First look: Despite stumbles, Xoom closes in on the iPad

The first Android 3.0 tablet, from Motorola Mobility, supports business email and shows signs of a real challenge to Apple

First things first: The Motorola Mobility Xoom tablet is no iPad-killer -- yet.

But if Motorola and Google were to make some needed refinements, the Xoom could well be a serious competitor to the iPad and show the way for the masses of Android tablets yet to ship.

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At first glance, the Xoom looks like an iPad, but the power button is on the back, which could be an issue if the device is in a case or on a stand. You'll also find the standard Android controls are virtual buttons that always appear on the screen, not physical buttons as in Android smartphones. There's a MicroUSB port and a Mini HDMI port, and a slot for a future (extra cost) LTE 4G upgrade, as well as front and rear cameras -- but does the device itself offer meaningful capabilities that challenge or at least equal the iPad's?

Finally, business-class email supportThe big news for business users is that finally there's an Android device that supports enterprise-class Microsoft Exchange out of the box. The Android 3.0 "Honeycomb"-based Xoom supports on-device encryption and more Exchange ActiveSync security policies than previous Android OSes have. That means more business users will be able to use the native E-mail and Contacts apps rather than have to purchase NitroDesk's Touchdown app.

But the email client remains less capable than the iPad's. Most annoying is the poor support of folders. Exchange subfolders aren't displayed relative to their parent folder, but on the same level -- your hierarchy is gone. In addition, not all subfolders display. For IMAP email, the subfolders are prefixed with their parent folder's name (such as Newsletters\InfoWorld and Newsletters\Slashdot); you can at least see the relationship, even though the visual nesting cues that you'd get on a desktop email client or in an iOS device's Mail client have vanished.

I also wish that the devicewide encryption didn't require an hour's wait to be activated -- your Xoom is essentially a brick for 60 minutes the first time you try to connect to an encryption-demanding Exchange server. The Exchange support is very welcome, but why must it take an hour? There is no lapse on the iPad, after all.

Ergonomic mistakesLike the iPad, the Xoom is a 10.1-inch tablet with on-screen controls, but it uses the widescreen format. Although it's as wide as the iPad, it's not as high. The 16:9 display is better suited for watching HD videos than the iPad's 4:3 display, but everything else feels cramped.

The constrained feeling permeates the Xoom and shows the lack of ergonomic consideration by the UI designers. (It's not clear what was implemented by Google in Android 3.0 and what Motorola contributed in its MotoBlur UI overlay, as this is the first Android 3.0 device available.) As with many PCs, the resolution is too high (1,280 by 800 pixels versus 1,024 by 768 for the iPad) on this widescreen display; as a result, text is shrunk to hard-to-read sizes. The lack of controls to adjust the text size meant I required my reading glasses to work with the Xoom. That's not the case on the iPad.

The Xoom's on-screen keyboard also suffers unnecessary restrictions, due to the addition of Tab and other keys on the left side. Their placement makes the keyboard less than full-size and, thus, hard for touch-typing. In contrast, the iPad's keyboard omits or moves some of those keys.

The display itself is also too reflective. To read the screen, I had to turn off the lights in my office. Over time, I'm hoping that my fingerprints will create a matte effect and diffuse the light, as it has on my iPad. The iPad too uses an overly reflective screen, but it is less distracting (when cleaned) than the Xoom's.

The other ergonomic error is in how the Xoom handles text selection. The method is similar to the one that Apple pioneered in iOS: Tap and hold to begin the selection, then move the on-screen tabs to highlight the string of text. But the location of the tabs in the Xoom doesn't always match the location of the text that is being selected. The problem occurs most frequently in Google Docs, where the tabs are often a half-dozen characters beyond the highlighted text. I'm not sure it's right to blame Google Docs, as the iPad's selection tabs track properly there.

Android 3.0 has few other changesI was surprised by how similar the "Honeycomb" version of Android is to the smartphone versions. Tablet makers have been frustrated by the delays in Honeycomb's release, causing most to ship tablets using the ill-fitting 2.2 "Froyo" version. Google has updated its Gmail and E-mail apps to take better advantage of the larger screen (other than the lack of visual subfolders or text size adjustments), and you can now drag folders and messages using your finger in both apps, rather than use menu controls.

With Android 3.0's richer notifications capability, apps' icons can now provide preview modes, such as images associated with the sender when new messages come in, a live display of your calendar's appointments closest to the current time, or thumbnails of books or music covers in media apps. These are nice usability and rich-context touches you'd expect from Apple but which Apple doesn't offer.

I was hoping the mobile Chrome browser would offer better support for HTML capabilities such as contenteditable, which many Web-based apps use to allow WYSIWYG, Word-like editing. The good news is that in Android 3.0, you can add and delete text in WYSIWYG mode (not possible in iPad's mobile Safari), though you can't select text for copy and paste. In AJAX-based editors, I couldn't edit or select the text, whereas I can do both in mobile Safari. Of all companies, Google should be offering Web smarts and cloud savviness in its products, but it's as uneven in this regard as Apple and other competitors.

Android 3.0 adds a Recent Apps pop-up list to make it easier go back to your most frequently used programs. Apple's iOS 4 comes with the same capability, though in a different form, in the apps bar you get when double-pressing the Home button.

The Xoom lacks Adobe Flash support, but Motorola says it will add that capability via an update later this spring. I've been hearing Adobe Systems and others promise Flash support on mobile devices for years, so I'm not holding my breath for anything soon. Given that Flash Player 10.1 for Android smartphones finally shipped last fall, it's likely Flash 10.2 for Android tablets will show up someday. (We all know the chances of Flash on an iPad are nil.)

I was also disappointed that the Xoom uses the same browser identifier code as Android smartphones, as that means many sites display in their mobile versions, not in their regular desktop versions. On a tablet, those mobile versions look wrong, as you can see if you go to mobile.infoworld.com or to our test site mobile iphone.infoworld.com on a Xoom. The iPad has its own browser identifier, so its browser shows regular websites.

So far, I don't see much else that Android 3.0 brings to the table. Of course, if you think about it, the iPad version of iOS is not very different than the iPhone version; apps and the UI adjust to become richer in their display on the larger screens, but the basic OS is the same. The greater overlap with earlier versions of Android might be a positive sign.

The Android app gap continues The other worrisome aspect of the Xoom is the availability of apps. There are tons of programs in the Android Marketplace, but not many are optimized for tablets; almost all are just scaled to the larger window. The Amazon.com Kindle app is a good example: On the iPad, in landscape mode the Kindle app shows two pages side by side, so the widths of each line are reasonable. But the Android 3.0 Kindle app simply stretches the page to the full widescreen expanse, in which the lines of text become impossibly long to read. The Android version of the Kindle app also has fewer capabilities than the iOS version.

Both these UI and functional inferiorities are emblematic of a larger Android problem that I believe will matter more on a tablet such as the Xoom than on a smartphone. In this regard, Apple's greediness on subscription commissions notwithstanding, the iPad is a better device. Somehow, quality has to become a priority on the Android platform.

To be fair, Android's areas of superiority over iOS -- such as its voice navigation features -- carry over to the Xoom. In the case of voice navigation, some of those advantages are multiplied in the tablet form factor. Further, the final Android 3.0 SDK was released only yesterday, so the true capabilities of Android tablet apps are yet to be seen. Even so, it's clear that older Android apps don't always translate well to the tablet context (as the Kindle app shows), and there's no legacy display mode in Honeycomb to handle them, as there is on the iPad.

What you get for $70 more than an equivalent iPadThe blogosphere has been fretting about the Xoom's $800 price tag for weeks, especially because it's $70 over the bill for an equivalent iPad. The complaint is that Apple is a premium provider that always charges accordingly, so how could a Motorola device cost more than Apple's?

The Xoom does offer front- and rear-facing cameras, unlike the current iPad (though the iPad 2 is likely to have them this spring). It also has one MicroUSB port for PC syncing and for peripherals such as cameras, as well as a Mini HDMI port for HD video output. A VGA cable for the iPad will run you $30, whereas as a Mini HDMI-to-HDMI cable (not included with the Xoom) costs about $15; the price difference thus shrinks to $55. On the other hand, few video projectors support HDMI, so you'll need a VGA adapter for the Xoom as well, which adds another $20. Clearly, the Xoom's Mini HDMI port is meant for watching movies on a big-screen TV, not for business purposes.

Also, Apple's AirPlay technology is a much cooler way to watch videos on the big screen from your tablet, though it requires a $100 Apple TV. (With a compatible TV, you can stream from an Android device via the Twonky app.)

Otherwise, with the screen differences noted earlier, the Xoom is equivalent to an iPad, so the price premium -- especially given the less sophisticated apps and OS of the Xoom -- seems unjustified to me. Yes, you can get the Xoom for $600 if you commit to a two-year contract for a data plan. Verizon Wireless charges $20 for 1GB of data per month (other, pricier plans are available) in return for that commitment, versus $50 for 1GB on a pay-as-you-go basis. AT&T charges $25 for 2GB -- and AT&T requires no commitment. Of course, AT&T's network is less reliable than Verizon's network, though it's faster when it is available. I suspect that when the Verizon iPad arrives, its data plan will cost the same as the Xoom's. So the $200 savings for a two-year commitment doesn't seem like much of a discount when you add in Verizon's higher data prices.

Bottom line: The Xoom seems overpriced, and it has some ergonomic issues, not to mention its built-in business apps still are inferior -- a factor that each new Android OS seems to ignore.

But I believe the Xoom is the first real shot in the tablet wars. For most users, the iPad's advantages won't be that critical, and it wouldn't take much for Google and Motorola to fix most of the gaps in the OS and in the native apps. Android fans and Apple-haters will love the Xoom, and even Apple fanboys will appreciate that the Xoom is a real tablet, unlike previous pretenders such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

This story, "First look: Despite stumbles, Xoom closes in on the iPad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Read more about mobilize in InfoWorld's Mobilize Channel.

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Galen Gruman

InfoWorld
Topics: Motorola, Google, mobile technology, consumer electronics, Android, Phones, tablets, Mobilize, Handhelds / PDAs
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