July 29, 2014

Motorola XOOM Review

I purposely put off writing my review of the Motorola XOOM for a couple of reasons.  Partially because we already have a perspective from another AndroidGuys writer, but also because I wanted to give it a thorough assessment of how I use the device in my daily life.  After spending a little over one month with the XOOM I have grown to really like the device, almost love it.  I’ll break this review into two segments (hardware, software) and give you my real-world view of the tablet and leave the hardcore benchmarks and head-to-head stuff for other people to cover.  My reviews are meant for the Average Joe types, not those looking for a complete walkthrough of every internal component.

HARDWARE

The first thing you notice about any new electronics device (especially tablets) is the weight.  Pulling it out of the box, it feels heavier than one might expect.  It’s not overly heavy but it has enough weight to it that I stopped for a moment and thought, “Oh man, this might be too heavy for general portability”.  I had grown comfortable using the Samsung Galaxy Tab for a few months and was unfairly basing this future “portability” against a smaller tablet that I had carried with me everywhere.

Moving along, it takes one a few seconds to locate that power button, which I am sure you’ve heard about before.  What seems awkward the first couple of times becomes very natural with prolonged usage. Since one tends to hold the XOOM in landscape mode, your fingers are already where they need to be to power it on.  This is compounded by having a case or cover on the tablet, leaving the button exposed and somewhat recessed.  The volume buttons are more obviously placed when in landscape mode, becoming a little bit wonky in portrait mode.  Of course this would be the case no matter where Motorola put the buttons as rotating the tablet moves their position anyway.

The general feel of the XOOM is that it is a solid piece of equipment, built using good materials.  There are no places where the device creaks or feels cheap, something which plagues those $100 knock-off’s you can pick up at Walgreens or Kmart. If there were anything I could change about this device it would be the material used on the back.  The slick and soft backing feel like they could be scratched if placed on a table with salt and pepper or perhaps a lap that has pieces of sand. I’ve yet to scratch the XOOM but I primarily keep it bundled up in a protective case.  The back also tends to pick up anything you might have on your fingers, even the slightest bit of sweat or oil.  Of course you don’t want to mess with a tablet directly after polishing off a bucket of wings, but simply moving the device then will attract more sauce than you’ll want to deal with.

Coming around to the front of the XOOM, I’ll quickly point out that the screen doesn’t stay clean.  Ever.  Even casual tapping and motion swipes are picked up and don’t leave too easily.  If you like to use the pattern lock screen for your phone, you might want to reconsider for the XOOM, it’s that bad.  Opt for the PIN entry or some form of password lest you want your child or a stranger to figure it out. It’s not so much that the screen gets cloudy or hard to read but it just doesn’t look good powered off.  Given that your entire usage of the tablet is on the screen (no buttons) the XOOM’s 10.1-inch screen can get ugly in a hurry.  Watch how that thing looks once you start letting your seven-year-old play Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. I have yet to find a great way to keep the screen oil-free or an efficient way of cleaning it.

The 5-megapixel camera performs as one might expect and is not notable.  Holding the tablet up to record video feels a touch awkward and will draw plenty of looks.  Almost every time I have used it to take pictures or capture a moment I had someone ask “What the heck is that thing?”  Having the large screen display what you are snapping feels somewhat silly (no covert spy pics) in an age of tiny point-click cameras with higher resolution but at least I don’t need to carry around a second device.

The front-facing camera is more than adequate for my usage and works as well as anything else I have used.  After nearly a year with the EVO 4G I can count the number of times I used video chat.  Although it felt more show-off and gimmick on the phone at the time, I can see this becoming handy on a tablet. Video conferencing software and the improved GTalk will ensure that I use this camera more often.

The speakers on the XOOM are found on the back, just above the spots where your hands hold the tablet.   While they are plenty loud for me and my usage, I might like to have seen them on the side or somewhere around the face.  I get that the thin design doesn’t lend well to too many options, but I feel like things could be louder or clearer in rare instances. I don’t use the tablet to play music too often but the occasional YouTube video has me holding the device up to my ear.

I would love to see the charging input moved to a different spot on the XOOM.  Being that I have the Portfolio Case to protect the device and set it up on my desk, I found that I cannot charge the tablet and display it at the same time.  The charger is directly under the screen and it’s this exact spot you rest the tablet when propping it up.

While on the subject of charging and battery I am happy to say that the XOOM gets me through nearly two full days of usage from a charge.  Of course your results will vary based on your apps and lifestyle. I like to keep my tablet with me on the desk as a second screen for chatting, RSS, email management and the occasional sports and news reading.  The XOOM accompanies me to the living room where I catch up on reading and play games.  My son also gets the XOOM in the car to play games and draw me pictures.  I’ve grown accustomed to charging (Android) phones daily and I try to stay in that habit with the tablet.  Fortunately, I don’t have to worry quite like I do with my EVO 4G.

Generally speaking, the XOOM is ridiculous fast. Having a dual-core processor does that ya know.  I’ve yet to run into a spot where I feel lag or that the tablet is not responding quickly.  In fact, going to my handset for the same apps really amplifies the difference.  It’s somewhat like the way a Snapdragon processor runs circles around your G1.  I can’t believe how much slower it makes my phone feel by comparison.

SOFTWARE (Android 3.0)

After having spent time with every build of Android to date, the Honeycomb UI is definitely a change.  Notifications and navigation are on the bottom while menu options go to the top.  It takes a little bit of getting used to but a few days into it everything feels natural.  I especially like features like line-item notification dismissals and the images that come with emails and GTalk messages.  The “recent apps”  button displays the five applications and games you have been currently using, making it a breeze to jump between your NOOK app and email.  Given the five panels to the home screen, there is more than enough room for icons, folders, and widgets.  The new scrollable widgets are great (Gmail, USAToday, CNN, etc) and provide even easier access to your content.

I’ve run into the occasional snag and force close but I am a forgiving Android user.  The first update that rolled out seemed to address some of the browser problems I had although there was no mention of that in the changes and features.  Once in a while I will see an app hang up but I imagine it’s more to do with how it was written and not Honeycomb specifically.  On the other hand, I am certain there are things that could be done at the OS level to make sure older apps play nice.

The short list of apps that have been written specifically to take advantage of Android 3.0 are gorgeous. The fragments and partitioned screens in applications like USA Today feel intuitive and take no time to figure out.  Things work the way you think they will. I simply love the new Android Market, Gmail, GTalk, and Contacts apps as they are shining examples of how to optimize for Honeycomb.  The Android 3.0 UI makes the Galaxy Tab experience feel like a scaled-up smart phone experience.  Yes, I know we’ve heard all along that older versions of Android were not meant for larger displays, but the XOOM makes this all the more obvious.  With or without a custom UI, Honeycomb is the way to go for a tablet.  Period.

The on-screen keyboard is good and works well in either mode but I would recommend getting something like Thumb Keyboard to make it even easier.  It’s here that I missed the ability to blast through an email or message on the Tab.  Once I downloaded a second option, things got much more efficient.  Having said that, the standard keyboard works very well in landscape mode on a lap.

Other features tucked away in Honeycomb such as quick access to settings and app management get cooler over time.  It’s as if Google lets users skip a few steps to get to where they need to go.  Hopefully these are the details that make it into future builds for phones.

WRAP UP

The XOOM reminds me a lot of the G1 of years gone by in that it’s a first of its kind device with a new OS.  After seeing the way Android developed over the last few builds, I am confident that this tablet experience will improve over time.  There’s plenty of hardware under the hood to keep up with a few releases and given that it’s stock Android, I am optimistic in future support.

My usage in this size tablet is completely different from what I did with the Galaxy Tab.  Instead of a larger Android device, this is a perfect compliment to my handset. I am consuming more information, reading, browsing, and generally exploring. I find myself opening the Android Market to simply look around, something I never did with the Tab. Casual games are more fun and the new titles designed for Honeycomb really have a way of pulling you in. I was initially hesitant to spend the money on the XOOM, thinking it would be relegated to the coffee table or put aside after time.  After a month, I am learning of new ways to use the tablet every day.  I don’t even think of the weight or size any longer because of everything that this guy does.  In fact, I have to tell myself to leave it at home when I go out.

While the tablet is not perfect, no smart phone is either.  There is always something on the horizon that might look more appealing.  Am I eyeballing the new Galaxy 10.1 from Samsung?  Of course.  I also look forward to playing with something in the mid-size (G-Slate) as well.  However, I can’t own everything that comes out so I have to learn to make do with what I have.  And with the XOOM, this was pretty easy for me.  There is nothing at this point that I wish this tablet had or that I cannot wait for.  With its high sticker price it’s not for everyone.  Drop a 16GB version on us and shave a hundred or so off the cost and it would be terribly difficult to resist.  As it stands though, my XOOM gets better every day.