GearMonk

Seven Days with a Xoom

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the Xoom

First impressions are fine. But I prefer the seven day take, at least when we’re talking about hardware. A week later, then, here’s my review of the Motorola Xoom. For ease of consumption, I’ve broken it up by category, and further by good/bad. If you just want an executive summary, the gist is at the bottom.

Apps

  • The Good:
    The apps that are there are solid. Tablet sized Gmail is tremendous, whoever built the new Calendar app deserves a raise, and you’ll be happy to know that Angry Birds looks pixel perfect at 1280×800. Likewise the blown up versions of Maps, Music, and a few non-Google apps like the Kindle look great. And while apps like MLB At Bat 2011 are not tablet optimized – and therefore look very odd on the larger format screen – they are at least present and functional.
  • The Bad:
    There are 16 applications in the Android Apps for Tablets category. That’s not remotely competitive with the 65,000 strong stable of preexisting iPad applications, let alone the brand new built-for-touchscreens GarageBand and iMovie that debuted Wednesday. How important this is to you depends, obviously, on how important apps are to you. For Scoble, they are make or break: “no apps, no sale.” Which is fair enough, and possibly representative of the market at large.

    Personally, this isn’t an important part of my decision. First, because I just don’t use that many applications – most of my day is spent in a browser. Second, because I know that Google knows it’s got a problem with the app volume, and is doing what they did before to rectify the situation: handing out free gear. I expect this to work, over time, so the app vacuum is not likely to be a permanent problem for me. Your mileage may vary, obviously.

Battery

  • The Good:
    Battery life appears to be mostly as advertised. I’m getting about a day out of a charge – day and a half if my usage is light. Wednesday, I left for Boston at 9:30 AM and charged the device on the two hour trip down. Apart from a forty minute charge at a Starbucks in the afternoon, that was all the juice the device got until I got home a little after 11 PM. The remaining voltage at that point? 46%. My biggest problem with the battery life, in fact, is psychological: I’m conditioned not to trust it, and reflexively charge at every given opportunity, whether I need to or not.

    Charge time, likewise, is reasonably quick: I can add 50% to the battery in about an hour, a full charge in a little over two. That’s a marked improvement over my laptop.

  • The Bad:
    Walt Mossberg’s tests contradict AnandTech’s: the latter says it’s comparable to the original iPad’s battery life, the former says you get seven and a half hours of video rather than Motorola’s claimed 10. If true, that’s a mild disappointment.

Browser

  • The Good:
    Easily my favorite part of the device to date. Basically because the browser is more or less like Chrome on a desktop. The browser is fast and tabbed, and you can even load tabs in the background. One of my biggest issues with the iPad just as it was with the original iPhone was its need to reload when browsing between open pages. On the Xoom, you can load tabs in the background, open incognito pages for testing or logging in as different user IDs, and generally treat it like you would your desktop equivalent. Which is welcome. The AnandTech guys have some numbers for you on browser performance if you’re so inclined.
  • The Bad:
    Sencha has evaluated the Xoom for HTML5 compatibility, and it performed poorly. By contrast, the RIM PlayBook reportedly scored much better by their metrics. The question for potential buyers is what impact the questionable support for HTML5 audio/video and issues with CSS3 animations and transitions means in practical terms. With the caveat that my sample size is websites visited in the last seven days, I can say that it’s had little impact on my usage thus far. But it’s worth noting.

Charger

  • The Good:
    As mentioned previously, the device charges relatively quickly.
  • The Bad:
    Whatever the reasoning, the inability to charge the device via micro-USB is a minus. While the Xoom leverages that format for media transfer – itself an issue – it will not charge over it. Instead, the Xoom charges via its own proprietary charger. The Motorola explanation for this choice is that USB doesn’t provide sufficient voltage to charge the device. Which is plausible, but suboptimal.

    1. This means carrying a second charger, which adds weight and one more item to be lost/damaged/etc.
    2. With no aftermarket chargers available at present, your only option for secondary chargers is Motorola or Verizon, at a cost of $30.
    3. The device cannot be charged off anything but a plug. The iPad will only trickle charge off USB, but even that would be preferable to the current situation.

Cost

  • The Good:
    With Verizon’s subsidy, the device cost ($599) is acceptable if not ideal.
  • The Bad:
    As Senor Churbuck put it, Apple threw down the gauntlet yesterday by keeping its pricing static. And Samsung, at least, sees the problem. Given that Apple has a 65+ thousand lead in app volume, has the most impressive hardware on the market with the most mature tablet OS, Android tablet manufacturers are going to have to undercut Apple on price to be competitive in mainstream markets. Which will become increasingly difficult as Apple heavily leverages its available capital and the economies of scale created by the runaway success of the first device to realize a cost per component that will be difficult for other manufacturers to match. Loss leaders are almost certainly in iPad competitors futures.

Hardware

  • The Good:
    As other reviewers have stated, the Xoom is a well constructed device. It fits well in the hand and is nicely balanced. Many have complained about the placement of the power button; I’ve had no real issue with this myself.
  • The Bad:
    At 1.6 pounds – or almost the same weight as the first iPad – the Xoom is at the fringe of what’s comfortable to carry. The forthcoming Samsung 10″ tablet and the iPad 2 are both almost a third of a pound lighter, and that is an improvement, but the utility of the devices will really jump when they crack the pound barrier.

Keyboard

  • The Good:
    I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the keyboard. It’s not comparable to a physical keyboard and isn’t suitable for extending typing, but I’m quite a lot faster and more accurate on the Xoom’s keyboard than I am on my Nexus One. Interestingly, I’m substantially more accurate on the Xoom’s keyboard than the original iPad’s.
  • The Bad:
    The keyboard does an inconsistent job of picking up stray contact from the palm, which can jump the cursor during typing. The autosuggest function is only mediocre relative to Apple’s version. Non-touch typists may have difficulty as their hands will obscure the keys.

Media

  • The Good:
    Once you’ve populated the device with media, the Music application is excellent. The animations in scrolling through albums are smooth, the notification window control widget is simple and responsive, and the speakers are acceptable. I’ve used the tablet to play music while cooking dinner and such, and it’s been better than anticipated.
  • The Bad:
    For devices which are at least partially marketed as multimedia portals, Honeycomb’s half-baked music and movies story is a real surprise. To start with, Honeycomb deprecated USB storage in favor of the Media Transfer Protocol. Like the inability to charge over USB, while there are technical justifications for this decision the list of unintended consequences is long. Of the three most popular desktop operating systems, only Windows supports MTP natively. Mac users will need to download this utility, because Mac does not support MTP and as far as I can tell the device packaging does not include that software. Linux users may install mtp-tools and/or mtpfs, but I have not gotten either package to work consistently and have been forced to load my device via a Mac. Which is ironic because one of my reasons for not buying an iPad was its strict Mac/Windows only compatibility.

    Once the media is transferred, the Music application works without incident. Movies, on the other hand, are far more challenging. First, the Xoom will only play certain formats: .avi, .mov, and .ogg are all out (though you can try RockPlayer, which is like the VLC of the Android ecosystem). If you wish to transfer and play movies, you must contend with the bewildering maze of video codes, formats and framerates. If you care to use Handbrake – on video you own the copyright to, of course – the iPad preset will work, but the video may seem slightly off. I’ve had reasonable luck with MPEG-4 at a QP of 4 as well. But really, if users are arguing over Handbrake presets, the platform has failed. This is one of Honeycomb’s biggest issues at present.

    Presuming that you are able to reformat your video in a manner acceptable to Honeycomb, you may have still have difficulty playing it. For reasons that are not clear, Android does not surface Movies – its default video player – in the catalog of available applications. I only discovered it when I used Astro – a file manager for Android – to try and play video I’d loaded onto the device. Movies, rather inexplicably, are made available under the Gallery application; your movies are stored alongside your photos, in other words.

    Not only does Google or a partner need to introduce a movie rental/purchase service for Android to more effectively compete with Apple, they need to rethink the way that video is handled in the UI at present because it could not be less intuitive.

Network / Mobile Data

  • The Good:
    Thus far, Verizon’s 3G has performed well, and the transition to/from wifi and cellular networks is relatively painless.
  • The Bad:
    Verizon’s mobile bandwidth is expensive [coverage], and the fact that the LTE upgrade requires that the tablet be shipped back to the factory is unfortunate.

Operating System

  • The Good:
    More than any other aspect to the product, impressions of the operating system are something of a Rorschach. Reactions to Honeycomb – positive and negative – are highly personal. For my part, I find Honeycomb to be aesthetically attractive and performant. From a user interaction perspective, navigation is generally intuitive, and the animations are responsive with no observable latency. The two areas where Honeycomb really shines are notifications and multitasking. Honeycomb has jettisoned the pull down ribbon common to all prior versions of Android, but while I was initially skeptical of this decision, the new notifications mechanism is excellent. It’s not distracting, and the notifications can be individually dismissed. Multitasking, meanwhile, has its own dedicated button, and moving between open applications is effectively seamless, particularly compared to the old return-to-home iOS model.
  • The Bad:
    Besides multi-tasking and notifications, Android enjoys few if any advantages next to iOS which is both more polished and more intuitive. Worse, Honeycomb appears to have been prematurely released to market, as the early reports of it being less stable with consistent application failures have proven correct for me. Some applications – Twitter, most notably – have stablized post upgrade, but in general the operating system and baked in applications like the Market have been more characteristic of beta quality offerings.

Screen

  • The Good:
    The extra resolution of the screen is useful, whether the usage is watching movies or browsing the web.
  • The Bad:
    The two primary issues with the screen are not its brightness – it apparently suffers in comparison to devices like the Samsung 10″ Tab – but rather the glare and its tendency to retain oils from the hands. Particularly in well lit conditions, the glare to the screen is substantial and can result in the tablet taking on mirror-like qualities. And like many touchscreen devices, the Xoom has a tendency to collect oils from the hand which mar the surface when the device is placed in direct light.

The Gist

It seems clear that the Xoom, at least, was introduced before it was ready in an attempt to avoid getting buried in the wake of iPad 2 discussion. The limited tablet application volume, the baffling multimedia setup, the non-functional Flash/SDcard/LTE and the general lack of stability of the platform point to a product rushed to market. The question is whether this matters.

For the first wave of users, it may. These issues and others may yield higher than average product return rates, though determining which returns were a consequence of Xoom product issues versus the subsequent iPad 2 product features will be a challenging exercise indeed. But shipping is a feature: I’d rather have the imperfect Xoom today, for example, than hold off for the long awaited HP or RIM tablets.

As for the iPad 2, it is gorgeous, both thinner and lighter than the Xoom. iOS is not only (likely) more stable and (provably) backed by an application market with 4000X more choices available. It is also a device explicitly tied to one of two desktop operating systems that I don’t use. More importantly, it seems reasonable to suspect the reason that Apple chose not to disclose the iPad 2’s available memory at launch time is because it does not compare favorably to the shipping Android alternatives. The latter of which is an issue for me, given my primary use case: browsing.

Your calculus may be – probably is – different than mine. The iPad may be – probably is – a better option for you at present. But that’s not the interesting question to me. What I’ll be watching is how they compare in the future, because most of the things wrong with Xoom right now, well, they’re just software. And software, unlike hardware, can be fixed after the fact.

With the notable exception of issues such as the weight or the proprietary power cable, the majority of my complaints about the Xoom are software related. Michael Gartenberg is right to say that we should not praise Motorola for the Xoom’s lack of Flash, not yet operable SD card functionality and so on. But neither should their pending introduction be fully discounted. If the hardware doesn’t include an SD card slot, I’m not likely to have that functionality during the life of the device. If it’s present on the hardware, however, well, the rest is just software. Like most of the Xoom’s problems at present. For me, anyhow.

It took Android approximately five versions, in my opinion, to be competitive on the handset – FroYo being the first legitimate alternative [coverage]. I expect it to progress much more rapidly on tablets, if for no other reason than the fact that the community is exponentially larger than it was in September 2008 when Android 1.0 launched. As a result, I’m willing to give Honeycomb the benefit of the doubt. Will regular customers extend Android the same courtesy? I doubt it.

The greater concern for the Android ecosystem, however, should be Apple. Honeycomb is a 1.0 release; current performance is not likely to be predictive of future potential. Certainly it was not with handsets. Apple, however, is increasingly using the iPad’s success as an engine to drive and reinforce its dominant market position. Remember that Apple is more than willing to put its capital to work to secure its supply of vital components, the byproduct of which is shortages and thus higher costs for competitors. The more successful the iPad is – and make no mistake, it’s been absurdly successful – the more challenging this becomes.

As a user, of course, none of that is my concern. I just want the best tool for the job, and for me that’s looking like the Xoom, the warts notwithstanding. But ask me again in seven days.

12 comments

  1. […] -GearMonk blog, March 4, 2011 Filed under: Uncategorized Leave a comment Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) ( subscribe to comments on this post ) […]

  2. Best review I've read yet. I've had the Xoom since launch and I agree that it's far from perfect at the moment but I did essentially the same calculus for determining whether or not its worth trading in for the iPad 2 and came to the same conclusion. It's 1.0 as you point out, and I think the great potential of the platform really doesn't get enough discussion.

  3. This was an excellent review. Very thorough. Thanks. It helped me decide to buy one and try it out to see how I like it.

  4. Just glosses over that all the phone android apps work just fine, even with scaled resolution

  5. Excellent, well-thought out and balanced review. Thank you.

    I'm not certain if a tablet will ever be in my future but do enjoy keeping up with the latest OS development , of which Android and WebOS (available on all HP computers beginning 2012) currently standout as possible alternatives on more conventional devices (laptops, desktops).

  6. Great review, especially the notable charger issue, which I was not aware of. I want a Xoom because it is totally unlocked, which I doubt few future tablets will be, where as Xoom can easily catch up on the software side, but I might just wait a while for everything to get fleshed out.

    For me the bottom line when it comes to the iPad 2 or any other Apple product is iTunes. I will never, ever, EVER install iTunes on any PC that I ever own,a nd will always discourage others from doing so. That program has been nothing but a headache from the moment I tried it, and it has only gotten worse. I wish that this was taken into account more often in reviews.

    While it works fine for most, I've had iTunes literally damage an entire hard drive to where it had to be repartitioned and redone from scratch. That's the worst but there is enough offending stuff from everyday use that will keep me away for good.

    1. Edge my dear, if using iTunes in particular or PCs in general is a tough task for you, perhaps I can suggest you switch to using a Casio FX-80 calculator?

      I mean, get real… What you wrote is a bunch of crap.

  7. Just to chime in on the apps comment: Could I remind everyone that unlike iOS where you need to pixel double an iPhone app to have it run on the iPad in Android a given app can scale quite effectively without needing a dedicated tablet version. It's likely you'll never see huge number of Android tablet specific app because the generic versions will work just fine and will adjust their UI accordingly.

    This also has the added effect of not having to buy both a phone and a "HD" version for your tablet (as you frequently have to do on iOS)

  8. Nice review thanks. I have had a xoom since day 1 and am pretty happy with it. I posted some comments here. http://googlemobile.blogspot.com/2011/03/honeycom… mostly because I couldn't find a way to deliver feedback.

    I think you nailed it with the rushed to market observation.

    Thanks

  9. I too have been testing Xoom but it was crashing a lot (4-5 times per day) and I had enough so I returned it.

    Xoom is simply a beta/alpha device that's not fit for general consumption. Maybe they'll figure it out in 2012.

  10. […] background color</div>]">  App CrowSeven Days with a Xoom submitted by TwoComments [link] [44 comments]PostedMarch 9th, 2011Filed Android RedditNo CommentsLeave a Comment Click here to […]

  11. […] reading my friend Steven O’Grady excellent Xoom review and selling my iPad (1) in anticipation of the iPad 2 announcement, I decided to pick up a Motorola […]

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