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Motorola Xoom Review

Motorola Xoom

The Motorola Xoom was launched at CES, and we saw it again at MWC before it shipped on Feb. 24. In terms of hardware, the Motorola tablet offers some impressive features – including Nvidia’s dual-core “Tegra 2”  processor, which delivers great performance and makes the Xoom very responsive with speedy web browsing and a fluid 3D gaming experience. It’s the first 10.1-inch tablet featuring Android 3.0, codenamed Honeycomb, to hit the market.

Specifications

Processor: NVIDIA Tegra 2 1Ghz dual-core processor
OS: first tablet with Android 3.0 software
Display: 10.1” 1280×800, touch screen, pinch to zoom
Connectivity: 3.5mm jack, micros USB 2.0, WiFi b/g/n. Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR + HID, aGPS
Network: 3G, 4G LTE upgradeable, tethering and personal hotspot
Camera: backside 5 MP with dual LED flash – frontside 2 MP camera (webcam) – autofocus
Video: 720p capture – 1080 p playback – flash support in web browser
Memory: 32 GB built-in, 1GB DDR2 RAM, SD slot inactive for now
Sensors: Proximity, ambient light, barometer, gyroscope
Battery life: estimated by manufacturer at up to 10 hrs for video playback
Weight: 730 g – 1.6 lbs
Size: 249.1 mm x 167.8 mm x 12.9 mm

Context

Different people lead different lives, using tablets in drastically different ways, so it is always hard to aim for “objectivity” when it comes to reviewing a device like the Xoom. Let me tell you where I come from, so you can decide for yourself which topics from this review will be useful for yourself. I have been using the Motorola Xoom for about a week, as an additional device to my desktop computer, my Macbook Air, and my iPhone. Until recently, I was the owner of a first-generation iPad. (To be replaced by version 2 soon.) I use a tablet to check emails while having breakfast on the kitchen table, to watch movies, to read news and books, to play with apps, to Skype/chat with friends, to check for Facebook updates, to play music on a mini Bluetooth speaker, and to take notes during meetings. When it comes to getting real work done on-the-go, I tend to use a laptop.

External design (regular)

The iPad has set the barrier to entry very high in terms of design and price. Given the large number of units sold – more than 15 million to date, according to Apple – the market leader from California is the only tablet maker able to obtain high end materials at low prices from component suppliers, thanks to its high volume of sales. Competitors find it very hard to offer the same build quality at a comparable price point.

That said, Motorola did a honorable job on the hardware design, delivering a sleek chassis made of black matte anodized aluminum, weighing a bit more than the iPad 1, and considerably more than the iPad 2 (Xoom – 730 grams/1.6 lbs vs. iPad 1 – 680 grams/1.5 lbs vs. iPad 2 – 590 grams/1.3 lbs). The weight difference is mostly due to the bigger screen (details below). The location of the power button on the back side is ergonomically good, when you hold the Xoom in your hands, and the 5 MP camera lens and flash integration in the back is nicely done.

One of the most noticeable changes from previous Android devices is the disappearance of the physical buttons: Menu, Home, Back and Search. For a more detailed view of the Xoom, please see the photo gallery and watch the video to get an idea of what it looks like.

Display (regular with high resolution)

Xoom display 1

The iPad 2, on top, has a display with slightly more contrast than the Xoom, at the bottom

The 10.1-inch display is a bit larger and has a higher resolution (1280×800) than the iPad’s (9.7-inch, 1024×768). It also has a higher pixel density than the Apple device: 150 pixels per inch compared to 132 pixels  per inch. The Xoom’s 16:10 aspect ratio is more suitable for watching movies than the iPad’s 4:3 ratio, but it may feel slightly less comfortable for other activities, such as web browsing. In landscape mode, the pages are wide but short, while in portrait mode the display often seems a bit narrow.

Xoom display 2

iPad 1, Xoom, iPad 2 – the Xoom in the middle has the most reflective screen

When compared to the iPad using the same high-resolution photo, I could tell that the Xoom screen is a bit less contrasty and displays less saturated colors, although the overall quality is still good. The only significant downside is its overly reflective coating; the iPad display is reflective as well, but less so than the Xoom, and the unwelcome effect is even more noticeable in direct sunlight.

Audio (good)

Xoom audio 1

Testing audio using the music app and the Jambox bluetooth speaker

When I tested the audio using trailers from YouTube, the sound quality was good, better even than with the iPad 1. The Xoom had no problem connecting to the compact Bluetooth speaker Jambox. The set-up was easy and the sound experience much improved. If, like me, you do not like wearing headphones for long periods of time, the Jambox or similar wireless speakers are a good option for watching movies or listening to music with the Xoom.

Performance and hardware (very good)

Thanks to the dual-core Tegra 2 SoC, the Xoom is very responsive, and very fast, especially when browsing the web. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy Tab v1, it felt significantly faster to navigate graphics-heavy web pages like CNN.com. (The desktop version, not the one optimized for mobile browsing.) When tested against the iPad 2, page loading times were similar, but scrolling seemed a little bit less fluid on the Xoom. Nevertheless, overall scrolling speed on the Motorola tablet can be labeled as “fast”. Switching from one application to another is instantaneous and easy when you use the multitasking virtual button that provides access to the five last apps you previously opened.

Measured Performance

In every aspect of computing, you always have “measured performance” and  “perceived performance”. The perceived performance mostly comes from apps and the operating system. Software engineers can often work around hardware/driver performance – that’s typically how video games have been made for decades.

Often, people look at hardware specifications and assume that the software implementation will be perfect – that’s a very wrong assumption. Measuring the hardware is like measuring the “potential” that a system has. But this potential must be utilized by the software – only then, the potential performance can translate into “perceived” performance gains.

motorola xoom benchmark cpu benchmark
CPU Benchmark (link): this is a test of raw computational power in which a task has to be completed in a least amount of time (in milliseconds). Note: we have a number of NVIDIA Tegra powered devices, so I have colored their data in green. Unfortunately, I don’t have an equivalent test to run on the iPad 2.

motorola xoom benchmark sunspider

SunSpider is a Javascript synthetic test. Javascript is used by many modern websites, so Javascript performance can translate in perceived performance for the user. In theory, all the Tegra 2 devices should perform somewhat similarly. However, the Motorola Xoom benefits from the latest software optimizations in Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb). I think that the iPad 2 has also benefited from important software improvements in that area. This shows you how important software fine-tuning can be. Using the same Tegra 2 chip, the Xoom is almost twice as fast in this test.

motorola xoom benchmark browsermark

BrowserMark: in this browser benchmark, the Motorola Xoom easily pulls ahead of all other devices, including the iPad 2. Again, you should look at this as the result of the web browser and Javascript engine.

The Motorola Xoom has a powerful hardware, but the updated Android software is key to its performance. I wish that I had games to test the graphics capabilities, but at this point I’d be happy to just have any app designed for the Xoom’s high-resolution screen.

Android 3.0 – OS design look and feel (could be better)

Xoom icons 03

iPad 2 home screen and Xoom with Android 3.0 home screen

When it comes to the user-interface design, Android is my least favorite OS compared to iOS and Windows Phone 7. However, I have to admit that Google has made efforts in the latest Android version to unify the interface, make the design more subtle and a bit more intuitive. Nonetheless, there is a long way to go: even without making any judgment on the Tron-like style choices, the reason why the look and feel is not as appealing and elegant as the iPhone or Windows Phone 7 is a severe lack of consistency in the shapes used across the operating system. For an obvious example, take a look at the huge difference in form factor and graphic style between the system icons at the bottom – Back, Home, Recent Apps, Menu – and the applications icons displayed in the action bar at the top of the screen.

 

Xoom icons inconsistent 01

The three virtual system buttons on the left use shapes that are inconsistent with the rest of the navigation icons displayed across the OS and its applications – icons on the right and at the bottom are unified in shape

For the same reason, Android fails to deliver a sleek home screen appearance: the apps don’t have unified shapes and sizes for their icons, resulting in a disharmonious look for the whole screen. Apple does a better job by allowing developers to be very creative, but within strict guidelines that give all icons the same outer shape. This unifies their look and feel, ensuring visual cohesion: ultimately, your iPad home screen looks better. In Android, even when the app shortcuts use a similarly square shape, they often do not share the same size! (See the pictures below.)

 

Android icons inconsistent

On the left, Android 3.0 icons have different sizes and shapes – on the right, iOS icons share the same shape and size, and the majority use a same reflection effect provided by the Apple SDK

Similarly, Windows Phone 7 displays a great visual cohesion throughout the entire OS and its applications. The fact that the applications icons have to be displayed inside a square is a very simple way to ensure visual harmony. Additionally, Microsoft does a better job than any other mobile OS with typography, reinforcing visual consistency across all applications in a beautiful way. WP7 is a great example because, unlike Google with Android, Microsoft did not try to copy the iOS user interface; instead, it successfully created a brand new look .

icons wp7

Windows Phone 7 offers customization while delivering great visual cohesion – the icons apps have the same shape and size

Android’s trademark is the great flexibility it offers in customizing everything. That may be the reason why Google’s design policy allows such visual differentiation between icons. However, a solution has to be found to maintain the customization feature while delivering visual consistency across Android, and, if possible, a tasteful one.

Google’s DNA is not design: I can tell just by looking at all the user interfaces the company has produced since the early days: they’re all efficient, geared for performance (high-speed loading, low-bandwidth, intended to save money on data centers) – but not always intuitive (i.e. Google Reader) and not good looking. It is obvious that design decisions seem to be made by engineers, unlike at Apple and, most recently, at the Microsoft Mobile division. I was glad to confirm this analysis with an article written by Douglas Bowman, who was the first classically trained visual designer the company hired – after seven years of existence! That tells you how little Google used to value designers…

When you are the number one player dominating a field where data is the key metric for success, it can be hard to realize that intuitive and good looking user interfaces do make a difference and can bring more market share. Google might have started to acknowledge this since it has entered the mobile OS business, feeling the pressure from the most design-driven mass-market technology company, a.k.a. Apple.

This  is probably the reason behind the recent hiring of mobile design celebrity Matias Duarte, the man who created (with his team) the super innovative Palm Web OS for the Pre over two years ago. Matias and his team did a very decent job at enhancing the Android 3.0 user interface. I like the concept of making the system icons less visible and very subtle in form factor. However, he has still more work to do – and, maybe, more engineers to convince inside Google.

Android 3.0 aka Honeycomb User interface (good)

The Motorola Xoom is the first tablet featuring the new Android 3.0 aka Honeycomb.The most notable new feature is the higher resolution support, which allowed the manufacturer to build a device larger than 7-inch. Google has completely redesigned the user interface to make good use of the extra screen real estate. Overall, the navigation is efficient and the system is very responsive. See below for an overview of the new features.

Home screens and virtual buttons

Xoom android ui 08

The customization screen with the five screens carousel at the top and widgets below

The most noticeable design changes are the replacement of the 4 physical buttons – Home, Menu, Back and Search – by their virtual versions, and the ability to customize the five home screens in one place via a 3D carousel (see picture above). Now, all four corners of the display offer icons to navigate or to read information. The Android design team has separated them into two navigation levels:

Xoom android ui 04

The System bar with the virtual buttons Back, Home, and Recent Apps

The System Bar at the bottom displays virtual buttons for Back, Home, and Recent Apps in the left corner. On the right, various notifications including new emails, app updates, new tweets, time, WiFi or 3G connection status, and battery life status are displayed. Users have access to these functions across the system and in all applications. An additional menu icon appears, when needed, in some applications (in the left corner).

The home button will take you to the home screen, and you can access various notifications on the right side of the System Bar (see picture below).

Xoom android ui 05

Example: A Twitter notification – accessible by tapping on the tiny Twitter icon

Xoom android ui 06

Example: email notification pops up with a sound

Xoom android ui 07

Information window with all notifications accessible by tapping on the battery or connectivity icons

By tapping on the connectivity and battery icons, users can access an information window that displays the latest notifications, the time, the connectivity status and the battery status. From there, by tapping on the settings icon (below the clock), users access the basic settings including screen brightness.

The Action Bar, at the top, gives access to contextual options, navigation or widgets. On the home screen, from the top left corner (first picture below), users can access search with text or voice input. The top right corner (second picture below) provides access to  all apps – from the multiple squares icon – as well as the customization screen, via the + icon.

Xoom android ui 03

Action Bar, top left: text search and voice search

 

Xoom android ui 10

Action Bar, top right: all apps access and + icon to access the customization screen > see first picture below

 

Customizable Home Screens and Widgets (good)

Xoom android ui 09

From the customization screen users can drag and drop elements into the five home screens via a 3D carousel

As in previous versions of Android, you get five home screens to browse by swiping the display horizontally. To make life easier, Honeycomb offers a clever solution for making everything fit your own, personal needs: on the customization screen, you can simply drag and drop any element (Widgets, Apps, Wallpapers…) from the sections displayed in the middle to the screen of your choice in the 3-D carousel at the top (picture). Unlike the iPad (1 and 2), Android makes it easy to move around icons and widgets to organize the home screen any way you want. Simply press and hold on an element, then drag it to a new spot .
Android 3.0 now offers a revamped calendar widget that allows you to scroll through events, a contact widget, and more. Email is still divided into two separate widgets for Gmail and other accounts.

Xoom copy email widget

Widgets Example: the new email and claendar widgets

Xoom recent apps

Recent Apps button opens the last five apps' snapshots - scrolling is not possible

Recent Apps – multitasking (could be better)
The virtual button for recent apps is accessible from the System bar across all applications, which allows users to quickly switch to one of the five most recent applications opened. Sadly, it is not possible to scroll to access more opened apps and closing them from there is impossible. When you need to manage the running applications, you have to go to the settings and close them there. I wonder why the design team has made things so complicated, it is much easier to manage multitasking on the iPad!

Improved text selection and copy and paste (very good)

Xoom copy paste1

Improved copy / paste with new options: search, share, find accessible from the Action Bar at the top

We saw this improvement initially with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) in the Nexus S. In Honeycomb, the selection and copy/paste looks similar except for the color used for highlighting – here it’s green rather than orange, as in Android 2.3. Additionally, you can now apply other actions than just copy/paste to the selected text passage, such as share, web search or find. All these functions are accessible from the action bar.

Redesigned keyboard (very good)

Xoom keyboard

Android 3.0 redesigned keyboard in the Xoom compared to Android 2.3 keyboard featured in the Nexus S

The virtual keyboard has been redesigned to take advantage of the large screen size, keys have been modified and repositioned. Check the picture above to see the differences between the Gingerbread keyboard and the one in  Honeycomb. An emoticon key has been added as well, that’s cool. icon wink

I mostly used the keyboard for emailing and taking notes in landscape mode, and I like it a lot. It is easy to type fast on it. A very welcome  feature (not new) that is not available on the iPad is voice-to-text, directly accessible from the keyboard. When I spoke slowly enough it worked perfectly.

Updated Standard Applications

Xoom browser

Xoom browser - on the top right a drop down menu gives access to options including the incognito mode

Browser with Flash Support (very good)
The browser, presumably based on Chrome, uses multiple tabs instead of browser windows, offering a more efficient navigation experience. A drop down menu placed in the upper-right corner is also a nice addition to the enhanced interface. The new incognito mode is a good idea: accessible from the drop down menu, it lets users browse the Internet anonymously. The ability to sync bookmarks with Google Chrome is great as well. The most awaited feature to date: Flash support has been available since last Friday, yeah! I have heard that some people are considering switching from iPad to an Android tablet just to get Flash support…
The browsing experience ) is super fast, thanks to Tegra 2 and the hardware acceleration of the web page download. Its performance is comparable to the iPad 2, I have tested download time and scrolling with a few non-flash websites.

Email and Contact (Gmail good – Outlook would be ok with search)

Xoom email 02

Email client Outlook

The updated email and contact apps now display two panels, and you get new widgets that display the latest updates directly on your home screen. If you are familiar with emailing from the iPad, the user interface is similar: on the left you have your email list and you can read each email on the right side. Icons to browse the application are displayed at the top. I use Outlook Exchange as my main email client, and I was very disappointed to see that there is no search box. You have to use Gmail to get the search feature. That’s the reason why Motorola added search in the email client of its new Atrix smartphone, because Android does not offer this crucial feature right out of the box. Setting up an Exchange Server was not the most user-friendly experience, the process is more complicated than in WP7. In the email interface, going back to the message list could be easier: a “cancel” button would have been nice, instead of having to use the system back button located on the opposite corner of where the main navigation icons are.

Xoom gmail

Gmail

 

Google Talk with Video Chat
Previous versions of Android only offered text chat with Google Talk, now it is possible to place video calls. The nice thing about Google Talk is that it is available on PCs as well, unlike FaceTime. I tried it and it worked well, the experience is comparable to FaceTime. Hopefully, the next version of Android for smartphones will offer Google video chat.

Camera and Gallery (very good)

Xoom camera

5 MP Rear camera - very good

The camera application has been redesigned and the result is great, you can easily configure the camera settings in a few clicks using your thumb, thanks to the circle-shaped menu. Here, designers have really taken advantage of the extra real estate to enhance the usability in an elegant and efficient way. The gallery is sleek and functional, there is nothing stunning about its design – it would be great to be able to go back to the camera app directly from the gallery.

Media and Entertainment (good)

Photo and video capture (very good)

The Xoom 5 MP camera quality is far better than the one on the iPad 2 and it offers more settings. Basically, you cannot do anything with the iPad 2’s camera (default app), except setting the flash on and off and switching from the front to the back camera. Compared to the iPad 2, it is easier to shoot a photo with the Xoom in landscape mode because the virtual shutter button is located right under the thumb, allowing users to hold the tablet with two hands while shooting. On the iPad 2, the soft shutter button is placed at the bottom of the screen, so you have to hold the device with one hand and use your index finger of the other hand to snap a picture, as the button is impossible to reach with the same hand that is holding the iPad.
As we have written in our review, the iPad 2’s rear camera has a poor quality, the resolution is low (960×720 pixels!) and the photos are grainy. In comparison, Xoom delivers great quality pictures in high resolution (2592×1944 pixels). See below for details of pictures taken with the Xoom, the iPad 2 (960×720), the Nexus S (2560×1920) and the iPhone 4 (2592×1936). Note: the details have been cropped inside the photos, they are not the full picture at full resolution, to see the original photos go to our Flickr page.

 

photo sample Xoom detail2

Xoom 5MP camera – photo detail – good quality

photo sample ipad2 detail

iPad 2 camera – photo detail – low quality, low resolution and grainy

poto sample iphone4 detail

iPhone 4 5MP camera – photo detail – good quality

photo sample nexus s detail

Nexus S 5 MP camera – photo detail – good quality

 

Books (good)
The ebooks app has been revamped for Android 3.0, now offering a 3D carousel for browsing your purchased books. The ebooks widget allows you to shuffle your books in 3D directly from the home screen. Personally I prefer the carousel look over the fake bookshelf in the iBooks app. The reader interface is clean and similar to the iPad 2 in terms of features, with one difference: an animation simulates page turning as if reading a real book.
I wonder how users would be able to move their content if they want to switch to another OS tablet, for this reason, the Kindle app or the B&N Nook app would be a better choice when it comes to buying books.

YouTube and Movies (good)
The YouTube app has been redesigned for Honeycomb, featuring a 3D carousel for browsing similar to the one in the ebooks app and in the customization screen. This is part of the effort to bring more consistency to the OS design, and it would be nice if the carousel were used in other apps as well, for example the Android Market. It conveys a great look and feel to the YouTube home page and provides a fun way to browse videos. The rest of the app is a typical YouTube experience. I tried a few trailers, and the HD video playback experience is good. In direct comparison with the iPad 2, the Xoom delivers a similar picture quality but the iPad 2 has slightly better contrast.

For the moment there is no Netflix or Hulu application, and neither service is accessible from the Xoom browser. Amazon Video is not yet available for Android either. Unlike iTunes, Android Market does not provide video-on-demand – consequently, it is hard to find content to watch outside of YouTube. A solution might be using the DoubleTwist app to convert your iTunes playlists and videos and sync to Android. I have not tried it, so I do not know if it really works.

Xoom Music app

Music App home page

Music
As part of the Android 3.0 design update, the music app has been revamped with a great 3D interface that provides a good browsing experience on the home page, but no carousel here. (see picture above) The album and playlist view are in 2D (see picture below). You can buy music via third-party applications such as Amazon Mp3, or subscribe to streaming services like Rhapsody, Mog or Pandora; all are available in the Android Market.

Xoom audio 11

Music App album view with volume

Battery Life

Charging was pretty fast, taking about an hour and a half. Other than that, we did not take the time to perform additional tests to check the battery life – this will come soon. The manufacturer’s estimated battery life is:

– browsing over 3G up to approx. 9 hrs.
– browsing over WiFi up to approx. 10 hrs.
– MP3 playback up to approx. 3.3 days
– Standby time up to approx. 14 days
– Video playback time up to approx. 10 hrs.

Conclusion

Overall the Motorola Xoom is one of the best tablets available on the market, featuring great performance, an efficient user interface and a good multimedia experience. However, the software is still a bit unstable, I had a few applications crash with error messages, the Facebook app for instance (which is buggy on Froyo as well) – but this could be the responsibility of the app developer, not Android or the device manufacturer. Hopefully things will get better with the next update.

Personally, I prefer the iPad 2 for the design, the better user experience (with the exception of  the disappointing camera) and the lower price. But others may prefer the Xoom for its customization capabilities, the ability to access Flash content in the browser, voice input for search and typing, the superior quality of the camera (software and hardware), the higher screen resolution, and the possibility to upgrade to 4G.

Competing Tablets

Blackberry Playbook reviewiPad 2 Review, iPad Review, Galaxy Tab 8.9 Preview, Galaxy Tab Review, Dell Streak 7 Review

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