Critics' Choice: Motorola Xoom Tablet Review

The reviews for Motorola's Xoom Android tablet are in. The consensus: it's the first serious iPad competitor, and in some cases it bests Apple's tablet.

However, Motorola might enjoy its competitive advantage for, oh, about one week, as Apple is expected to announce the iPad 2 on March 2. And while the Xoom comes with impressive specs and features, reviewers are finding a number of problems--not atypical for a first-generation device.

Here's what reviewers for CNET, The New York Times, PC Magazine, PC World, and The Wall Street Journal had to say about the Xoom.

Motorola Xoom specs

But first, a quick look at the Android tablet's specs:

* Cost is $800 without contract or $600 from Verizon with a two-year data plan contract.

* OS: Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), the first Android OS designed for tablets and not phones.

* Dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor with 1 GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash storage.

* Measures 9.8 by 6.6 by 0.5 inches; weighs 1.6 pounds.

* Connections: microUSB, HDMI output.

* 10.1-inch screen with 1,280 x 800-pixel WXGA resolution.

* Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11n, 3G (software-upgradeable to Verizon 4G), Bluetooth 2.1.

* Sensors: Accelerometer, gyroscope, and barometer (which no apps yet support).

Motorola Xoom performance: zippy, for the most part

Given the Motorola Android tablet's dual-core processor and 1 GB of memory, most reviewers were impressed by its performance. "I easily and speedily moved through menus, through large collections of digital images, and through the redesigned Android Market," notes Melissa J. Perenson of PC World. "Even the file transfer speeds via USB were impressive…I transferred 700MB of digital pictures to the Xoom in just 3 minutes."

On the other hand, CNET's Donald Bell writes that the Xoom "seemingly offers no practical speed advantage over the iPad" when performing everyday tasks, such as "video playback, gaming, browsing, and e-mail." Bell adds that the Xoom vs. first-generation iPad performance difference is more noticeable when multitasking. "System performance purrs along, even with multiple browser tabs open, Pandora playing in the background, and e-mail notifications popping up."

Android 3.0 OS is  sophisticated but a bit puzzling

One of the Xoom's most important differentiators is its status as the first device with Google's Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb) mobile OS--which was designed specifically for tablet use. Previous tablets used versions of the Android OS designed with smartphones in mind and modified for tablets.

"The OS is vastly superior to its predecessor and is so different to use that it's practically unrecognizable as a close relative of the Android widely deployed today," says PC World. "The software's tablet optimization was evident in the home screens, the widgets, the music player, the browser, the e-mail, and even the YouTube player."

CNET agrees, adding: "Even experienced Android users will need some time to get accustomed to Honeycomb's navigation." For instance: Android's familiar four-button navigation at the bottom of the screen? Gone.

"I've always felt that Android had a rough-around-the edges, geeky feel, with too many steps to do things and too much reliance on menus," observes Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal. "But Honeycomb eliminates much of that. Actions like composing emails, or changing settings are much more obvious and quicker. The smart but cluttered notification bar has been moved to the lower right and simplified. A tap on it pops up relevant information."

Several reviewers feel Android 3.0 adds unnecessary complexity as well as sophistication. "A task as simple as opening the lock screen plays out like an IQ puzzle," says CNET.

The tablet screen features two strips of tiny icons. The top row icons relate to the program you're currently using, while the bottom row is for status icons and such. "But these icons are darned cryptic; you'd think they were designed by aliens," writes David Pogue in The New York Times. "Google seems to have overlooked a huge drawback of unlabeled icons on a touch-screen computer: there's no way to see their names or functions before you open them. There are no pop-up tool tips, for example. All you can do is touch one to activate it, see what happens and learn from the annoying experience."

Reviewers noted that the Xoom didn't support Flash at launch but will within a matter of weeks. PC Magazine's review by Tim Gideon and PJ Jacobowitz notes the lack of Flash is "a major shortcoming" for Motorola's tablet, adding that "the consumer tech world--and the mobile world, in particular--is riddled with promises for upgrades and updates that go unfulfilled for far too long." The fact that the Xoom's Flash support "is not included at launch is pretty ridiculous."

Android 3.0 apps don't always work well on the Xoom

The Xoom arrives with Android tablet apps for email, browsing, contacts, calendar, and such that take advantage of the Xoom's screen real estate. But third-party apps don't necessarily play well with the tablet-sized Android OS. PC World's Perenson writes that "the random apps I downloaded from the Android Market didn't work on Honeycomb at all, let alone scale to the Xoom's large screen. Moreover, there's no obvious way of knowing whether an app has been optimized for Honeycomb."

The Xoom's screen: some glaring problems

Some reviewers are mostly happy with the Xoom's 1,280 x 800 resolution screen, which has a 16:10 aspect ratio and boasts a slightly higher resolution than the first-gen iPad.

"We couldn't find a bad viewing angle in any direction, and the 150 ppi pixel density is smooth for both images and text," says CNET. "That said, the screen doesn't get as bright as the iPad's, which becomes an issue if you're trying to view the screen outdoors."

But PC World "wasn't terribly impressed with the Xoom's display's quality." Among the problems are graininess; inaccurate colors; annoying grid lines that are particularly noticeable in photos and white backgrounds; and glare. "The Xoom's glare was noticeable both indoors and out; and closer inspection revealed an air gap between the glass and the display beneath. I expected better: If the Barnes & Noble NookColor could nail the screen and glare issue on its $250 e-reader tablet, why couldn't Motorola overcome glare on its $800 flagship device?"

Battery tests - not as robust as the first-gen iPad

The Wall Street Journal's Mossberg says the Xoom falls short of its 10 hours of video playback claim. "I performed the same battery test on the Xoom as I have on other tablets," Mossberg writes. "I played video constantly with the connectivity turned on and the screen at almost full brightness until the battery died. Alas, while the Xoom claims up to 10 hours of video playback, I got just 7 hours and 32 minutes. By contrast, on the same test, the iPad, which also claims 10 hours, logged 11.5 hours, or four hours more."

Cameras and video chat - a 'Comically Large Camera'

Motorola's tablet PC features a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash for photos and 720p HD video recording and a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for video chat.

Still-image quality "is about what we'd expect from any high-end smartphone: good, but not point-and-shoot quality, and easily ruined by fingerprints on the lens," notes CNET. "In spite of its capabilities, the Xoom makes for a comically large camera or camcorder by today's standards. We felt a bit silly snapping photos in public, holding the Xoom up in the air like Moses on the mountain."

Some reviewers had no problems conducting Google Talk video chats on the Xoom, while others weren't as lucky. "We tested the camera using the included Google Talk app, and it worked without a hitch over both Wi-Fi and Verizon's 3G data connection," says CNET. Video chats worked "like a charm" for PC Magazine. But The Wall Street Journal's Mossberg reports that a video chat "broke up or froze several times over Verizon's network, but we eventually got it to work pretty well on Wi-Fi."

Conclusions: nice tablet, but you should probably wait

"If you're interested in a tablet, you'd be wise to wait a couple of months," notes Pogue of the Times. "You'll want to consider whatever Apple has up its sleeve for the iPad's second coming, of course, but also Research in Motion's business-oriented BlackBerry PlayBook and Hewlett-Packard's juicy-looking TouchPad tablet, which runs the webOS software (originally designed by ex-Apple engineers for the Palm Pre smartphone)."

Sums up PC World: "All in all, the device is a solid but imperfect first effort. Platform stability and 4G can come with future software upgrades, and the bugs in the graphics and video rendering will (I hope) be fixable through software, too. But the screen's annoying grid effect can't be fixed by a simple update."

And finally, this wrap-up from PC Magazine: "The Xoom is beautiful, with an intuitive user interface, excellent screen quality, and some very useful apps and features, like Talk and the dual cameras with a built-in flash. Whether the Android Market will catch up to Honeycomb, however, also remains to be seen."

James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 90s and is the author of Traveler 2.0, a mobile technology blog for travelers.Follow him on Twitter.


Android, mobile, hardware, Motorola, tablet review