REVIEW: Motorola XOOM Honeycomb tablet

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xoom-top.jpgreview-line.JPGName: XOOM (Motorola)

Type: Android Honeycomb Tablet

Specs: Click here for full specs

Price: £479.99 from PC World

Image Gallery: Click here
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The Motorola XOOM is a fairly tricky device to review. On the one hand, you have a high-spec tablet device that’s packed full of enough features to really give the Apple’s iPad a run for its money. On the other hand, as the first tablet to hit the market with the Honeycomb OS, it’s very much a guinea pig for Google’s newly-focussed tablet assault with Android. As a result, it’s just as much a critique of the OS (which Motorola likely had very little input with) as it is the device itself, and in many respects can therefore act as a glimpse as to what to expect from Android tablets in the future. Is the XOOM’s hardware/OS combo enough to topple Apple’s “magical” slate?
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Hardware

At 10.1 inches in a 16:9 aspect ratio, the XOOM is a tad longer than the iPad 2 and, at 13mm thick and 730g, a little chunkier too. That’s in part thanks to a dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor clocked at 1GHz. It results in a tablet that is incredibly zippy to use, powering through full multi-tasked web browsing, app usage and HD media playback, with barely a stutter. It also means fingering through the 1280×800 resolution touchscreen feels mightily responsive, which is particularly useful given the touch-and-drag focus of the new Honeycomb OS, which we’ll get onto in a second.

The tablet-and-touch-focussed version of Android pretty much does away with the need for physical hardware buttons, and as a result the front screen side of the XOOM is reserved purely for the touchscreen, apart from the relatively small bezel. It makes the XOOM a sleek little number in the looks department, despite its relative heft when compared to the iPad 2. The lack of face buttons does lead to the rather confusing placement of the power button however, found on the rear of the tablet. You wont have to re-adjust your grip on the tablet to turn it off, but you’ll likely inadvertently end up fingering the rear camera sensor as you fumble about for the power.

That rear camera is of the 5MP variety, also capable of 720p video capture, and is flanked by a 2MP front-facing camera for video chat and the odd Facebook vanity shot. Paired with 32GB of memory, you’ll be bale to snap and record pretty much to your heart’s content, with an update allowing for SD card expansion in the pipeline. Many have criticised the XOOMs high entry price, but in reality its increased storage space over the entry-level 16GB iPad 2 puts it level-pegging with the 32GB Wi-Fi iPad 2, while its potential for expansion beats even that model in this regard.

Charging from empty in around 3 hours, the XOOM annoyingly uses a proprietary AC charger, meaning that you wont be able to trickle feed the battery from a USB connection when side-loading content from a PC. The battery is good for a strong 10 hours when fully charged however, and around a week in standby, depending on the connectivity options you have active. You’ll also be able to do HDMI mirroring to a flatscreen TV via a port on the tablet’s lower edge, though we weren’t supplied with the additional cable for this review.

We tested a Wi-Fi version of the XOOM (802.11n w/Personal Hotspot) though a 3G variant will also be in shops soon for a few more quid.

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Honeycomb

Honeycomb has been touted as the update to really make Android OS-touting tablets shine, and from the outset you can tell Google mean business. The futuristic Tron-like black and blue colour scheme and highly customisable interface makes for a very serious looking OS, and arguably an intimidating one too. What it lacks in simplicity over iOS, it more than makes up for with tinkering possibilities, making it better suited for tech-savvy power users than the family-friendly Apple software.

The main selling point of Honeycomb over iOS is the implementation of widgets, cornering off little sections of the five swipe-able homescreen for live updates from a number of sources. For instance, you can have widgets displaying your latest emails, calendar updates, weather, news headlines or playlists, which can be dragged and dropped around any area of the screen. They’re not merely visual snippets of the full-fat apps associated with them either; many have functionality to edit and interact with them from the actual widgets themselves, without needing to open up the full screen apps that partner them. However many widgets are a little too small and fiddly for our liking, with controls too titchy to comfortably use. Paired with the fact that you can have as many as 56 app shortcuts on each homescreen, there’s the potential for screens to get a little too busy if you don’t organise them carefully. Some larger widgets with a visual-rather-than-text-heavy interface will undoubtedly eventually make this feature shine.

With the Home, Menu, Back and Search buttons usually associated with Android devices gone, navigating Honeycomb on the XOOM is via touchscreen controls in the lower left-hand of the screen. Home and Back virtual buttons take their place, now joined by a stack icon that throws up a thumbnail list of all your recently used apps. Placed in a static control strip along the bottom edge of the screen that also presents notifications in the bottom right corner, Honeycomb is a multi-taskers dream, offering multiple ways to quickly jump between open applications. These virtual buttons (which are joined by a Menu icon only when an older Android app requires it) also intelligently shift placement when the XOOM tablet is rotated, meaning they’ll always sit in the bottom left corner no matter what orientation the device is in. One slight bug-bear though is the nature of the icons themselves; they’re a little too abstract and cryptic in design, meaning that a first-time user will have to go through a series of trial-and-error experiments before fully understanding what each icon does.

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Apps

If there is one ace up the iOS sleeve that Google still haven’t managed to match Apple on, that is the quality of the App Store. Though the Android Market is now growing at an impressive rate, and nearly all apps designed for builds of Android, pre-Honeycomb, still work on the newly tablet-focussed OS, there is a saddening lack of Honeycomb-optimised apps. This is sure to change sooner rather than latter, but as it stands, there isn’t much of note to pop onto your XOOM tablet. This fact is exacerbated by the Android Market store; though now scaled up and presented in a grid that makes it a dream to navigate on a tablet, there is no dedicated Honeycomb section, meaning you’re going to have to trawl through search results to find apps designed primarily for your new 10-inch toy.

It’s a shame, because what’s on offer so far is handled incredibly well by the XOOM, especially in terms of multitasking. The 3D Dungeon Defenders game ran like a breeze on the tablet, and would surely have stuttered along at a terrifying rate on the Samsung Galaxy Tab. We were also able to jump back and forth to the Pulse news-reading app, where its scrollable visual news sections were a far better fit when compared to the app on Android smartphones. Likewise, the pre-installed Google Sky Maps, showing the names of each constellation up above our heads, worked far better with the extra screen real estate.

A fair few apps come pre-installed on the XOOM, and many of them are Google-built, Honeycomb-optimised versions of Android apps. These include Gmail, Google Talk, Maps, Books and the browser, each with little tweaks to make better use of the tablet format. Gmail, for instance, is now fully drag-and-drop compatible, meaning you can easily pop emails into folders or trash areas without having to resort to pop up menus. While the XOOM isn’t the most comfortable size for long reading sessions, Books is surprisingly impressive, with page turn animations trumping other versions. Maps too now makes use of advanced multi-touch gestures, meaning you can angle maps to give 3D views of topography and cityscapes.

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The browser is perhaps the biggest pre-installed app “Win” over the iPad though, easily beating the touch version of Safari. This is in no small part due to full Flash functionality once you’ve grabbed the app from the Android Market. Using both tablets side by side, it’s surprising how much content is lost without Flash functionality, though equally shocking how quickly we’d become used to its absence in the tablet form factor. It’s further fuel to the fire that Apple really should put their differences aside with Adobe and pop it into their next iOS overhaul. Elsewhere the browser impresses with its tabbed browsing and the ability to sync bookmark data with your desktop version of the Chrome browser.

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Media playback / Media purchasing

The 16:9 ratio of the XOOM, paired with the impressive processing power on show, make the tablet a pretty special device when it comes to playing back media. From Flash video to an impressive pre-installed YouTube app, you’ll be watching great video content within minutes of firing up the XOOM.

HD content is particularly handled well, supporting all sorts of formats such as MPEG4, H.263 and H.264 video files without a hitch. It did however struggle with .mkv extensions. Contrast ratio and brightness overall were a little less impressive than the iPad 2, though only noticeably when in direct comparison, with both tablet screens equally prone to smudging and greasy finger marks. More annoyingly is speaker placement; high up on the rear of the device, they’re projecting sound in the completely wrong direction, meaning headphone use is a must, though the speakers admittedly did well to keep audio from distorting.

Sadly, there’s no native way to purchase video or music from the XOOM, with only the Amazon MP3 app any real solution when it comes to getting tracks onto your tablet. You’ll have to hook up the tablet to a computer to get media onto XOOM, and is in no way as streamlined a process as browsing the iTunes store, nor as portable as the device is still tied to a desktop machine in order to get the most from it.

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Camera

Though using a tablet for a camera is unavoidably not an ideal way to snap special moments, we’d rather have the functionality than not, and in that respect the XOOM performs admirably. The 2MP camera was more than capable of watchable video chat through the Google Talk app, and the 5MP rear camera with twin LED flash delivered as crisp a shot as we’ve seen from a tablet, providing you can hold the unwieldy device steadily. Likewise 720p video capture was impressive, if marred slightly by the shakiness caused by trying to record with a device the size of a weighty graphic novel.

The camera interface itself should be praised though. With so much extra screen space to use, plenty of picture tweaking controls are on screen at once on the right hand side, presented in a dial, letting you adjust picture quality, aperture settings and fun effects without having to trawl through multiple menu levels.

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Verdict:

The XOOM, though now looking a little chunky in comparison to the iPad 2, is a solid performer on nearly every front, though a few oversights hold it back from true greatness. Annoying charging restrictions and poor speaker placement spring to mind, but the main criticisms lie with Honeycomb itself. Though obviously oozing potential, there are still far too few Honeycomb apps available, while the widgets are frustratingly fiddly to tinker with.

Motorola took a gamble when agreeing to be the first tablet manufacturer to adopt Google’s new OS, and while doing a good enough job to make this easily the best Android tablet available, you cant help but think that the XOOM (or at least the OS that it is built upon) if a few months away from being truly fighting fit. Motorola should be praised for what they’ve managed here, but you would imagine that that rivals such as Samsung and LG will look at the XOOM, springboard over its fledgling mistakes and improve upon them, resulting in a brave but naïve venture from Motorola. For the time being then, the iPad 2 remains top to the tablet pile, but the gap is closing all the time.

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4/5

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Motorola XOOM: GALLERY

Gerald Lynch

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