The tablet wars have finally begun for real.
Ten months after Apple Inc.’s iPad established the market for large-display touchscreen mobile devices, it finally has a worthwhile competitor: the Xoom, from Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., which went on sale yesterday from Verizon Wireless and at Best Buy Co. stores.
The Xoom falls short of the iPad in some respects, and the gap may widen when Apple unveils its next-generation model on March 2. Still, the Motorola tablet gives consumers a viable choice in a marketplace that so far has been characterized more by manufacturers’ vaporware announcements than by products you can actually take home.
Motorola’s tablet also marks the debut of Honeycomb, Google Inc.’s tablet-optimized version of its successful Android mobile operating system. Previous Android tablets, such as Dell Inc.’s Streak and Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy Tab, used Android flavors that were intended for mobile phones, providing a less- than-satisfying experience. Honeycomb, by contrast, proves to be intuitive and flexible, raising the likelihood that the Xoom is just the first of what will be a wave of capable Android-based tablets from a variety of manufacturers in varying shapes, configurations and price points.
That’s a good thing, partly because the Xoom could stand some competition itself. The tablet is pricy and is missing, for the moment, one of its key promised features, the ability to run videos and animations using Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash technology. Apple has refused to allow Flash onto iPads, iPhones and iPods, citing security and battery-life concerns. Motorola, Adobe and Google now say Flash support will come via an over- the-air update sometime this spring.
That omission notwithstanding, there are a lot of other things to like about the Xoom. Start with its looks, a sleek all-black case with an all-glass front and a matte-black back that feels good in the hand. Or hands, as the case may be: Like the 3G version of the iPad, the Xoom weighs 1.6 pounds (0.73 kilogram), which may make it too heavy for some folks to wield one-handed.
The screen measures 10.1 inches (25.7 centimeters) diagonally but actually covers about the same area as the 9.7- inch iPad because it isn’t as deep. In general, I found the Xoom’s dimensions worked better for watching HD video than for reading or Web-surfing, where the iPad feels more natural.
The Xoom, like the iPad, claims battery life of about 10 hours of continuous video playback, which seems plausible given my overall experience with it. Although the display is higher- resolution than the iPad’s, I didn’t like it as much. Even at the maximum setting, it seemed less bright and more prone to show fingerprints.
There are no buttons on the front of the device; everything is controlled on-screen except for the power button, which is on the back in a location that makes it too easy to accidentally depress if you’re holding the tablet horizontally.
Behind the screen, the Xoom packs a lot of punch. The combination of its powerful dual-core Nvidia Corp. processor and the Honeycomb user interface makes it swift and responsive, and Android’s standard applications have been revamped to take advantage of the tablet environment. The browser now allows for tabbed windows and introduces a new “incognito” option that leaves less evidence of where you’ve been surfing. And you can easily customize your home screen by adding, for instance, widgets that provide a window onto your e-mail in-box or calendar.
Hit or Miss
While the Xoom runs existing Android apps, the results may be hit or miss. The popular game “Angry Birds,” for instance, runs beautifully, filling the entire screen, and Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle app is functional, though not elegant. But the popular Epicurious recipe app is a phone-sized window floating in a sea of empty black space. Apps specifically tailored for Honeycomb are no doubt on the way.
The Xoom’s principal advantage over the iPad is that it comes with both a 2-megapixel, front-facing camera for video calls and a 5-megapixel rear camera that takes still photos and captures high-definition video. I even made a brief film of the family dog using an included app called Movie Studio.
Video can take up a lot of space on a device, which brings up the Xoom’s biggest drawback compared with the iPad. The sole model available now, with 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity, has only 32 gigabytes of onboard storage, half the top-of-the-line iPad’s. Yet it costs $799.99, just $29 less.
You can bring the Xoom’s price down to $599.99 if you’re willing to sign a two-year data contract. Here again, though, the Xoom is no bargain. Verizon’s cheapest data plan is $20 for a gigabyte of data; AT&T offers a 250-megabyte plan at $14.99, and has a $25 plan with double Verizon’s limit.
Sometime in the second quarter, Verizon and Motorola will offer, via a slot on the tablet, an upgrade to Verizon’s new, much faster 4G network. There’s no word yet on how much more the service might cost.
For all the Xoom’s appeal, my advice is to hold off for now. You might want to let Motorola, Google and Adobe get their act together on Flash, or even put off a choice until Research in Motion Ltd.’s PlayBook and Hewlett-Packard Co.’s TouchPad finally show up in stores.
At the very least, wait until Apple announces its next- generation iPad next week, so you can make a comparison. Whatever you decide, though, be thankful that there’s finally a tablet worth comparing.
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