Motorola Xoom full review

The Motorola Xoom tablet PC is the first device to  run Google's Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb) operating system. As such, it it the very first tablet PC designed by Google for running the search-giant's Android OS, and therefore promises to be the first serious competition for the Apple iPad. This is the long-awaited beginning of the Android tablet invasion - UPDATED 24 FEB 2011

All eyes are on the Motorola Xoom tablet, and for good reason. It's the first device in an expected multitude to ship with Google's tablet-optimised Android 3.0 (Honeycomb).

The Motorola Xoom has a lot of features to like, and a lot to set it apart from the ever-growing crowd of tablets; but it also has some major drawbacks that tempered our enthusiasm for it.

One drawback is its price: in the US it will be $800 with no contract on Verizon, and $600 with a two-year contract (prices as of February 23, 2011).

In the UK, price and even availability have yet to be announced.

More critically, we experienced issues with the display and image rendering during our hands-on evaluation of the Motorola Xoom.

Using the Motorola Xoom confirmed our earlier impressions of Android 3.0. The OS is vastly superior to its predecessor and is so different to use that it's practically unrecognizable as a close relative of the Google Android widely deployed today.

The software's tablet optimisation was evident in the home screens, the widgets, the music player, the browser, the email, and even the YouTube player.

Missing, however, was the Adobe Flash 10.2 player, which is 'coming soon' but wasn't available in time for this review.

The Hardware: Style and Class

The Motorola Xoom zooms to the top of the Android tablet class in overall style and design. The build quality is solid, with volume and power buttons that are easy to press and a sturdily constructed SIM tray that doubles as the microSD Card slot cover.

It has a soft, rubberized feel along the top, and black metal on the bottom when held in horizontal mode. The Motorola Xoom also has its buttons and other elements configured for that orientation.

Clearly, the Motorola Xoom device was designed with landscape orientation in mind. In that position, you hold it with two hands, and the front-facing 2-megapixel camera sits at the top middle of the display, just like the webcam on a laptop.

The stereo speakers, at back of the Motorola Xoom, appear to the right and left, with plenty of clearance for your fingers (this positioning is unfortunate, however, if you plan to listen to music while the pad is lying flat, with its screen face-up).

The microUSB and mini-HDMI ports are at bottom, perfect for mounting the Xoom in its optional dock (available as a standard dock, or Speaker HD dock).

The power button is located on the back of the Motorola Xoom too, to the left of the rear-facing, flash-equipped, 5-megapixel camera. The button lies where your forefinger naturally lands when you hold the Motorola Xoom in both hands.

The Motorola Xoom uses nVidia's Tegra 2 processor, with a dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and 32GB of on-board user storage.

The microSD Card slot permits users to double their storage space as they use the Motorola Xoom device – a boon for anyone who tends to pack gadgets with media.

Unfortunately, the microSD Card slot is not actually enabled at the moment. Early shoppers will have to wait until a software update comes along (eventually, Motorola Xoom should sell with the slot enabled).

The Motorola Xoom display measures 10.1in diagonally, with 1280x800-pixel resolution. The widescreen's 16:10 aspect ratio makes it good for viewing video; but for folks accustomed to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the 9.7in Apple iPad screen, it may take some getting used to.

The Motorola Xoom unit also stands an inch taller than the first-generation iPad, but it feels comfortable when you hold it landscape-style in two hands.

You'll definitely want to use two hands. Like the first-generation Apple iPad with 3G and Wi-Fi, the Motorola Xoom weighs 1.6 pound (730g). The weight is manageable for periods of two-handed operation, but intolerable for extended one-handed operation.

A third-generation Amazon Kindle weighs one-third as much as the Xoom.

The Display: The Draw and the Drawback

We weren’t terribly impressed with the Motorola Xoom's display quality. In spite of its high resolution, we saw graininess; colours seemed somewhat inaccurate and didn't jump out as they do on the Apple iPad and on Samsung's bright, occasionally oversaturated Galaxy Tab.

Initially, the Motorola Xoom device's display looked lovely. The home screens were readable, and colours looked fine. But as we used the device, the pattern of the screen became more obvious. The display on the iPad felt downright sparkly, as if sand were buried in the liquid crystals themselves. In contrast, the Motorola Xoom seemed to present us with a grid whose lines were more obvious in some situations than in others.

We noticed them especially in photos and on the grey of the keyboard, but less so on the default blue Honeycomb wallpaper. The lines were most obvious in screens with white backgrounds, such as in the web browser or in the preinstalled Google Books app.

We also detected a lot of pixellation in the letters, and that effect varied depending on the font we used (for example, the sans-serif font in Google Books looked relatively smooth). This leads us to wonder whether this is primarily a hardware screen issue (Motorola says that the display is 150 dots per inch) or a software rendering issue.

When we looked at a series of pictures (10-megapixel or greater images shot on advanced cameras) loaded to the Motorola Xoom via the USB connection on a PC, it became clear that the images' contrast was off.

Under identical lighting conditions, we compared the images as they appeared on the Motorola Xoom to the original images on our PC monitor and to the way they looked on the Samsung Galaxy Tab and on the first-generation Apple iPad.

Colours seemed dull and uninspired on the Motorola Xoom, and the images lacked the detail and depth we expected to see.

Even worse, the included Gallery app didn't render the images properly. Images lacked sharpness and suffered from artifacting, dithering, and macroblocking.

It was almost as though we were looking at images that had undergone a preview render but never fully rendered. A Google spokesperson did not know what was going on, nor did Motorola. Nvidia, which makes the Tegra 2 processor, did not respond to our enquiry before we posted this review.

Blockiness and artifacting were issues in video playback, too. These were seen, for instance, in YouTube videos played in both standard and HQ modes, and in Google Talk video chat over Wi-Fi (as well as 3G).

The images we captured on the Motorola Xoom device were disappointingly middle-of-the-road, as well. Overall, the camera was a bit awkward to operate, as was the video camera, though you do get more controls than before.

Interestingly, although the Motorola Xoom’s Gallery player supports H.263, H.264, and .mp4 video files, it failed to play .wmv files that Android 2.2 and 2.1 devices had managed to play just fine.

The big piece of glass on the display is readable indoors, but it's very glarey. We've described the Apple iPad in the past as a mirror – but compared to the mirror effect of the Motorola Xoom, the Apple iPad is as non-reflective as paper.

The Motorola Xoom's glare was noticeable both indoors and out; and closer inspection revealed an air gap between the glass and the display beneath. We expected better. If the Barnes & Noble NookColor could nail the screen and glare issue on its e-reader tablet, why can't Motorola overcome glare on its $800 flagship device?

Performance Zips Along

We were quite impressed with the Motorola Xoom's overall ability to zip through content. We easily and speedily moved through menus, through large collections of digital images, and through the redesigned Android Market.

Even the file transfer speeds via USB were impressive. Anyone who has synced content to an Apple iPad knows how torturously slowly content can move from PC to device. On the Motorola Xoom, waiting wasn't a huge issue: we transferred 700MB of digital pictures to the Xoom in just 3 minutes. Not too shabby.

Speed buffs in the US will also appreciate that this 3G+ Wi-Fi device will be able to migrate to Verizon's 4G LTE network in the second quarter at no extra charge. The free upgrade rewards early adopters eager to own the first Honeycomb Android tablet.

Ultimately, the price feels too high, given that the nearly one-year-old, no-contract, 3G- and Wi-Fi-enabled first-generation Apple iPad came in at $730.

But by acquiring a 4G SIM card (when the update comes out) and performing a software update, you may be able to surf the web with the Motorola Xoom at lightning speeds. That future-proofing is a very appealing touch.

Other Usage Minutiae

Google Android 3.0 is easily the most polished Google software effort to date, but the random apps we downloaded from the Android Market didn't work on Honeycomb at all, let alone scale to the Motorola Xoom's large screen.

Moreover, there's no obvious way of knowing whether an app has been optimized for Honeycomb.

We endured some software crashes on the Motorola Xoom, and Google Talk behaved somewhat inconsistently (where's the button to answer that call?).

Also, some folders that we transferred to the Gallery didn't show up, so we couldn't test whether Honeycomb does indeed support .bmp files as Google says. (For a full list of supported files, see Google's Android Developer site.)

Motorola rates the Xoom's battery life at about 10 hours of high-definition video playback. And the device's recharge time is fast, at just 3.5 hours for a full recharge (in our testing, it recharged from a 13 percent charge in less than 3 hours).

We don't have any figures to demonstrate real-world battery life.

One of the Motorola Xoom's main assets should be its deep integration with the Honeycomb platform. Motorola worked hand-in-hand, we were told, with Google to make Honeycomb run well on the Motorola Xoom, Google's reference Honeycomb device. As such, the Motorola Xoom is likely to be as pure a Google Honeycomb device as possible.

All in all, the Motorola Xoom device is a solidly built but imperfect first effort. Platform stability and 4G may come with future software upgrades, and the bugs in the graphics and video rendering might be fixable through software. But the Motorola Xoom screen's annoying grid effect can't be fixed by a simple update.

The Motorola Xoom is the first large-screen tablet to provide competition for Apple's iPad. But as smooth as many of its elements are, and as groundbreaking as this first-of-its-kind tablet is, its weaknesses prevent us from giving it a rousing endorsement.

Software rough patches can potentially be patched; but hardware frustrations may run deeper than any firmware update can fix.

NEXT PAGE: first look from Macworld UK editor-in-chief Mark Hattersley