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Final Words

Motorola Xoom: The First Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) Tablet

In general, tablet prices are a major turn-off. If you add up the costs of buying a case, cradle, keyboard, and the apps, purchasing a tablet is a more expensive proposition than many enthusiasts accustomed to investing in performance are willing to consider. Even in the case of the Xoom, you're paying a premium for portability, and could actually get a faster notebook for far less.

Apple iPad 2 Pricing
16 GB
32 GB
64 GB
Verizon 3G
Motorola Xoom Pricing
16 GB
32 GB
64 GB
Xoom Wi-Fi

The beauty of Apple's pricing strategy is that it at least lets you buy in at a lower price. Unfortunately, you have to also buy the capacity you need immediately. There is no option to expand storage. So, if you realize you need more space down the road, you have to either suck it up or buy another iPad. Personally, I find it difficult to fit all of my audio tracks, e-books, and movies on a 16 GB iPad 2. That doesn't even include the space I need for apps. Thirty-two gigabytes is the absolute minimum for my entire media collection with space left over for additional programs. But clearly there are people who get along just fine with 16 GB.

In that regard, Motorola handicapped itself by forcing everyone to buy a 32 GB alternative for $599. It's really unnecessary since the Xoom features a microSD slot for expanded storage. Motorola's single-model approach may have been intended to simplify the product line and lower manufacturing costs, but we'd argue that the company would be better off with a 16 GB Xoom at $499.

Update 7/8/2011: Within the past 48 hours, Motorola dropped the price on the Wi-Fi Xoom to $499, citing poor sales. I've updated the pricing table, but my comments still stand. Motorola did a disservice to itself and potential customers by forcing us to buy in at higher price. I would also argue that Motorola should have gone one step further and cut the price down to $399. The price structure is now even with the iPad 2, but there are other Android tablets that the Xoom has to contend with.

Motorola gets some points for its expansion concession, but low marks for execution. The whole pricing and capacity debate is moot because the microSD slot still isn't enabled at the software level here in the U.S., even though it was expected in the Honeycomb 3.1 update. Almost infuriatingly, non-U.S. Xooms do get microSD support with 3.1.

This really underscores a fundamental problem with Android-based tablets. Everything feels a bit rushed and less polished. After two months of use, I'm noticing the small things. For example, there's a lag in the time it takes for the Xoom to switch from landscape to portrait mode. If you have widgets on your screen, it's even worse because overlays aren't cached; they're redrawn every time.

Motorola Xoom: Orientation Lag

Motorola Xoom: Redrawing Overlay

There's another weakness inherent to Android-based tablets. Apple's greatest strength is that it controls the experience from top to bottom. Developers can't release iPad apps unless they conform to Apple's rules and standards. This makes for a uniform and immersive experience. The guidelines for UI, gestures, graphics, and screen rotation are the same in every iPad app. When you use one iPad app, you know how to use every other iPad app. That's not the case for Android.

In the spirit of GNU and open source, Google offers a more freestyle path. While that encourages uninhibited software development, the result varies from app to app. Even so, tablet programs for Android are fewer in number. I really don't accept the argument that Honeycomb hasn't been around long enough. Apple and Google both started with operating systems geared to smartphones, but the number of apps for the iPad exploded into the thousands within months of the device's launch. It's already been more than five months since Honeycomb's launch, and the number of tablet-specific apps is less than 100. The figures provided by Google seem more impressive because many apps are simply upconverted for a larger screen, but very few of them are explicitly designed for Android-based tablets.

While there are fewer general-use apps, Google needs to thank Nvidia for pushing development of Android-oriented games. Nvidia obviously wants to highlight its Tegra 2 SoC, but the hardware vendor seems to be doing a better job of directly engaging developers. There's a whole slew of new games about to be released. Some of them, such as Riptide, are ports from Xbox, which suggests that Nvidia is hoping to see more popular titles released. That's the good (Ed.: albeit obvious) news.

The bad news is that the whole Android experience is less immersive than what Apple offers. For example, the widescreen display on the Xoom is better suited to watching videos, but the iPad is optimized for tasks like reading books. The 4:3 aspect ratio just works better, since it's similar to staring at a pad of paper.

It's difficult to compare the Xoom to the iPad 2. While the iPad 2 outperforms the Xoom, that's not saying as much in the tablet world as it would be in a desktop PC comparison. Though, in my opinion, the iPad is the Wii of the tablet world. It's easy to use and there's a plethora of apps to keep you engaged. The Xoom is more like Sony's PS3. There are many cool features, but the learning curve is steeper. When you're using an iPad, it truly feels like what we'd hope for from a "tablet experience." With the Xoom, it merely feels like you're "not using a notebook." Right now, Apple has the advantage of being one generation ahead. Motorola's Xoom represents the first Android tablet. So Google needs to ramp up software and hardware development if it wants to close that gap.

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