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Android Honeycomb is the slickest, most elegant version of Android yet, while Moto's black, sturdy chassis is solid but inspiring
The tablet-optimised version of Android is intuitive and easy to use with an excellent new notifications system and a graceful new way to customise home screens
The first Honeycomb tablet is packed to hilt with media specs: dual-core 1GHz processor with 1GB of RAM, dual cameras, a full HTML tabbed browser, support for tons of online video including Flash and a 10.1 multi-touch-screen.
Though the OS is intuitive and multitasking fast and smooth, the Xoom feels unfinished, with most downloaded apps crashing repeatedly. The lack of tablet-specific apps on the Android Market could affect purchasers
Above average, as it lasts a few days between charges
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,6/19/2011 10:09:49 AM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Excellent browser with cool tablet-specific features, intuitive OS, great Gmail and Talk interface
Programs often crashed, dearth of apps in Android Market with no filter to see tablet-optimised ones, lack of unique interface means it may not stand out in the soon-to-grow tablet market
Android or Apple? It's not just the smartphone wars that have boiled down to this – after a year of owning the tablet sphere, Apple finally has some competition in the incoming slew of Android tablets. Motorola's Xoom is the first to launch with Android Honeycomb, the inaugural tablet version of Google's open source software that is the counter to Apple's elegant but restrictive iOS. There are more than enough tasty pieces of Honeycomb to savour, but can it catch up after the iPad's one-year headstart?
As far as tablets go, the Xoom is a bit of a bruiser – 730g heavy with a 10.1-inch touch-screen set in a comparatively thick 12.9mm chassis. Though that actually makes it a shade smaller than the first iPad, it's far heftier than the 8.8mm iPad 2. An inch-thick bezel edges the touch-screen, with a two-megapixel camera in the middle. A Motorola logo in the top left indicates that the tablet is intended to be used in landscape orientation, though accelerometers do ensure the screen rotates. The aluminium back is slate-coloured with a matt black section housing the five-megapixel camera, dual LED flash and speaker vents. It's all very professional rather than sexy looking, not unlike Moto's power-smartphone Milestone range.
At its base are the HDMI slot and microUSB charging port while the 3.5mm audio jack and SIM slot are at the top. Redundantly, the Wi-Fi-only model has a (non-working) SIM slot too. Our first ease of use hiccup came early on – trying to turn the tablet on. We finally located the power button on the back cover. As it also wakes the Xoom from sleep, its location isn't very intuitive – if you're using the tablet flat on a surface, you have to lift it just to bring the screen to life.
The Android Honeycomb OS has had a major overhaul for tablet optimisation. Instead of the standard four Android buttons, there are three icons at the bottom left of every screen for back, home, and multitasking. The universal search button is nowhere to be seen. The five customisable home screens can be swiped on a 3D carousel, and adding new shortcuts or widgets is an immensely simplified, graceful process. As with smartphone-Android, you simply hold down on any home screen, which brings up the apps/widgets/shortcuts menu and a view of all five home screens. You can then drag and drop any icon onto the desired home screen, and tap on the one you want to return to normal view. The all-apps menu can be brought up by tapping an icon in the top right corner, while deleting shortcuts or uninstalling apps is also a simple matter of drag and drop.
Where smartphone manufacturers, and indeed Motorola, have created custom 'skins' to sit atop the Android OS, the Xoom runs on plain, vanilla Android. That's no aesthetic problem, as Honeycomb is swishier and slicker than any past version of the OS. It also finally sounds the death knell for the big-phone complex of tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab or Dell Streak – Honeycomb is built to be used in landscape and its spacious design has far more in common with a laptop display than a smartphone screen.
As with all things Android, you'll need a Gmail account to activate the tablet, which will then sync contacts, calendar and email with this main account. Via a separate email app, Microsoft Exchange and Hotmail accounts can also be fully synced, while other webmail can also be added – email only though.
Notifications are displayed in the bottom right corner along with the time, internet and battery status. This includes email alerts as well as events from any apps you've downloaded - for example, new Facebook messages, Twitter mentions and even the weather if you've got something like the Weatherbug app. Tapping the notification expands it and you can tap again to be taken directly to the app in question. This is where the Xoom (and the Honeycomb OS) really sticks it to the iPad – you can leave all notifications in the bar to be read later, where the iPad's notifications either need to be read immediately, or found later by going into the relevant app separately.
We love the new multitasking bar, which is easily accessed in a single tap from any screen. It brings up the last five programs used in a left-hand side column showing a thumbnail of each, and you can tap to head to that program.
Email is finally displayed in a tablet-friendly two-column interface as it is on the iPad, with one showing the inbox, the other a reading panel. Gmail in particular is – expectedly – perfectly implemented with the full line-up of desktop features, including all custom labels, priority inbox view and the ability to archive emails. The Talk IM app is also far better suited to tablet than phone, with a similar two-column view for contacts and open conversations.
We found the touch-screen responsive, fast and accurate, and soon picked up speed typing four-finger style on the virtual QWERTY. You probably won't be using it to type sagas to far-off BFFs, but for quick replies to those urgent emails, the Xoom more than delivers.
We had no problems adding Hotmail and Yahoo! accounts to the (non-Gmail) Email app, but trying to add less common webmail accounts – in our tests, a live.co.uk account – continually brought up a manual setup screen that insists you choose whether your account is POP3 or IMAP, input domain details and at the end of all that, claims 'server errors' are preventing it from loading your mail. If you use one of the 'main' webmail services, this isn't an issue of course, but it is one of the glitches that show how the OS is, like so many Google products, still in beta.
The preloaded Dolphin browser is the best we've seen on a tablet yet, with multi-touch support (pinch to zoom), Flash support, and tabbed browsing. Like Google's Chrome desktop browser, you can even turn on private browsing. There's a cool shortcut where you can swipe out from the left to bring up quick controls for back, search, home, and so on. You'll need to update the Flash player to the latest 10.1 version, which is in beta for Honeycomb only. This probably explains why the browser crashed or froze quite often during our review period.
We put Dolphin through its paces on all manner of websites, and the only one it struggled with was Facebook – specifically its pop up photo gallery. Tapping on photos often had no result, and when we did get the pop up gallery, we couldn't scroll down to view comments, while tapping to see the next photo was a jerky process.
While Flash support means you get to stream video, you can also easily add your own movies and music to the Xoom by using the USB connector and dragging and dropping. The HDMI slot also lets you hook up to an HDTV to watch what you've stored on the tablet.
Motorola has skimped on the preloaded apps, and to get at the meat of what a tablet can offer, you'll need to hit the Android Market and start downloading. There aren't too many Honeycomb-optimised apps yet, and frustratingly, there's currently no way to filter out the tablet apps from the regular apps. As with iPhone/iPad apps, most work on both platforms, but just look more pixelated. For the likes of Facebook and Twitter though, you won't really notice any functional difference.
Downloaded apps automatically land on the home screen - like the iPad, unlike Android phones. Speed issues due to too many open programs seem to be a problem of the past, as the Xoom's dual-core 1GHz chip and 1GB of RAM handled high-load programs with ease, but we found many of our downloaded apps crashed multiple times – likely due to software glitches.
Though there are a few decent apps – Amazon's Kindle is one – it's one area where Android tablets can't yet hold a candle to the iPad. There just isn't the same breadth of apps that truly take advantage of what the tablet medium can offer with its bigger processing power and larger screen.
Surprisingly, the five-megapixel camera on the Xoom takes rather blurry photos even in daylight, and the eye-burningly bright dual LED flash doesn't do much for clarity in lowlight, though colours were decent. Still, a 10-inch slate was never going to be your go-to camera, and what is fun about the Xoom is the colour filters you can apply to your photos. The two-meg front-facer is good entertainment for photobooth style shots - and theoretically video calls. However, Skype doesn't support video calling on Android yet, and the second-most popular option Fring crashed repeatedly on our model.
As a sat nav, the Xoom could be a tad large unless you have a handy passenger holding it just so for you. But Google Navigation is a great, free app that offers voice directions, road-ahead view as well as information on nearby points of interest. The A-GPS is accurate, but you'll need to pick up the more expensive 3G version in order to actually use this as a sat nav.
Android Honeycomb has all the potential in the world to slam iOS to the ground – it's powerful, intuitive and more elegant than any version of Android yet. Loading it with media is a simple drag and drop process, while excellent app integration means push notifications all pop up in the same place and information is easily accessed. The browser in particular is on par with what you'd get on a desktop – but unfortunately it, like so much of the OS, is plagued with regular freezes and crashes. Like builds of Android versions past, Honeycomb is an unfinished product with more than a few creases that won't be ironed out till the next update – and that means until then, the Xoom isn't a finished product either.