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Monday
Apr112011

Review: Motorola XOOM WiFi Honeycomb tablet

By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla

It is finally here. The Motorola XOOM WiFi 32GB  tablet. This is the very first 10.1" inch tablet running the all new made-for-tablets Android Honeycomb OS. A device of many firsts, the Motorola XOOM also pioneers the use of a dual core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor with 1GB RAM, offers HD playback at  full-1080p and micro HDMI-out, We check it out and put it through its paces.

New breed of Android

Three faces of Android: The Samsung Nexus S, the Motorola XOOM and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch

Out of the box, the Motorola XOOM feels like a premium device. Aside from the 10.1" inch 1280 by 800 pixel screen (covered in Corning's Gorilla Glass), it is composed of dark grey aluminium and rubber and has a sleek overall feel with no physical buttons on the front on the device.

Motorola has done a great job with building a solid and functional device that's as smooth as any we've seen. The bezel surrounding the screen is thin, volume buttons are almost flush with the body and nothing sticks out unnecessarily. In fact, the on/off button isn't that easy to find (it is behind near the speaker and rear camera). It won't win any thin and light contests, specially against the thinner and lighter iPad 2 but it not a dealbreaker.

The Motorola XOOM WiFi ($599) comes with a proprietary wall charger and a microUSB port as well as a few manuals. No case, microfiber cloth or stand is included in the package and all the XOOM accessories are still a few weeks away which is unfortunate. Motorola offers a number of audio video dock solutions, a leather case as well as a Bluetooth keyboard for the XOOM.

The XOOM will not charge via microUSB which means you need to take the charger with you if you will use it for extended periods.

One good thing about the Motorola XOOM's charging situation is that can charge twice as fast as any other tablet we have tried to date and you can pretty much get from empty to a full charge in 4 hours. After using the XOOM for around  five days, we were averaging around 8 hours use with WiFi on and playing videos, surfing the web and managing e-mail.

Comparing it to Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7-inch, which has a mostly plastic and glass construction, the Motorola XOOM feels more substantial but feels less rugged. While we're confident that the Gorilla Glass screen can survive scratches, the brushed aluminum casing scratches easily so any protective case is a good investment.

The XOOM is slightly wider than the iPad 2 due to the larger screen

At 730g the Motorola XOOM is actually slightly heavier and than the original iPad (713g) and a few notches heavier than the iPad 2 (600g). This isn't a tablet you will want to hold with one hand for prolonged periods of time so we suggest getting a tablet stand to serve as a makeshift dock like the Griffin Technology Loop to prop it up. 

The Motorola XOOM's design is great for landscape orientation and most apps and specially for working on e-mail,  playing back video. Using the XOOM in portrait mode (for reading webpages, eBooks, comics and others) takes some getting used to and may not feel natural to iPad users.

The XOOM has a micro HDMI port (which means all you need is a micro HDMI to HDMI cable in order to output full HD video to any HDTV) as well as a microUSB port for connecting to PC's. There's a 5 MP rear-facing camera with dual LED flash/2MP front-facing camera.

These are smartphone-level quality cameras but nothing spectacular in terms of quality. The Honeycomb OS does offer a full complement of camera controls and 720p HD video recording capability.

Not that the tablet form factor is in any way ideal for photos or video recording but you never know. Cameras are good for video conferencing via GTalk and Fring and even Skype.

The XOOM features a 1GHz, dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, which combines a CPU and GPU on one chip. You do feel the device's power when using Google Maps 5.0 with the new 3D effects as well as when you are surfing complex websites. Performance overall is great although we've not had much chance of testing it with actual Honeycomb-designed apps.

WiFi enabled tablets make perfect sense now that most new smartphones can easily share their data plan through wireless hotspot features of smartphones.

Honeycomb, half-baked but promising

The Motorola XOOM's physical dimensions and hardware are half the Android tablet story. The XOOM is, after all, the first device anointed to debut Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS which is designed from the ground-up to run on tablets. All the upcoming Honeycomb tablets will offer a similar user experience, similar use cases and apps.

After ambling on with Android 2.2 Froyo on the Samsung Galaxy Tab for the past seven months, we got used to the supersized smartphone experience on a 7" inch tablet but felt there was much more to be desired. Honeycomb brings an entirely new interface that is designed around tablets. 

The hardware touch buttons for Home, Back and Menu have now been replaced by sofware buttons that appear at the bottom regardless of the XOOM's orientation. A new button accesses recent or open applications so you can effectively multitask back and forth.

You still have to manage your apps with a task manager or app killer as Android applications do not close down by themselves after you've used them.

Many of Google's own apps (namely GMail, Google Maps, the browser and the Android Marketplace) have been rejigged to make use of the larger screen and functionality.  GMail is particularly impressive and offers some niceties like dar-and-drop editing within the application.

Honeycomb multi tasks well and you can access any of the recently opened apps from one button on the status bar. We also like the notification system that pops up new emails, app upgrade and calendar alerts at the bottom of the status bar which is both intuitive and an improvement over what we've seen on Froyo.

As quickly as we enjoyed Honeycomb's neat features, we came to the conclusion that it still has a long way to go to.

For one thing, there aren't too many Honeycomb apps available right now and the smartphone apps look simply awkward when blown up to the 10.1" inch 1280 by 800 pixel screen resolution. 

Our Favourite Twitter application, Plume, looks rather abysmal when stretched out to fit the new screen size which affects its functionality.

Unlike in iOS, you don't have the option of running apps in the actual size that they were designed for, they just fill up the whole scale.

Typing "XOOM", "HD" or "Honeycomb" in the Android Market yields very few tablet specific apps right now.

We found the new Honeycomb web browser to be adequate for most websites but were annoyed that some websites "see" the XOOM's browser as a mobile one and throw-back smartphone-formatted pages.

For productivity, we purchased QuickOffice Pro HD, which is optimized for tablets. This application enables you to create and work on Microsoft Office documents and save them on the device or on your DropBox account. We used QuickOffice Pro HD to take notes on the XOOM during a seminar and it worked like a charm. We eagerly await HD or Honeycomb-specific Android apps to appear in Google's Marketplace as the XOOM has more than enough under the hood to run a gamut of useful apps.

We compared the browser speed of the Motorola XOOM and the iPad 2 and while both were surprisingly quick, the iPad 2 seemed to finish loading pages and their graphic elements faster. The XOOM was just slightly behind in rendering elements although you could interact with the websites. The iPad 2's graphics (which are not inegrated into the CPU but run independently) seem to help give it a faster web browsing experience over WiFi.

We experienced some smartphone apps not working properly on Honeycomb and simply crashing soon after they were launched. One of our mainstay applications on our Android devices is Advanced Task Killer which helps manage applications and shuts off any apps you may not be using (to improve performance and battery life). 

Using Advanced Task Killer early on was problematic and even caused the XOOM to reset itself. Granted the XOOM has not been out for more than 2 months and thousands of apps have not yet been reworked to run smoothly on Honeycomb, it is instances like this that remind us how  new and fragile this new tablet OS still is and  that at times, it feels much like a beta release.

Google will no doubt release subsequent updates to improve things all around but right now the experience is hit or miss depending on what you are working with. 

We feel that the XOOM's hardware is more than adequate to run even processor intensive apps and it is the software that needs to be tweaked.

Video playback via HDMI to an HDTV was straightforward and surprisingly easy. Just plug it and play it and anything that is on the XOOM is replicated in HD on the HDTV. Even jaggy Flash video from YouTube or a streaming video website is somewhat watchable even on a larger screen. The best thing about this is you don't need the AV dock or any specific type of adapter. 

For travelling XOOM users with a lot of video on their device, this means you can tap into any HDMI enabled HDTV in your hotel room and stream content straightaway.

Honeycomb still feels premature and raw all around. Even the XOOM's microSD card  slot is still unavailable and is subject to a future "software upgrade." We're willing to give Honeycomb a chance and for sure it will improve with time but we hope Google doubles its efforts as these new tablets start coming to market.

As a result, the Motorola XOOM feels like a work in progress. The hardware is there, it works and first time tablet users will enjoy what it has to offer specially in terms of performance but it could  still be so much better.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Related stories

- BlackBerry PlayBook Review

- Apple iPad 2 Review

- Samsung Galaxy Tab 7" Review

- Apple iPad Review

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