After months of speculation, the tablet wars begin in earnest this week. Motorola is releasing its Xoom tablet on Feb. 24, and I consider it the first truly comparable competitor to Apple’s hit iPad. That is partly because it is the first iPad challenger to run Honeycomb, an elegant new version of Google’s Android operating system designed especially for tablets.
Both Motorola’s hardware and Google’s new software are impressive and, after testing it for about a week, I believe the Xoom beats the first-generation iPad in certain respects, though it lags in others. Like the iPad, the Xoom has a roomy 10-inch screen, and it’s about the same thickness and weight as the iPad, albeit narrower and longer. And, like the iPad’s operating system, Honeycomb gives software the ability to make good use of that screen real estate, with apps that are more computer-like than those on a smartphone.
The Xoom has a more potent processor than the current iPad; front and rear cameras versus none for the iPad; better speakers; and higher screen resolution. It also can be upgraded free later this year to support Verizon’s faster 4G cellular data network (though monthly fees may rise.)
Motorola is taking aim at the iPad just as Apple is expected to announce, next week, a second-generation of its tablet. Little is known about this second iPad, but it’s widely expected to take away at least one of the Xoom’s advantages over the original iPad—cameras—and is rumored to be thinner and lighter, since weight was one of the most common complaints about the generally praised first iPad.
The iPad has way more tablet-specific apps—around 60,000 versus a handful—and, in my tests, much better battery life. Plus, whatever the specs say, it’s a fast device with a beautiful screen that delights people daily. But, overall, the Xoom with Honeycomb is a strong alternative to the original iPad, and one that will only improve over time.
Unfortunately for consumers looking for iPad alternatives, the Xoom has an Achilles’ heel: price. While iPads come in a range of models priced all the way up to $829—none of which requires a cellphone contract—Apple’s entry price for the iPad is just $499. By contrast, the base price of a Xoom without a cellphone contract is $800—60% more. And even with a Verizon two-year contract at $20 to $80 a month—depending on the data limit you choose—the least you can pay for a Xoom is $600, or 20% more before counting the contract costs.
In fairness, the iPad model with the same memory as the Xoom and a 3G cellular modem like the Xoom’s is $729, which is a closer comparison. But it is still less than $800, and consumers still focus on that $499 iPad entry price (for a Wi-Fi-only model.)
As much as I like the Xoom and Honeycomb, I’d advise consumers to wait to see what Apple has up its sleeve next before committing to a higher price for the Motorola product.
Meanwhile, here’s what I found in testing the Xoom.
Though it works fine in portrait, or vertical, mode, the Xoom is mainly designed as a landscape, or horizontal, device. The screen is long and narrow, proportioned to best fit widescreen video. The HD screen boasts a resolution of 1280 by 800, versus 1024 by 768 for the iPad.
It felt heavier than the iPad, though the weight of 1.6 pounds is the same as on the cellular version of the Apple product. Overall, it has a solid, high-quality feel. There aren’t any physical buttons except for an on-off switch at the rear and volume controls on an edge. The common Android home, back and other buttons are rendered in the software. The glass on the front is surrounded by a relatively thin black border.
I found it generally comfortable to hold, except when I was reading for long periods in vertical mode, where the long, thin shape and weight made it feel a bit unbalanced.
I performed the same battery test on the Xoom as I have on other tablets. I played video constantly with the connectivity turned on and the screen at almost full brightness until the battery died. Alas, while the Xoom claims up to 10 hours of video playback, I got just 7 hours and 32 minutes. By contrast, on the same test, the iPad, which also claims 10 hours, logged 11.5 hours, or four hours more.
I also tested the Xoom’s front-facing 2-megapixel camera by performing a video chat with a Motorola employee using Google Talk software. The chat broke up or froze several times over Verizon’s network, but we eventually got it to work pretty well on Wi-Fi.
The Xoom’s battery is sealed, and it only comes with 32 gigabytes of memory, versus a range of between 16 and 64 GB for various models of the iPad. However, it has a slot for a memory card that Motorola says will work after a software upgrade to add more memory. There is also a removable back and a SIM card slot that would be used only if you chose to upgrade to 4G in the second quarter of this year.
Perhaps even more impressive than the hardware is the Honeycomb software, which, for now, Google won’t offer on cellphones, only tablets, of which the Xoom is the first.
I’ve always felt that Android had a rough-around-the edges, geeky feel, with too many steps to do things and too much reliance on menus. But Honeycomb eliminates much of that. Actions like composing emails, or changing settings are much more obvious and quicker. The smart but cluttered notification bar has been moved to the lower right and simplified. A tap on it pops up relevant information.
There is still a separate email app for Gmail, as opposed to other email services you may use. But, now, as on the iPad, email is presented in multiple columns and is more attractive and easier to use.
The browser is especially impressive, with PC-like features, such as visible tabs for open pages and the ability to open a private browsing session. Apps like Maps and YouTube have 3-D views. There’s a movie-editing app and live widgets for the home screens that show email previews or video frames.
There are some downsides. The ability to play Flash video—a big Android selling point—won’t work on the Xoom at launch. It will take some weeks to appear. And I found numerous apps in the Android Market that wouldn’t work with the Xoom. I couldn’t locate a working video download or rental service, though Google says these will be available soon.
Some apps for phones, like the popular game Angry Birds, filled the screen beautifully and worked fine.
Bottom line: The Xoom and Honeycomb are a promising pair that should give the iPad its stiffest competition. But price will be an obstacle, and Apple isn’t standing still.