of course, all screen. That's not to say the Xoom isn't good looking -- it is -- but there isn't much original going on with the general industrial design that's at play here. And that's okay by us.
At 9.8 inches wide by 6.6 inches tall (with a thickness of a half inch), the device isn't massive (albeit a little unwieldy when held in portrait), and its 1.5 pound weight gives it heft without killing your arms -- though it still strains your muscles a bit if you're holding the tablet up for an extended period of time.
The Xoom is clearly meant to be used in landscape mode more than portrait (though it can be rotated any way you prefer). If you're holding the tablet in that orientation, you'll find the front facing camera sitting dead-center between the Motorola and Verizon logos along the top of the glass display. On the left side of the device, there are two volume buttons; along the top is a slot for a future LTE SIM and microSD card (more on that in a moment); on the bottom you'll find a Micro USB and mini HDMI jack, along with dock sensors. Around the back of the device, Motorola has weirdly chosen to place the power / sleep button next to the camera lens and flash -- and those components are flanked by stereo speakers. We had a lot of issues with both the volume buttons and power button on the device; we found the volume keys difficult to find and use as they're extremely shallow and placed right next to a notch in the casing of the device. The power button was even worse; we didn't mind the placement so much, but like the volume buttons the single, small circle is extremely shallow -- and worse, it got stuck a number of times when we were using it! Instead of waking the device up or putting it to sleep, we were prompted to shut down the Xoom. Hopefully this is just a random issue with our unit, but it didn't give us warm and fuzzy feelings about the build quality.
Internals / display / sound quality / battery life
As we said in the intro, the guts of the Xoom are more than competitive -- and performance on the device was really quite brisk. We did experience some slowdown when transferring files from our computer or jumping quickly between lots of apps, but we were blown away by the robustness and speed of applications like the browser and some of the included games. The general responsiveness of the UI and touch reaction was inline with the best the iPad exhibits. Besides that Tegra 2 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage, the device is equipped with WiFi 802.11b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, Verizon's EV-DO Rev. A, along with GPS, a light sensor, and an accelerometer. As we said in the intro, the device can be upgraded to use Verizon's LTE network. That upgrade will come in the form of a hardware swap which either Verizon or Motorola will have to do, meaning your tablet will go into the shop at some point (at least, that's what Motorola reps told us). Strangely, there's a microSD slot present on the device, but it's non-functioning at this point. When we pressed Motorola, the company made it sound like it was waiting on a software update from Google to enable the slot. Very strange stuff. What that means for right now is that you can buy a 32GB tablet... and that's it.
The display on the Xoom is slightly larger than the iPad's 9.7-inch screen, and higher resolution (1280 x 800 to Apple's 1024 x 768). The aspect ratio is substantially different as well, meaning that the Xoom feels a lot longer (or taller) than the iPad. In general, we felt portrait use was slightly uncomfortable given the size, but not in any way a dealbreaker. Though the screen does look nice, pixel density seemed to suffer -- a situation that was particularly evident when using the Google Books application. Still, the Xoom's display is more than capable at making game and video content look clear and crisp. One note, however -- Motorola's auto-brightness controls seem a little extreme to us here, forcing us to manually adjust the brightness most of the time. Hopefully a software update will come along which softens the severity with which it dims the screen; it was simply too dark for our tastes.
On the sound side of things, the Xoom could produce reasonably clear audio at a mid-level volume, but cranking the tablet up created some pretty nasty distortion on basic sounds, like the email notifications. We had to reduce the volume a number of times when we felt that the levels were actually doing damage to the speakers; we're all for loud, but it seems like Motorola (typically very solid in the audio department) might have bitten off more than it could chew here.
Battery life on the Xoom was excellent. Beyond excellent, actually -- some of the best performance we've seen on a slate. Running a video on loop with the screen set at 65 percent brightness, we were able to get playback for nearly eight and a half hours (8:20 to be exact). Motorola claims up to ten, so we weren't far off the mark at all. We had a few background tasks going on, and both WiFi and 3G radios were active. We could easily see maximizing this if you're in airplane mode with a slightly lower brightness setting.
There's no question that it's nice to have a 5 megapixel camera and LED flash on the back of the Xoom, but we found little utility in actually having a decent shooter on a device of this size. It's hard to imagine a scenario where you're using the Xoom as your main camera. Besides looking ridiculous, it's not all that convenient to handle something this large when you're trying to snap away. Another issue is the sheer glare of the screen -- shooting in daylight proved to be a challenge, and sometimes we couldn't even see the display well enough to snap a photo.
That said, the rear camera produced relatively good looking photos -- about the quality we've been seeing with the company's Atrix 4G -- though the interface in Honeycomb is about a million times better looking and more pleasant to use. Again, it is somewhat difficult to hold something of this size and take really steady shots, so we found the use of the Xoom as a camera almost completely impractical in most situations.
Video turned out well, and it's nice to be able to shoot 720p with a display of this size, though we did experience a few instances where the recording video stuttered or stopped completely -- and those defects were present during playback. The included Movie Studio software allows you to fairly easily edit your creations -- though it's by no means perfect -- but it was good of Google to include the package with this device (more on that in the software section).
As far as the front-facing camera goes, you should expect pretty standard stuff. We doubt you'll be using this for fashion shoots, but for hairstyling and video chats, it does the trick. Just the fact that it's there is pretty cool, really.
While the hardware of the Xoom is notable, it's not the real story. The real story is all about Android, and the next stage of its evolution -- namely Honeycomb. Version 3.0 of the mobile operating system represents a significant change for just about every aspect of the user interface, and some notable alterations under the surface as well. As we've extensively covered, UI wunderkind Matias Duarte left Palm to work for Google less than half a year ago, and seems to have immediately dived into the work that he does best -- reinventing user interfaces and user interaction for mobile devices.
The Honeycomb look and feel certainly has the work of a single mind written all over it -- while we know this is very much a team effort (something we discussed with Matias in our interview at CES
), it's also clear that someone is steering the ship with far more resolve than ever before witnessed in this OS. From a purely visual standpoint, Android 3.0 comes together in a far more cohesive manner than any previous iteration of the software, and the changes aren't just cosmetic. Much of the obscurity in the OS and arcane functions of this software have been jettisoned or drastically changed, making for an experience that is far more obvious to a novice user... though we wouldn't exactly describe it as simple.
From a visual standpoint, we could most easily explain that Android 3.0 looks very much like the world of Tron. Think soft focus neon and cold, hard digital angles. A homescreen which phases between panels with a blue, ghosting glow that represents your last and next page. When you place items on the homescreens, you see a distant patchwork of grid marks, and a vector outline of where your icon or widget will eventually land. Even in the app list, you see electric blue representations of your icons before the icons themselves. The effect is angular, but the feel is still very human -- like a cross between the "chromeless" environment of Windows Phone 7, and the photorealism of webOS or iOS. It absolutely works. From the overall look and feel down to the method in which you get widgets onto your pages or change the wallpaper, everything is new here.
Unlike Apple and it's single-minded iOS, however, Android is still filled with variables and choices which make general navigation a learning process, and even though Honeycomb has made huge inroads to making that process simpler, it's not 100 percent there. The general vibe of Android is still present here -- you have a series of homescreens which are scrollable, and can be loaded up with a variety of application shortcuts, folders, shortcuts, and widgets. Unlike most mobile OSs, Honeycomb places the status bar along the bottom of the device, and then fills the left side of that bar with the constant pieces of navigation you'll use to get around the OS.
Yes, gone are the hardware buttons of yesteryear -- 3.0 replaces the familiar home and back buttons with virtual incarnations, then adds a couple of extra pieces for good measure. Along with those two main buttons, Honeycomb introduces a multitasking icon which pops open a list of recently used apps along with a snapshot of their saved state. The back button is also a little more dynamic in 3.0, shifting between a straightforward back key, and a keyboard-hider when necessary. If your app utilizes the menu key on Android phones, you get an icon for that as well. The home button will take you back to your main views, but it can't get you to your apps. Instead, Honeycomb introduces a new (and somewhat confusing) button -- an "apps" icon which lives in the upper right hand corner of your device. You might think that comes in handy, but you can only access your app pages from the homescreen of the tablet, meaning that you have to use a two step process to get to your app list. We're not totally clear on why this isn't another button that lives along the bottom of the device with the rest of the navigation, and frankly it proved confusing when we were trying to get around the Xoom quickly.
On the right side of that status bar are your battery and time indicators, along with a pop-up area for notifications. The whole structure of the status bar feels weirdly like Windows. When you get a new email or Twitter mention, you're alerted in that righthand corner with an almost Growl-like box, which fades away quickly. When you tap on that space, you're given a time and battery window where you're also able to manage notifications (though strangely there's no option to clear all notifications). A settings button present there will also allow you to change your brightness and wireless settings, orientation lock, or jump to the full settings of the device. In all, it's a tremendously convenient piece of this new OS, but not a new OS trick by any means. The desktop feels alive and well in Honeycomb.
In applications like the browser -- which is now far more like a desktop version of Chrome (with proper tabs and all) -- you also get the sense that Google is taking a lot of cues from familiar places. Besides just offering bigger views and more real estate, there are drop down menus (located in the upper-right hand corner) and far more of the navigational items exposed. In fact, in all of the new native applications, there is no menu button present. All of the key elements of navigation are front and center, usually along the top of the app's display, which should make for an easier time when it comes to getting things done, but can create confusing situations. For instance, in Gmail, your items in the upper right of the app change based on the context; that's good for managing messages in one view, but creates some head-scratching moments in others. Worse, the back button (which you use frequently) is in the exact opposite corner, meaning that your gaze is constantly shifting between two places on the tablet -- two places that are furthest apart. The experience encourages a lot of eye-darting, which makes quickly managing tasks somewhat of a chore. We wish that Google had somehow combined the app navigation and tablet navigation into a more closely related space, so that instead of jumping from corner to corner, you were able to focusing on one place for operation of the app, and another for its content. We found ourselves having this same experience all over the Xoom.
On the plus side (and it is a big plus), the Xoom feels much more like a real netbook or laptop replacement. Being able to multitask in the manner Google has devised, having properly running background tasks, and real, unobtrusive notifications feels really, really good in the tablet form factor. Additionally, the fact that Google has included active widgets that plug right into things like Gmail makes monitoring and dealing with work (or play) much more fluid than on the iPad.
One other big note: a lot of the new software feels like it isn't quite out of beta (surprise surprise). We had our fair share of force closes and bizarre freezes, particularly in the Market app and Movie Studio. Most applications were fine, but there definitely some moments where we felt like the whole device was teetering on the brink of a total crash.
That said, there are some significant changes to stock applications and new additions to the family that we thought were worth a slightly deeper look, so here's a breakdown of what you can expect -- both old and new -- when you open the Xoom box.
We loved the browsing experience on the Xoom. The included app is (as we said) far more like a desktop version of Chrome, and if you're already using the software on your laptop or desktop, you'll feel right at home. Pages displayed quickly and cleanly on the tablet, though we have to admit that we're more than a little miffed that Flash support isn't present out of the box with the Xoom. Strange considering this is one of the real advantages Android devices have over Apple's offerings.
Despite our enjoyment, there were some maddening issues, like the fact that the browser still identifies as an Android phone, meaning most sites with a mobile view end up on your big, beautiful browser tab. Given how close this version is to the real Chrome, we're surprised Google wasn't a little more proactive about this.
Gmail has been completely redesigned for Honeycomb, and it's a big upgrade. We'd love to say that it's all rainbows and butterflies, but there are some nagging problems that come along with the changes, and we're hoping Google will clean it up a bit moving forward. The application seems to generally suffer from UI overload; there have always been a lot of hidden features in Gmail for Android, and now that those hidden elements are brought to the surface, it creates a feeling that you're never in a single place. As with other parts of the OS, we found ourselves jumping to and fro trying to locate UI elements and get work done. Adding confusion to this new layout is the fact that menus now change contextually based on what you've selected, which means that not only are you dealing with scattered navigational items, but those items can change on the fly while you're working.
Maybe we're just too addicted to Gmail as it is now, but this incarnation feels splintered to us.
It's about time... isn't it? The music app in Honeycomb has been completely, mercifully rethought, and it is stunning. As you can see in the above photo, gone is the amateurish and drab Android player. It's now been replaced with a dimensional, 3D interface that isn't just good looking, it's actually useful. There are 2D views when you jump into albums and playlists, but the flipbook navigation is actually not bad for finding your music. Unfortunately, the Xoom seemed to have trouble recognizing all of our album art, and there were some issues with album art doubling up (our Engadget podcast logo seemed to get glued to another album). Minor issues aside, we're impressed with the work Google has done here.
Like the Music app, YouTube has gotten a revamp here. Keeping in line with the 3D feel of the Honeycomb interface, you're presented with a wall of videos which you can pan through -- kind of like your own wall of TVs (if TV had nothing but clips of people dancing and / or injuring themselves). If you've always wanted to feel like Ozymandias from the final pages of Watchmen
, here's your chance.
Playing videos was pretty much a standard YouTube experience... which unfortunately these days seems to mean watching for stuff to buffer. A lot.
We love the version of Google Talk present in Honeycomb. Not only does it provide clear, seamless integration with accounts you already use, but the way it utilizes both voice and video conversations is terrific.
The app itself is fairly straightforward, but it did take a little bit of head scratching before we figured out exactly how to move between voice, chat, and video. Our callers on the other end of the line said video quality was a bit on the low res side (see the photo above -- Xoom up top, MacBook Pro camera in the corner) even on WiFi. We're not sure why that would be the case, but hopefully it can be cleared up with some software tweaking.
Overall, however, the new Google Talk works in perfect harmony with the Xoom.
We had high hopes for Movie Studio -- a competitor to Apple's iOS version of iMovie. While the software is quite powerful, our experience with it was less than thrilling. Besides being generally sluggish, clip editing is kind of an obtuse affair. We were able to get some work done with it, but it doesn't seem to be nearly as straightforward as it should. More than once while using the app, we found ourselves waiting around for clips to redraw or playback video that seemed to stall out. We're not saying there aren't uses for the software, but it feels like it needs a revision or two before it's ready for prime time. And that's too bad... since the Xoom is in market right now.
There were a handful of applications that we had a chance to play around with which show off the Xoom (and Honeycomb's) capabilities. Google Body (an interactive, 3D body simulator), Pulse (a news reader, which you should know from its iOS incarnation), and games like Cordy all show that the Xoom and its OS are more than powerful enough to pull off iPad like experiences. Unfortunately, there just aren't many of those experiences available to users right now, and it doesn't seem like Google has gotten a big headstart on getting tablet titles into the Android Market.
There is a ton of promise on the software side for tablets running Honeycomb given the new access to 3D tools and system tweaking that Android allows, but right now it's a small island in a sea of phone titles -- and the majority of those titles do not look right on a 10.1-inch screen at this resolution.
Pricing and data
Oh, the Xoom pricing. It sure hasn't been much of a secret (we had over five pricing leak posts!), but it certainty has been the focal point of the new tablet's entrance into the market. So, what will this thing cost you? Motorola has set the price of the 32GB, 3G version at $800. Now, that is unsubsidized, however, Verizon is
requiring customers pay for one month of service -- $20 for 1GB of data -- to basically unlock the device
. It doesn't seem very fair, but such is life.
Verizon's been in touch to say that customers who purchase the off-contract Xoom will no longer need to be on a month to month plan
. That said, we still see "Month to Month" as a compulsory option at the time of updating this post.
The other option at the moment is to buy the same Xoom on-contract from Verizon for $600. That does shave off $200, but you're not exactly saving money, considering you're locking yourself into paying $20 a month for the next two years, which comes out to $1,080. Also, don't forget the Xoom is upgradable to LTE. However, the carrier is still keeping quiet on pricing for the 4G service.
Is that a lot of money for a tablet? Sure it is, and if you opt for the $800 unsubsidized version it comes out to $71 more than Apple's comparable iPad -- the 32GB / 3G iPad rings up at $729. Unfortunately, at this point we don't have any real details on when the WiFi only version will be hitting, but Motorola's CEO has said that it will be also priced at $600. Again, that's in line with the $599 32GB / WiFi iPad.
Despite the drawbacks that we've outlined in this review, there is actually a lot about the Xoom to like. Besides boasting what we consider to be the most complete and clearly functioning version of Android, the hardware which is packed inside Motorola's tablet is really quite good. The tablet is fast and sleek, and while not exactly being really
futureproof, the fact that you've got a path to a 4G upgrade is tremendous (and frankly, something no one else in the industry is offering).
The problem with the Xoom isn't really about the core of the experience or the core of the hardware -- it's about the details. Too much in both the design (like those wonky buttons) or the software (like the feeling that this is all very much in beta) makes you wonder if this wasn't rushed out to market in order to beat the next wave from Apple. Regardless, there isn't much here for consumers right now. The Android Market is almost devoid of tablet applications, the OS feels buggy and unfinished, and the hardware has pain points that we find troubling. And that's to say nothing of the pricing and carrier commitments being asked of first-time buyers.
Is the Xoom a real competitor to the iPad? Absolutely. In fact, it outclasses the iPad in many ways. Still, the end user experience isn't nearly where it needs to be, and until Google paints its tablet strategy and software picture more clearly, we'd suggest a wait-and-see approach. Honeycomb and the Xoom are spectacular -- unfortunately they're a spectacular work in progress.