- Android 3.0 onboardSuper fast, super capableFront and rear-facing cameras
- OS is still buggySome issues with hardware buttonsVery little native software available
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
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.
|Dell Streak 7||3:26|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab||6:09|
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maybe we're just too addicted to Gmail as it is now, but this incarnation feels splintered to us.
Playing videos was pretty much a standard YouTube experience... which unfortunately these days seems to mean watching for stuff to buffer. A lot.
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.
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
Update: 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.
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.