The Motorola Xoom is the first tablet to bring Google's Android operating system to the big screen. The presence of Android 3.0 Honeycomb means it's dripping with sweet features, but being an early adopter has its drawbacks. Finding the right apps is tougher than it ought to be, and, despite plenty of thoughtful tweaks, Android still feels cramped in places. The 10.1-inch Xoom also feels heavy, especially compared to the wafer-thin iPad 2.
The version of the Xoom with Wi-Fi connectivity only is available for around £480. The version with both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity will set you back £580 or thereabouts.
Sweeter than honey
The Samsung Galaxy Tab did a bang-up job of bringing Android to a 7-inch tablet. But it ran Android 2.2 Froyo, which even Google admitted isn't ideal for screens bigger than that of a smart phone. That's where Honeycomb steps in, and it's spread all over the Xoom.
If you're used to using Android on a smart phone, you'll find the same deep well of features that you've come to know and love. For example, there are five home screens that you can fill up with shortcuts and widgets, so you can choose exactly what you want to see when you gaze at your tablet's screen.
Whether you'll like this approach depends on how much time you want to spend tweaking your tablet. If you're not careful, the home screens can become a chaotic mix of shortcuts and widgets.
There's room for 56 icons on each home screen, which we think is far too many to take in. Also, despite the big screen, widgets tend to be packed with info rather than spacious and expansive. We'd like to see imaginative developers submit some big, beautiful widgets to the Android Market soon.
Honeycomb brings some thoughtful tweaks to the Android user interface in order to take advantage of the abundant screen space. For example, instead of the physical home and back buttons seen on Android smart phones, you'll benefit from virtual buttons in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. The advantage of these virtual buttons over physical ones is that they move when you rotate the Xoom between portrait and landscape orientations, so they're always on the lower left-hand side.
Alongside the home and back icons in the lower left of the screen, there's an icon that brings up a list of thumbnails of your recently used apps. The menu button, another common sight on Android phones, has been pretty much ditched. It reappears when you're using an app that was originally designed for phones, but Google's own apps move the menu options to the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
Overall, Honeycomb is a mixed bag. We had no trouble getting used to the new user interface, and we found it fast and responsive. We also like the responsive on-screen buttons and the large, user-friendly thumbnails in menus. But small icons and crowded widgets, combined with a Tron-like black and blue colour scheme, keep Honeycomb from feeling as welcoming as it could.
Google's apps have received a makeover too. The Android Market looks particularly good. By default, apps are shown in a pleasingly clear grid that really takes advantage of the tablet's big screen. The calendar
is another treat, with a powerful but straightforward design that
reminds us of Google's websites.
One of Android's biggest attractions is its ability to run apps designed by third parties. There aren't many Honeycomb apps available in the Android Market at the moment, but it's early days and we're sure that many more are on the way. Some of the currently available apps bode well for the future -- the FriendCaster app for Facebook, for example, looks great on the Xoom and comes with a groovy scrolling widget.
The problem is that apps specifically designed for Honeycomb tablets aren't easy enough to find. We hope the Android Market gets a swift refresh to allow people to search for tablet-focused apps. In the meantime, you'll have to include the word 'Honeycomb' in your searches, and then trawl through the results to find apps genuinely designed to take advantage of the big screen.
Android apps intended for smart phones work on the Xoom too. But, on such a big display, they tended to look ridiculously stretched-out.
Fancy a tab?
Google has tweaked the Android browser, adding new features, like tabbed browsing, so you can more easily tap between multiple open Web pages. Tabbed browsing has become second nature to most people, so it's a welcome addition to Android. We also like having the option to sync our bookmarks with the Chrome browser on our desktop PC.
The browser itself is accurate and fast, but not quite as speedy as
that of the iPad 2. It has one massive advantage over the iPad's browser, though -- it supports Flash Player.
We've been enjoying getting Flashed since the plug-in came to the Android browser in Android 2.2 Froyo. Not only does it mean you can watch Flash videos online, it also ensures that websites which use Flash for navigation look just as they should.
Flash is a missing link that's come to really annoy us on the iPad, despite websites rushing to fix the consequent Swiss-cheese effect with HTML5 videos and alternative navigation options. Flash support is one of the Xoom's killer features.
With Flash supported, the BBC iPlayer site should work perfectly on the Xoom, but, sadly, that's not the case. The site hasn't been refreshed so that it works with the Xoom's browser yet. There's an iPlayer app for Android, but it doesn't play video properly on the Xoom. We hope the BBC sorts this out soon, because the Xoom's screen size makes it perfect for catching up on telly.
The Xoom's screen has a 1,290x800-pixel resolution and a 16:9 aspect
ratio, which makes it well-suited for watching wide-screen video. It's easy to
load your own videos onto the tablet via USB, and, with
Flash in the browser and an excellent YouTube app, you'll never be
short of flicks to ogle.
But the Xoom's screen isn't the most impressive display we've seen on a tablet. Its poor viewing angles, fairly low contrast levels and highly reflective coating mean videos and photos often look clearer on the iPad 2. Nevertheless, Web pages on the Xoom are perfectly readable and text looks sharp. With the brightness cranked up, we think the Xoom's screen will prove fine and, as long as you don't keep comparing it to the iPad 2's display, it shouldn't give you any problems.
We also like the fact that Motorola has moved the physical screen-lock button onto the back of the Xoom. It's surprisingly easy to get used to and the consequent absence of any buttons of the front of the device gives the Xoom an attractive, sleek appearance.
The Xoom has a mini-HDMI port for connecting it to your TV. Unfortunately, our sample didn't come with an HDMI cable, so we weren't able to test this feature.
When it comes to music and audio, the Xoom struggles. The physical volume
keys are tiny and difficult to press, and the rear speakers project
sound away from you, rather than towards your straining ears.
Headphones are the solution, but, with the 3.5mm jack situated on one of the Xoom's longer edges, the headphone plug will prevent the tablet from
sliding into most sleeve cases.
If you do plan on watching much video, it's worth investing in a
stand for the Xoom, because it will really test your wrist strength. The
tablet's hefty weight of 730g is about the same as that of the original iPad,
but it's 129g heavier than the iPad 2.
Before we'd cradled the iPad 2, we thought the Xoom looked slim and trim, at 168 by 250 by 13mm. But, compared to Apple's saucy slab, which is only 8.8mm thick, the Xoom feels porky. Still, the Xoom's narrow bezel means it can accommodate a 10.1-inch screen while keeping roughly the same dimensions as the iPad 2, which has a 9.7-inch display.
There's a running argument about the ideal size for a tablet. We're torn -- 7-inch tablets like the Galaxy Tab are small enough to be popped in a pocket, but there's something special about the larger iPad and the Xoom. They make you feel like you're reading a magical piece of paper. The Xoom's bigger screen size could certainly come in handy if you want to do much real work on your tablet, like editing documents, but smaller tablets will probably prove more suitable for road warriors.
The Xoom has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera with two LED photo
lights, which makes it possible to use your tablet as the world's most
ridiculously huge snapper. There's also a 2-megapixel camera on the front
for those vanity shots.
Both cameras are easy to use, as long as you're strong enough to wave the Xoom around like a camera on steroids. The rear camera produces images and video of a similar quality to that which you'd get from a decent camera on a smart phone. We'd be happy to rely on the Xoom for snapshots, making quick movies and video calling, but don't expect to film a cinematic masterpiece on it.
The Xoom has 32GB of built-in memory for storing your shots. Tucked away on the top, there's also space for a microSD memory card. Sadly, Honeycomb doesn't support memory cards yet, but Motorola has promised that, as soon as the software is smart enough, it will roll out an update allowing the Xoom to welcome a memory card into the fold.
The Xoom claims to offer 10 hours of battery life when surfing over
Wi-Fi. We found we got slightly less, but that may be partly due to cranking up the screen's brightness.
When charging time arrived, we got an unpleasant shock -- and not
of the electrical variety. The Xoom doesn't charge via USB when
plugged into your computer, and its charging plug isn't of the standard micro-USB type. Instead, the Xoom uses a substantial, proprietary charger that you have to plug into the wall.
Motorola sells docks that charge the Xoom, freeing you
from this charging hell. But, unless you shell out for one of those,
you'll be stuck with a massive lead and adaptor to lug around. Despite our homes and office being full of USB
cables and power adaptors, we've already been left high and dry, without any juice. It's a
If you simply must have Android 3.0 Honeycomb before anyone else, the Motorola Xoom will prove a stylish and powerful tablet. But, since the Xoom was announced, the iPad 2 has emerged, making Motorola's tablet look and feel hefty in comparison. The many features that cause this bulk, from the 5-megapixel camera to the HDMI port, won't make you feel that much better about your tired arms either. Consequently, you might want to wait for upcoming tablets from Samsung and LG that offer the same Honeycomb sweetness with less bulk.
Edited by Charles Kloet