The Motorola XOOM was the first device to sport Google‘s brand-spanking new Android OS designed specifically for the tablet form factor: Honeycomb. We’ve managed to get our hands on one, and spend a few days with it before it lands on South Africa’s shores.
The version we got to play with is Verizon branded, and is meant to work on Verizon’s CMDA network (and later, with an upgrade, on their 4G LTE network) – which means that we reviewed this unit as if it is the Wi-Fi only version, which is probably the version we’ll see first over here. We’re very familiar with the iPad pre-iOS5, so we’re not at all new to “tablet computing”. How did the XOOM fare with our preconceptions of what the tablet form factor has come to be? Read on to find out…
The Motorola XOOM is built like a tank. With dimensions of 249.1×167.8×12.9 mm, and a weight of about 700 grams, it’s solid and quite heavy. That being said, it doesn’t feel bulky or as awkward to hold as we expected at first. It may be that the extremely high quality of materials makes up for the heft of the device.
The gunmetal-black aluminium frame holds an uninterrupted sheet of Gorilla Glass. There are no buttons on the front at all, just the Motorola branding on the top left corner (and the Verizon branding on the opposite corner, which we wont see on local versions). Also present is a front-facing camera and red LED (to let you know when the camera is active) above the display, a light sensor below it, and an awesome white LED strip along the right side for notifications. All these little extras blend in so well that you only see them when you’re really looking (or one of the LEDs are lit up).
Along the top-left side of the XOOM are volume buttons that are quite small, and quite hard to push, so you’ll find yourself hunting for them first, and then, once you’ve found them, you’ll have to push multiple times, with varied pressure, before anything happens. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack is located on the top of the XOOM, and along the bottom lives the mini-HDMI, micro-USB, dock and charging ports, as well as a microphone, off to the side. Yep, you read that right. The XOOM can’t be charged via USB, you need to plug it into a wall-socket with a proprietary charger.
The frame that holds the display seamlessly continues along the back, and although the it may feel like the soft-touch plastic we all know and love, it’s actually aluminium that mimics this texture. It feels like it’s going to last for ages. The top edge of the back that holds the stereo speakers, camera, LED flash, and power button, however, is made from a very durable soft-touch plastic so as to not interfere with reception, which is separated from the aluminium by a subtle seam. You have to look very closely to tell the plastic and aluminium apart.
All in all, we can’t really fault the XOOM’s hardware, build, or materials. They’re top notch, and make up for the bulk. Unfortunately, the extra weight means that, unless you’re going to be resting the tablet on something, your arms will tire quite quickly. The one big problem we did have, though, is that this thing loves fingerprints. Both the glass front, and the soft touch back looked manhandled within seconds of picking up the XOOM.
This is where, compared to the rest of the device, we were left a little bit disappointed. The XOOM’s 10.1-inch WXGA display, at a resolution of 1280×800 pixels (with a pixel density of 150 ppi), is nothing to scoff at. It performs very well, with bright and vivid colours, and a relatively wide viewing angle. It does its job well, but there’s nothing groundbreaking about it.
The problems crept in with the touch sensor. Sensitivity and responsiveness are good, but accuracy was a let down. Now, it may be that my fingers are just too fat, but it would very often happen that I touch one spot, and the touch registers just below my finger. On bigger elements (such as the on-screen keyboard’s keys) this wasn’t a problem at all, but links on webpages, and checkboxes and most smaller elements made for a frustrating experience. I can’t be certain whether the fault lies with hardware fault, or with software, but it was noticeable enough to warrant a mention.
One last niggle was that, even though the display is covered by Gorilla Glass, it still feels fragile. Tapping a bit too hard gave a second or two of LCD “bleed”, which isn’t the end of the world, but it’s something that detracts from overall quality feel of the rest of the device.
Performance And Battery Life
The Motorola XOOM was also one of the first devices to be powered by the NVIDIA Tegra 2 platform. The dual-core 1GHz CPU is accompanied by 1GB of RAM. Things felt smooth, and games (both 2D and 3D) played very well with very acceptable frame-rates, but every now and then the user interface would stutter just enough to break that smoothness. That is, however, nitpicking, as the XOOM could handle everything we threw at it with aplomb. It’s only when you have everthing open that you may notice a light delay in opening up a new application.
As mentioned above, playing games optimized for NVIDIA’s Tegra was a pure joy. No noticeable slow-downs, and the graphics are amazing, considering what they’re being run on.
The 24 W-hr battery was also much better than we expected. It charges quick, and with regular use, lasts just under a full week. Motorola cites 10 hours of browsing over Wi-Fi and up to 14 days of standby.
Performance is more than acceptable (but hey, if you’re not happy with it, there’s nothing stopping you from rooting the device and overclocking it to 1.5Ghz), and if this what the first Honeycomb device brings to the table, then we’re really looking forward to the future.
The five mega-pixel autofocus camera on the rear of the XOOM is accompanied by a dual LED flash, and it is really, really bad. Photos are fuzzy, colours are washed out, and low-light photography is out of the question (the flash actually makes it worse). We’re not even going to bother putting up sample shots here. You’ll just have to take our word for it. We would recommend that you avoid using the camera, unless you have no other choice. The video it records (720p) weirdly enough, is fine. It’s not amazing, but it gives better results than taking still pictures does.
The front camera is a pretty standard 2MP affair meant for video-chatting. This worked as well as expected, but we also wouldn’t use it for still photography of any kind.
The XOOM also comes with the standard set of extras that we’ve come to expect from Android-powered devices. Wi-Fi (a, b, g, and n compatible) is present – and works flawlessly, as is Bluetooth 2.1 supporting EDR and HID. There’s also a fairly accurate aGPS sensor that locked on to the satellites quickly.
One awesome thing that the XOOM has that not many other devices do, is a digital barometer. This could be used by developers to determine altitude, or make weather predictions. It’s not a have-to-have, but it’s pretty cool that it’s there at all.
We weren’t able to test HDMI-out, but once again, it’s pretty nifty that you have the option to connect the device to a bigger display to watch movies or play games.
Seeing as it was the first device to be graced with Honeycomb, the XOOM was also the first to receive the 3.1 update. We haven’t had a chance to work with Honeycomb as it was before the update, but the word on the street is that, apart from the changes on the surface, such as resizeable widgets and a scrolling application switcher, performance has also been noticeably improved.
Honeycomb can, at the moment, be seen as something that is still a little bit rough around the edges, but with great potential. Google boasted that it was designed for tablets from the start, and when you really start using it, there are small things that show that a great deal of thought was put into the interface design. It seems that Honeycomb encourages you to use the device in landscape mode, but portrait works just as well (depending on the application). This becomes even more evident when a developer has made use of the Fragments API, something that enables an application’s layout to totally change depending on orientation and/or screen size. What matters most is that everything you need is within thumb’s reach. You never really need to let go of the device to switch between applications, check notifications, and access what you need to access – quickly. It all just feels enormously efficient.
The keyboard works well, but it’s good that you have the option to use alternatives. I found myself tracking down a split keyboard in the Market, and using that exclusively. Popular keyboards like SwiftKey and Swype are also on their way to Honeycomb.
What about applications, I hear you ask. Well, give it time. the list of applications optimized for Honeycomb sits at around 50 at the moment, but it already includes big names like Kindle and Zinio, and it’s growing. Honeycomb is still a relatively young operating system. The good news is that the entire catalog of existing applications can run on Honeycomb, and the backwards compatibility is exceptional, with most applications scaling with no problem.
That being said, Google’s own suite of applications, now optimized for Honeycomb, are a treat to use. The GMail client is the best out there, GTalk is usable at last, Maps is just plain beautiful, and the Music player is actually usable. Add to that a nifty camera/video recording application, and other small applications like a calculator and desk clock, and you get an unexpectedly well rounded base experience.
We’re going to see a flood of Android tablets heading to South Africa within the next month or two. The Motorola XOOM was the first of its kinds in the US, but it’s going to be arriving quite late in South Africa. We don’t think that this is going to be much of a problem, though, because it’s a solid offering – Honeycomb running well on hardware of exceptional quality. The materials used to construct the XOOM is what will set it apart from the cheaper competitors out there, and you can be assured that you’ll be the first in line for software updates. The deciding factor, at the end of the day, is going to be how much us South Africans will need to shell out for this device.
Build Quality: 8/10
Performance and Responsiveness: 7/10
Albert is a developer, gadget geek, and all-round nice guy. He‘s passionate about Android, and writes for ZADroid, a great new blog that covers Android in South Africa, and keeps BandwidthBlog in check with all things Android. However, anything shiny and sufficiently technologically advanced puts a smile on his face.