Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1 hands-on impressions (video)

Don't call it a comeback, it's a Xyboard -- Motorola's rebranded (for the US, anyway) Xoom 2. A 10.1-inch attempt at sidestepping the original Xoom's notoriety. With baked-in LTE of the Verizon variety, a slimmer waistline and a distinctive design, this Android 3.2 tablet could very well inject a dose of excitement back into the company's flagging category appeal. But with the spotlight-stealing ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime already on the map and dazzling consumers with its notebook-like functionality, will anyone even notice Moto's second swing at Honeycomb? Are LTE speeds and an improved silhouette enough to lure wayward users back into the company's willing embrace? Does anyone even care about non-Ice Cream Sandwich tablets? Read on as we explore the odd ends and angles of this curiously-shaped slate.

So, let's face that elephant in the Xoom head-on: this iteration of the Xyboard is lighter at 1.33 pounds (603 grams) and considerably thinner at just 0.35 inches (8.8mm). Gone are the hard edges that marred Moto's original tab and, instead, we're treated to the same curved edges that made their debut on the Droid RAZR, as well as a flanking of soft touch plastic. Immediately, you'll notice the device's ergonomic improvements over its predecessor, but it's still a far cry from being a pleasure to hold. In fact, those awkward angles dig into your palms no matter how you orient the slate. Sure, the Xyboard's looks serve to set it apart from the competition, but we're not sold on this build as the model going forward.

Though this fella was meant to be a clean break from the company's tablet past, it appears as though Motorola simply couldn't part with its ill-advised decision to mount the power button and volume rocker on the device's backside -- here somewhat easily locatable on the upper right. It takes some getting used to, but we acclimated to this placement soon enough. Soft touch plastic surrounds the gunmetal grey aluminum back, which neatly stacks Motorola's insignia atop that of Verizon's own and the operator's 4G LTE logo. Up top, the slate's 5MP rear camera with single LED flash lies centered between the stereo speakers. Ports are mainly relegated to the bottom, where you'll find a removable tray for the SIM card, as well as a micro-HDMI out and micro-USB. While the 3.5mm headphone jack is left by its lonesome on the opposite end, with the 1.3MP front-facing camera just beneath it.

The O.G. Xoom repped a 1,280 x 800 WXGA display which, although decent for its time, literally pales in comparison to the Xyboard's TFT-IPS. Colors are noticeably bolder, the panel is brighter and images come across much crisper. Motorola's claim of 178-degree viewing angles are no joke, either -- the screen retains a stunning visibility even when tilted nearly full out of eyesight. Obviously, this bump in quality should go over well with folks who intend to consume mass amounts of streaming video on the tablet.

With a dual-core processor bumped up to 1.2GHz and an ample 1GB of RAM, the Xyboard zooms along, hampered only by the addition of Moto's Blurring of the Honeycomb OS. Indeed, transitions are often choppy and lack the fluidity of Samsung's TouchWiz UX. Why the company chose to break from offering users a pure Google experience and overlaid a choppy skin is beyond us. Again, tradition seems to prevail here. Save for the original Droid, all subsequent brand descendants shipped with the OEM's special skinned touch. And so, too, has Motorola extended that consistently poor software customization to its successive Android 3.2 tabs.

With skinning comes crapware and the Xyboard has it a plenty. Third party apps like Amazon Kindle, Citrix, Dijit, Evernote, Fuze Meeting, Let's Golf 2, Madden NFL 12, Netflix, Quickoffice, and Slingbox come pre-installed. That list doesn't include Verizon's own branded offerings which help to crowd the app drawer. Certainly, some of these applications are useful, but we'd like app downloads to ultimately be the user's choice and completely uninstallable.

Verizon's LTE service in New York City hasn't fared so well in the past few days, dropping off and defaulting the Xyboard to a 3G connection due to network issues. Things look to have been fixed on the operator's end since and we're back to enjoying those blistering speeds, which maxed out at 27.64Mbps down and 8.12Mbps up on the Xyboard. Typically, performance will hover between 17Mbps to 22Mbps down and 5Mbps to 7Mbps up, so if you're planning on a marathon Netflix session, you won't be left wanting. Big Red's 4G coverage has had the benefit of an early head start and, consequently, signal strength was relatively hardy.

Perhaps to add that extra value oomph to the Xyboard, Motorola's bundled a stylus into the box. But don't let that get your hopes up, the functionality reeks of last minute add-on. Wondering why Evernote comes pre-loaded? Wonder no more, the app is one of three options made available when the stylus icon is activated from the tablet's dock on the lower right. Users wielding Moto's pen, which itself is actually well-made and feels great in the hand, can choose between Floating Notes to create and save memos, Open to see a list of saved memos and the aforementioned Evernote. Integration doesn't run too deep, as you'll only be able to choose from three distinct pen tip / eraser widths and eight colors. The handwriting recognition software showcases an apparent lag, trailing behind our hand's movements and forget about resting your palm on the screen, as that'll impede your ability to write. That's not to say it totally fail to recognize your attempts at legible scrawl, but it's definitely a hit or miss experience. Navigation and typing can also be managed via the stylus, although it's not ideal.

For the power user, Motorola's released a slew of accessories to extend the Xyboard's functionality. There's an HD station for docking the tablet that packs an extra three USB ports and HDMI out so you can watch content on your flatscreen, a portfolio cover that flips back to create an impromptu stand and a wireless keyboard with portfolio. We took the Bluetooth keyboard for a trial run and despite its decidedly less than premium construction, its usefulness actually exceeded our low expectations. The hard-edged square keys are stiff, but have just enough travel to make typing surprisingly fluid and natural feeling. We did occasionally encounter difficulty locating some of the modifier keys, shrunken as they are to fit the layout, but Motorola did manage to include shortcuts for menu, home, back and search. Depressing any of the alphanumeric keys while viewing the homescreen accesses the tablet's search function, displaying a list of relevant contacts, search terms and applications. And to make up for the lack of a trackpad, there's a soft rubber-coated mouse button that lies centered between the G, H and B keys. It's implementation is actually more frustrating that helpful, as it's overly sensitive and difficult to control. So much so, that we found ourselves defaulting to touch navigation out of resignation.

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Thankfully, the Xyboard 10.1 doesn't adhere to a one storage size fits all proposition and comes in a variety of configurations akin to Apple's iPad 2 setup, albeit more expensive with 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models going for $530, $630 and $730, respectively. Is it worth the inflated price tag? The answer to that question depends largely on your need for an always-on LTE connection and affinity for Google's Android ecosystem. As it stands, Honeycomb is still a flawed tablet OS; a situation which should be remedied when that planned Ice Cream Sandwich update hits next year. It's clear Motorola put thought into refining the cosmetics of the slate, even going so far as to distance it from the Xoom with a new moniker. But looks aren't everything and that attention to surface detail should've also extended to the choppy UX. With ASUS' quad-core tablet king already available for order, you'll be hard pressed to find a compelling reason to buy what Moto's selling.