Hands-on review: Xoom battles iPad 2 to a draw

The Motorola Xoom Android tablet stood toe to toe with the reigning champ, Apple's iPad 2.
  • (Network World)
  • — 16 March, 2011 05:44

We got our hands on the two hottest products in the tablet computing market -- the Motorola Xoom and the iPad 2 and put them to the test. This was a 15-round heavyweight fight and in the end, the Xoom stood toe to toe with the reigning champ, iPad 2.

The Motorola Xoom is designed to address nearly everyone's tablet wish list. It has a widescreen that measures slightly larger than Apple's iPad, includes features that the iPad was missing, and comes with the much anticipated Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system designed specifically for tablets.

First look at Apple iPad 2: what's new, unchanged and still missing | Tablet tumble: iPad 2 vs Xoom

It's also listed at $799.99, compared to $729.99 for the iPad 2.

The feature set is a distinct improvement over the original iPad that Apple was selling when the Xoom was officially released last month. The Xoom includes front and rear facing cameras, a USB port, an HDMI port, a slot for SD memory cards and support for Adobe Flash.

Unfortunately, a couple of those features, including Adobe Flash, had not been delivered as of the time of this review. For example, the SD card slot was installed on the Xoom, but it still wasn't enabled. While we were testing, Motorola upgraded the device over the air to Android 3.0.1 which fixed a few bugs, including one that prevented the Xoom from automatically changing to Daylight Savings Time, and provided the remaining support for Flash when it is finally delivered.

The result is a very usable tablet computer that is a worthy competitor to the Apple iPad. It provides a tablet experience equivalent to the iPad (although the two devices are very different in some important ways), and it provides features demanded by users since the tablet market exploded in 2010.

Apple's release, two weeks after the Xoom started shipping, of the iPad 2 with its dual-core processor and two cameras, negated some of the Xoom's advantages.

While the iPad 2 was not available for a full review, we were able to borrow one for testing for about two hours before it was released to the public. Both the Xoom and the iPad 2 work with Wi-Fi and 3G, (we tested the iPad 2 on Verizon Wireless) both are nearly the same size, and both work well as tablets. The differences are minor, and for most potential users, the decision will come down to personal preference rather than some clear advantage on one side or the other.

Tale of the tape

The Xoom is a half-inch thick and weighs just over a pound and a half, which is equal to the original iPad. The other physical dimensions are different however. The Xoom is 9.8 inches x 6.6 inches. The iPad tends more toward the square at 9.5 x 7.31. The iPad 2 is 0.34 inches thick. The screen dimensions tell a slightly different story.

The Xoom's screen measures 5.325 x 8.5. The iPad measures 5.75 x 7.75 inches and weighs 1.3 pounds. While Motorola makes a big deal out of having a 10.1 inch screen vs. the iPad 2's 9.7 inch screen, this difference is because screen sizes are measured diagonally. In reality, the actual screen area available for viewing is nearly the same, with the iPad 2 being about seven-tenths of a square inch less - an insignificant amount.

What reviewers are saying about iPad 2

The primary advantage to the Xoom's wider but shorter screen (if viewed in the landscape mode) is that you might see a larger image when viewing movies and HD video. In the portrait mode, the narrow form factor makes it less convenient to be used as an e-reader. However, the placement of the ports and the power switch on the back make it clear that the Xoom is intended to be used primarily in landscape mode. The iPad 2 doesn't seem to prefer one mode over the other.

The screen resolutions on both devices are appropriate to their size and measurements. The Xoom has a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels and the iPad 2 has 1024 x 768 pixels. The Xoom has a slightly higher number of pixels per inch, but even on close inspection, the quality of the image depended on the image, not the number of pixels per inch on the screen. There may be a difference on the Xoom when viewing HD video, since the image will probably fill more of the screen, and as a result be able to devote more of its available pixels to that image.

The Android difference

The biggest differences between the two tablets are their respective operating systems. While Android 3.0 will be familiar to the millions of people with Android phones, the overall feel is somewhat different. The extra real estate of the large screen provides great flexibility, and the true multi-tasking provides even more. While the iPad 2 can do some multi-tasking, it's mostly limited to playing music while you do something else. The Xoom allows you to run multiple apps at the same time. You can, of course, also play music while doing something else as you can on the iPad.

The Android OS also implements multi-touch in subtly different ways. For example, if you display a map you can zoom in and out by pinching and spreading your fingers, just as you can on the iPad or any other multi-touch display. The difference is that you can also rotate the image by placing your fingers on the image and twisting. This is especially handy if you want to find your way through an area, and you want to orient the image to match your direction of travel.

Android gives you access to the Android Market where there are thousands of applications, but the selection of Xoom apps is somewhat limited. However Android doesn't restrict you to only finding apps in the Android Market. You can get them from anywhere you want. Apple has many more apps in the App Store, but you have to get your apps from there.

While Android widely supports Adobe Flash, which is a significant advantage, Flash for the Xoom was not available during the time the device was being tested. According to information from Motorola, this software will ship on March 18. The other still-to-be-implemented items are apparently further from reality.

The other significant difference that turned up in the review is the automatic screen rotation when you change the orientation of the device. For example, if you rotate the Xoom from landscape to portrait mode, there's a significant delay before the screen rotates to match. This delay measured an average 2.3 seconds. The delay in rotating the image to match the device orientation on the iPad 2 was well under a half second. It's unclear whether this delay difference was due to the Android OS or to the hardware that reports orientation to the operating system.

The image thing

While the Xoom makes much of its two cameras, they are less useful than they appear to be. The camera on the front of the device is really only useful for video conferencing, and even there the image is grainy and its fixed-focus lens appears blurry. The camera on the back is reported to be a 5 megapixel device, and the images are reasonably clear. This is better than the cameras on the iPad 2, which are low-resolution and very grainy regardless of which camera you're using. Neither of these devices will do much for your photography, but at least with the Xoom you have a fighting chance with the camera on the back.

The Xoom's rear camera gives you control over zoom, exposure, focus control, and it has a flash. It'll work fine for snapshots.

Using the Xoom

If you're familiar with Android devices, it won't take you long to learn the Xoom. Some functions, such as the home screen tab that expands the page of installed apps are different. In this case you have an "Apps" label on the top right corner of the home screen. You can choose to change the home display to one that includes more options, and you can slide the home display to one of four other home pages, two of which are empty when you get the device.

As is the case with the iPads, using the Xoom is mostly intuitive. You open the apps page to see all of the apps, including the ones you've downloaded from the Android Market. You can move commonly used apps to one of the home screens. You launch an app by pressing it briefly with your finger. One interesting effect of using Android - you have to have a Gmail account to sign on with the machine, but because Android backs up its current state to Google once you do that, you'll find apps you installed on previous devices returning to your Xoom. One such interesting example was a "My T-Mobile" app appearing on the Verizon version of the Xoom. It had been installed during a previous review of a T-Mobile G2 Android phone.

Performance

Other than the lag in screen rotation, there was little difference in performance between the Xoom and the iPad 2. In both cases the primary performance issue was the speed of the network to which they were attached. Because both of these were Verizon 3G devices, and because both worked with Wi-Fi, the operational performance differences were insignificant. However, the Xoom can be upgraded at some future point to Verizon's 4G service, something that the iPad 2 can't offer. IPad 2 devices are also available for AT&T's 3G network, but the performance on that network wasn't tested.

Making the choice

Both the iPad 2 and the Xoom are state of the art tablet devices. Of the dozens of similar tablets shown at the 2011 CeBIT show, all seemed to feature dual cameras, dual core processors, 32GB of memory and Wi-Fi capability. The iPad 2 and the Xoom also add 3G, although you can buy a Wi-Fi only version of the iPad. The Xoom offers a Wi-Fi version in Europe, but that version is a ways off in the U.S.

If you need to use 3G, then the choice ultimately comes down to which 3G service is available to you. If you don't want 3G, then your choice is the iPad 2 for now. Beyond that, the iPad is lighter, the screen isn't as wide. The Xoom has a few more features, some of which remain to be implemented. You'll get a $200 discount off the Xoom if you sign up for a two year data plan, but both devices offer pay-as-you-go data plans at retail.

While this won't satisfy the partisans of either iPads or Android devices, this is really a matter of personal preference. Buy the one that you like best and that meets your specific needs. They're both fine choices, but while they look similar in their specs, the experience is quite different.

Rash is a freelance writer living in Virginia. He can be reached at wrash@mindspring.com

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

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Wayne Rash

Network World
Topics: Motorola, Apple, Configuration / maintenance, PC, Networking, hardware systems, wireless, tablets, Data Center
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