The Motorola Xoom was the first Android 3.0 tablet and has recently become the first to be upgraded to Android 3.1. That update tidies up a few of the rough edges on Google’s stillfledgling tablet-optimised OS. However, what is really needed is more apps designed for Honeycomb, as that continues to be the key factor letting down the Xoom.
In fitting with Motorola’s design tradition, the Xoom is a bit bulkier and more rugged than many other tablets, with an all black enclosure and a thinner bezel. The Xoom feels sturdier in your hands than something like an iPad, but that’s partly because it weighs more. It’s also got a bigger screen, measuring 10.1” and with a widescreen ratio – this is a tablet that is designed to be used in landscape mode. Some apps will rotate to portrait, although it never feels totally balanced in your hands that way.
The screen is bright and, at 1280×800 pixels, reasonably high-res if not spectacularly so. It’s also reflective, meaning its contents disappear almost completely when using it outdoors on a sunny day.
There are no physical buttons on the exterior of the device – Android 3.x doesn’t need them – but along the bottom edge there are a range of ports and connectors, including an HDMI-out port for connecting the device and outputting video to a TV. Overall, while the device is undoubtedly heavy, the build quality impresses, giving you immediate confidence about where your money is going.
For those more accustomed to Android on a smartphone, version 3.x takes some getting used to. The principles of the user interface are broadly the same, but the layout and mechanisms involved are quite different. Instead of hardware buttons beneath the screen, for example, you get three semi-permanent on-screen buttons in the bottomleft corner for the standard Back, Menu and Home functions. The notifications also now emerge from the bottom of the screen rather than the top. Widgets are also here, and have the potential to be somewhat more sophisticated than we’ve seen on phones, once developers are able to take advantage of them.
The Xoom comes preloaded with a number of Google apps, including a new version of the web browser, based on Chrome and delivering an experience that is almost identical to what you would expect on a desktop. It’s fast, displays complex pages with ease, works well with multiple tabs and uses Flash too, of course.
There are also enhanced versions of the music app and the YouTube client, the latter in particular looking spectacular on the big screen. Another positive on the software side is the keyboard, which makes great use of the extra screen real estate and makes cranking out emails and the like a breeze.
The downside for software is the state of the Android Market for tablets. Some apps designed for smartphones will run on the tablet (and many won’t), but those designed explicitly for a larger screen are still quite scarce. This situation will change for the better in future, once more tablets are sold, although ironically the main thing holding back the sale of tablets is the lack of apps.
Elsewhere the Xoom mostly impresses without ever taking our breath away. It is blazing fast, thanks to the dual-core processor, so eats up pretty much any task you throw at it. Conversely the camera is mediocre, especially for stills. Video quality is a little better and there is even a rudimentary video editing app, although it pales in comparison to something like iMovie on the iPad 2.
Ultimately the Motorola Xoom ranks as a good but not great tablet device. It functions well for what it is, and has plenty of potential once developers really start targeting Android tablets. And once a few rough edges have been tidied up, it may yet become a winner.
Written by Sandra Vogel