Motorola Xoom Review: The Future Of Tablets (Whether You Like It Or Not)

It’s taken almost a year to get here. The first tablet to matter since the original iPad. The Xoom is the first real Android tablet. It arrived ahead of the iPad 2 by a hair. Since it’s living in the “year of iPad 2”, as Apple put it, it seemed only fitting to wait to drop judgment until we’d seen everything the iPad 2 had to offer. Frankly, there’s no way the Xoom could live up to everything it needs to be. It’s not even done yet, really. It has problems. But it’s still very good. It’s the first non-iPad tablet worth buying. And it’ll get better.

The Xoom with Android 3.0 is the blueprint for nearly every not-iPad to come, a preview of the tablets that will crowd shelves by the end of this year from nearly every major purveyor of commodity consumer electronics, surrounding the churning hordes that bob through fluorescent-lit big box stores, blinking about how they’re bigger, faster, more open than the iPad. This is what the near-term future of non-iPad tablet computers may very well look like.

You know what? It’s not a bad blueprint.

The Xoom is not a tablet you would hand to your mother; it is cold and complex and industrial and vaguely foreboding, the look and feel resembling a glossed up slice of Blade Runner. Everything is black, with glowing blue accents. Conversely, it’s a tablet that will make you, a nerd, feel like you’re doing real things, half because you are, half because manipulating it requires a higher cognitive load than the iPad. It manages – and this is remarkable – to transplant much of the feeling of using a PC to a wholly new computing experience. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on who you are.

Motorola Xoom
Price: $US600 with two-year contract on Verizon; $US800 off-contract
Screen: 10.1-inch, 960×560
Processor and RAM: Dual-core 1GHZ Tegra 2, 1GB ram
Storage: 32GB internal
Camera: 5MP stills, 720p video. LED flash. 2MP front cam
Extras: Mobile hotspot, HDMI out

My neatly organised main desktop contains 12 apps and seven live widgets. And that’s just the main one – you can have up to five. Your hands will dart all over the screen, frequently, often to the bottom left corner, where you’ll find the home, back and app-switching buttons. App switching is so fast it makes the iPad and iPad 2’s whirly-gig animated app-switching seem leisurely. The bottom right provides quick access to settings and pop-up notifications (which take advantage of the real estate by being prettier and offering more detail).

Oddly, though there’s no quick access to your apps page – you’ve gotta all the way home, then hit the apps button in the top right corner, then scroll to the one you want. The top bar is contextual: Inside of apps, the left corner often functions as an “app home”/back button. The top right is where all of the app “stuff” is now packed, like the app menu, settings, and things like search (since the previous hidden action container, Android menu button is no more). You might imagine how you constantly move your hands from corner to corner to corner, with lots of thing to constantly process. It’s a totally different pace than using an iPad.

You’ll use the Xoom almost exclusively in landscape mode. It’s awkward to hold vertically, thanks to the the good-but-not-amazing 1280×800, 10.1-inch screen’s wide 16:10 aspect ratio, and its centre of gravity, which makes it feel heavier in the portrait position. All other signs point to landscape too: logos, buttons, cameras, and most importantly, the apps. In portrait, Google Talk crushes your contacts into nameless squares; Gmail feels cramped; and so on. Movies, especially ultra-wide Wes Anderson flicks, work better; though you’ll have to bring your own, since there is still no video service like Netflix for Android. As much attention as the iPad got for its at-the-time weird 4:3 orientation, it seems to merit noting that the widescreen Xoom feels less flexible as a result.

The Xoom was the first tablet with video chat worth using. Everybody I know uses Google Talk all day long, so for the first time ever, I could video chat with anybody I wanted. What I discovered: Unless you’ve got your tablet propped up on something or in a stand, you’re not going to want to video chat with any tablet! What started out as the awkward shuffling of a 0.7kg slab every minute became a frantic, uncomfortable shimmy about 15 minutes in. It’s not like reading (the other party has to see you, after all), so you can’t drop it in your lap unless your legs are propped up and angled toward your face. This will be true for every video-chatting tablet that weighs more than a pound. The video quality itself was passable, but also significantly worse than a Google Talk video call from my desktop. Even the 5-megapixel, 720p-shooting rear camera was not great for video chat.

Everything is so, so fast. The UI feels mostly cohesive, for the first time, and there are some great little details, like the transition animations and the subtle shadows and glowing highlights everywhere.

Google has done some truly beautiful work with the native apps. They’re by far the best part about Android 3.0. Google Talk and Gmail are crisp and clean and modern. The Gmail app is basically the perfect touch implementation of Gmail. Talk is spare, video chat painless. Google Books delivers a solid ebook experience, with whizbang page-turning physics. The bookstore is hooked into Android Market, which is completely overhauled and suddenly usable. The camera app is weirdly excellent, even if the Xoom’s cameras are only moderately useful. Music is no longer the ugly stepchild of native Android applications. Every native app shows how to build a great tablet app, even if they follow, in some cases, a now well-worn path.

The live widgets, like for mail, are genuinely useful, if a little too small. The notifications system works even better here than on Android phones. You feel like you can really get stuff done, thanks to its combo of speed and more fluid multitasking (even if you can’t do too much yet, thanks to the dearth of apps). Battery life really is all day.

It feels unfinished. There’s a lot “not yets”. No Flash (despite being very heavily advertised), no 4G (which will require sending your tablet away for week(!)), no microSD access. No way to clear all notifications simultaneously. A crazy bug in the YouTube app makes high quality streams error out frequently. The Chrome-like UI of the browser promises more than it delivers, since it’s not quite as smooth or smart as the iPad’s (double tapping still ignores columns on the page, for instance). The power/lock button is in a really stupid spot. Hand a blank Xoom to people. Time how long it takes them to turn it on. Average time: 44 seconds.) No micro-USB charging. The app flood needs to happen now. ‘Specially ‘cause lotsa phone apps don’t play so nicely on the tablet. Oh! You can scuff the back material with your fingernails. Like seriously, what the balls.

It’s hard to render a genuine verdict on a product that is so clearly not done yet. What the Xoom and Android 3.0 offer right now as a core tablet experience is really solid, especially if you use a lot of Google services. It fares better against the iPad 2 than you would think. But it’s hard to fully grok what the cohesive Android experience is really going to be like right now. If you don’t know you want the Xoom immediately, wait. Wait for the bugfixes. Wait for Flash. Most of all, wait for the apps. I hate the idea of buying anything based on its potential because it may never fulfil it, but that’s really what you’re doing with the Xoom. Fortunately, it’s got a lot of it. Which means so does almost every other remotely Android 3.0 tablet coming down to the pipe.

Video by Woody Jang

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