Until now, Android tablets have shipped with various versions of the OS, all of which have been designed to power mobile phones. The Xoom is the first to run Android 3.0, nicknamed Honeycomb, which is made specifically for use with tablets.
Although plastic-backed, the 10.1in Xoom is easy to hold and feels tough enough to soak up knocks, but one obvious design fail is the placement of the headphone socket mid-way along the upper side, perfectly placed to dangle a lead over the screen while watching video.
Plug me in
Round one to the iPad then, but the Xoom fights back with a volley of useful connections: mini-HDMI and USB sockets, and a SIM-card slot.
The customisable, cluttered craziness of Honeycomb’s five home screens is a welcome antidote to the iPad’s sterile grid. Widgets work especially well, letting you scan emails, flick through a calendar, see who’s Facebooking and browse YouTube at a glance.
That large display gives the home screens room to breathe. Each corner is dedicated to a set of controls: Google and voice search, app controls, the Home, Back and Menu buttons (which on the the Xoom are onscreen only), and a notification area with pop-up alerts.
Multitasking is handled neatly. Tap the multitasking button and a menu of the five latest apps appears on the left edge of the screen. Select a thumbnail to switch to that app. Dual core innards mean the Xoom has power to spare, and it can easily juggle five apps – even games – at once. Get ready for multi-tasking surprises, like when a navigation voice direction suddenly cuts through the Angry Birds soundtrack (on second thoughts, better not play Angry Birds while driving).
This has to be the future of tablet computing – once Google gets the occasional freezes and crashes under control.
It’s very early days for Honeycomb apps – and it shows. The best-selling apps on the Market are an incredibly buggy CNN app, an Angry Birds port that judders and a Pulse News Reader that adds nothing to the Apple version. But the potential is here – the 3D platformer Cordy shows beautiful, flicker-free, responsive apps are possible.
The Xoom’s main 5MP camera is pretty good. Detail and exposure are much better than most mobiles and 720p video is sharp and really colourful. But the camera app is ungainly, with way too many scene modes, no touch-to-focus and terrible shutter lag. The LED flash is better than nothing (just) and the 2MP front-facing webcam is fine for video chat. But is this important in a 10in tablet? Stuff says: no.
There’s better news in other media quarters though. The wider screen has the resolution to play 720p video as nature intended (trumping the iPad 2) but is a bit slower to respond than Apple’s tablet. Colours look great and HD video is smooth and solid. Somehow, though, Motorola has managed to find a screen that’s even more of a fingerprint magnet than Apple’s.
Tabbed browsing is a hit. A drop-down menu lets you search pages, find downloads and add a private-browsing Incognito tab, but Flash support is still in the list of ‘coming soon’ promises. When it comes to music, in many ways Google out-Apples the iPad with a gorgeous Cover Flow-style 3D parade of covers, smooth animations and large playback controls. However, we’re still big fans of Apple’s iTunes desktop client, which still has no equal for the Android platform.
Review continues after the break…
Currently marred by some buggy firmware, the Xoom is nonetheless a serious tablet contender, and once those bumps have been ironed out, all that remains is to stock that Android Market with some quality apps.
Brilliant, beautiful and buggy, this giant leap into the future of tablets is everything the iPad isn’t. And that’s mostly a good thing