Feb. 23, 2011 at 9:13 PM ET
The Android tablets out on the market have been weak in the face of the iPad. But after testing out Motorola's Xoom, it's clear the first Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet has what it takes to compete head to head. Though it's got some growing pains ahead, the young tablet is already a contender. All that's needed before it can really gain momentum is a lineup of killer apps — and a better price.
The tablet shows up ready to get to work — mostly. The 1280x800 screen is slightly higher in resolution than the iPad's, and has a wider, movie-friendly aspect ratio. Its colors and sharpness don't quite pop like the iPad's, but that's only noticeable side by side.
Beneath the glass is a powerhouse: A dual-core 1GHz processor backed with 1GB of RAM means that it has enough horsepower to support 3-D gaming and graphics intensive applications on the 1280x800 screen. It's got two cameras — a 2MP front-facing one, and a 5MP one in the rear. It can shoot 720p video, and even output it through its HDMI cable. That doesn't necessarily mean you can fill it up with HD movies and expect to play them all on your HDTV — it didn't support much of the video that I loaded up for testing — but the capability is there.
Speaking of video, the Adobe Flash that Honeycomb tablets are famously supposed to support is not ready yet, so I was unable to test it.
All of this performance doesn't seem to have a real negative impact on battery life: After testing over the past few days, I can concur with the 10-hour battery life statement made by Motorola. Speaking of Flash, one rumor is that the Flash will tax the battery life — true or not, it would only matter if you were sitting there watching Flash video for hours on end.
The Xoom I reviewed has a cellular connection from Verizon. Currently it supports the carrier's 3G network, so the speed you get when not on Wi-Fi is rather slow. But included in the purchase price is an upgrade to Verizon's blazingly fast 4G LTE network. We don't have the details on that yet, but for people who don't mind paying for wireless service, it will certainly be a nice bonus.
(The carrier's 4G-upgrade info site isn't live at press time, but it should be up any time now, so click here to check.)
The big differences
Although the Xoom and other announced tablets have one-upped the current iPad with the dual cameras and the dual-core processors, it's a fair bet that even a modest iPad refresh will include both of those.
What's more up in the air is whether or not Apple will answer Honeycomb's user interface advantages. I am very close to loving the home screen, five panels that can hold not only icons but floating bits of applications, called widgets. Flip through YouTube videos or newly purchased e-books, scroll through e-mails or grocery list items, get social media updates from Facebook and Twitter, all without leaving the home screen.
Android users have long loved widgets, but on a tablet they have even greater potential. I chose those words carefully, because in Honeycomb, most of the widgets still appear to be sized for a phone. I want big widgets. I want to be able to resize a Gmail inbox widget to fill half a screen, or to view eight browser bookmarks at a time, rather than just four. Alas, it's early yet. Tablet widgets will continue to evolve, presumably making me increasingly happier as they do.
What already makes me happy is the notification system. Android users love the slide-out tray at the top of the screen, that tells them all kinds of things going on in their busy little phones. But it's a bit tacky. In Honeycomb it's more elegant, popping up from below with a tap. All of my mail, news feed, social, app and system updates are visible there. It strikes me as a little bit like a PC, but in a good way.
The app switcher, a small button on the bottom left of the screen that brings up thumbnails of the five most recent apps and their screen contents is a stroke of brilliance, and beats the tar out of the iPad's hackneyed switcher.
The first apps
Of course, the first apps to hit Honeycomb are Google's own, and many are just what you'd expect. The browser that works just fine — Android devices have long had smooth-running browsers, and it will presumably only get better when the Flash update arrives. Maps is a supersized version of the 3-D app that hit Android phones a few months back.
Google Talk has built-in support for video conferencing, so you can actually use the Xoom to chat up people who use the Chrome browser on their computers. Testing it over Wi-Fi, where it should be on its best behavior, it was serviceable, though a little muddy.
Gmail is great. The two-pane e-mail approach — mailbox on the left, full text on the right — may be cliché, but it's cliché for the simple reason that it's the best way to read mail. Coupled with the desktop widget and subtle notifications, the Gmail integration is, not surprisingly, unparalleled.
There were a few apps with whizzy features, built by Google mainly to show off the tablet's graphics capabilities. The Music app has a smooth rip-off of Apple's "Cover Flow," where album art flies past you as you run your finger across the screen. YouTube is just YouTube, only now you get a giant wall of thumbnails when you fire it up. And the Books app, whose catalog and device compatibility isn't enough to compete with Amazon's Kindle, or even Barnes & Noble's Nook, makes up for it (sorta) with a 3-D page turn effect that is positively mesmerizing.
Perhaps most unexpected was Movie Studio, a great little video editor with very intuitive controls. I still wouldn't shoot movies with the tablet though — shooting anything with it feels too weird.
What isn't up to snuff
It's easy to find things to complain about, as you can see above, but the issues are mostly superficial -- in some cases, literally superficial. Though quite sturdy, the body is cased in a plastic body that is so easily scuffed that I made scratch marks on it when I was removing it (carefully) from the packaging. The scuffs mostly wipe off, but the thing will look perpetually battle damaged. The screen too is not as "oleophobic" as Apple's, so I had to keep the microfiber cloth handy.
I do wish, though, that Google would acknowledge that this is a movie device. Movies are still buried under the Gallery icon, lumped together like cattle on a train. It's bad enough that Google still doesn't have a credible answer to iTunes, and still hasn't closed the deal with Netflix, Hulu or any of the other Apple-friendly video providers out there. At least let us bring our own movies from ... wherever ... and browse them in a more friendly interface. (Seriously, Google, you can even call it Movie Player!)
The app story
This last gripe actually segues nicely into a larger point: A tablet is only as good as its apps. The iPad was embraced quickly by publishers, Hollywood studios and independent creative geniuses alike, and I am heartened to see that at least some of that is finally making its way to the Android App Store.
A slew of Dr. Seuss titles just arrived, finally disproving my contention that Android wasn't friendly enough to premium kid-content producers. But I am hoping that Honeycomb draws in bigger video providers — yes, for the umpteenth time, I'm talking about NETFLIX!! — and some subscription content from magazine publishers as well.
The Android App Market only this evening got a moniker reading "Android Apps for Tablets" — at least, it showed up on the Xoom's Market — and what appears under that heading will be something we'll look at in the days and weeks to come. The success of the Android tablet program will be measured by what others build for it; no verdict on this premier device is worth acting on until we know more about the apps.
Buyer be where?
I hope I've instilled some cautious optimism in you. Where the original Samsung Galaxy Tab was really only made for books and video, the Xoom represents the start of a real computing platform. But the Xoom itself is leading a posse of tablets coming to a wireless carrier or retailer near you, among them the LG G-Slate and the 10-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. Supposing you are dead set on Android, which one would you choose?
As Engadget and others have remarked following side-by-side examinations, there's not a lot to differentiate one from the other: All will have dual-core 1GHz processors, all will have 10-inch widescreens, all will have the Honeycomb OS. You will have a hard time telling them apart down at the coffee shop, and though pricing hasn't been announced on the latter two, your wallet will probably have a hard time telling them apart too.
That's why it's such a bummer that Android tablets are priced so high.
I don't like to freak out about pricing, but the 3G/4G version I reviewed costs $600 with a 2-year contract, $800 without. Even when the Wi-Fi-only Xoom comes to market later this spring, it will cost $600. That's too much.
It should be obvious that if Apple stays $100 cheaper than the competition, it will soundly beat said competition. Normally, companies have to charge less than Apple to keep up. With an iPad refresh only days away, it's hard for Motorola and its competition to claim a performance advantage — the new iPad will likely match specs with these Android tabs.
And though Android has gathered an impressive army of followers, it's not clear if it's enough for Moto and its ilk to say, simply, "We're Android." The coming months will surely tell.
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