Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ars reviews the Motorola Xoom

Motorola's Xoom tablet is the first device to ship with Android 3.0, codenamed Honeycomb, a highly anticipated new version of Google's mobile operating system. Honeycomb introduces a sophisticated new user interface that was designed for the tablet form factor—a major step forward for Android. Motorola has matched Google's software with a compelling piece of hardware that delivers great performance and reasonable battery life.

Although the Xoom has a lot to offer, the product feels very incomplete. A surprising number of promised hardware and software features are not functional at launch and will have to be enabled in future updates. The Xoom's quality is also diminished by some of the early technical issues and limitations that we encountered in Honeycomb. Google's nascent tablet software has a ton of potential, but it also has some feature gaps and rough edges that reflect its lack of maturity.

In this review, we will take a close look at the Xoom hardware, the Honeycomb user experience, and the Android platform's potential as a tablet operating system.


The Motorola Xoom's impressive hardware specifications are sure to turn some heads. Much like Motorola's Atrix handset, the Xoom is powered by an NVIDIA Tegra 2 SoC, which couples a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor with an 8-core GeForce Ultra Low Power GPU.

The Xoom's 10.1-inch capacitive multitouch display has a 16:10 aspect ratio and a resolution of 1280x800 pixels. The device has 1GB of RAM and a roomy 32GB of internal storage capacity. In addition to the usual assortment of sensors—a gyroscope, compass, accelerometer, and ambient light detector—the Xoom has one unexpected addition: a built-in barometer, just in case you happen to be a tornado hunter.

Like most smartphones and tablets coming out now, the Xoom has a pair of cameras: a 2MP front-facing camera for video chat and a rear-facing 5MP camera with an LED flash. The Xoom's 24.5 Whr battery is rated for 9 hours of Web browsing and approximately 14 hours of standby time. During our tests, we got roughly 7 and a half hours during of battery life during mixed intensive use. The Xoom is launching on Verizon's network and comes with an EVDO-enabled CDMA radio. The device has also has WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity.

Missing features

Although the Xoom was designed to support Verizon's new 4G LTE network, support for this network is not enabled out of the box. Consumers will have to ship the device back to Motorola to have it fitted with the necessary components. The 4G hardware upgrade will be available at no cost, but will take 6 business days to complete.

It's not clear yet exactly when Xoom buyers will be able to send in their Xoom to receive the upgrade, but Verizon says that it will be available "shortly" after the product's launch. Reports suggest that "shortly" means within the next 90 days.

LTE isn't the only hardware feature that's not working right out of the box. The Xoom's microSD card slot is also non-functional, due to software issues that are attributed to Honeycomb. Motorola says that the feature will be fixed soon in an over-the-air update. The Xoom's much-touted support for Adobe Flash is also absent at launch and will similarly be delivered in an upcoming software update.


The Xoom's microSD card slot and 4G SIM card slot are positioned back-to-back inside the top edge of the device. The slots are protected by a plastic insert and cover that can be slid out with a thumbnail. Motorola ships the device with translucent plastic placeholders in both slots.

A conventional miniaudio headphone jack is positioned near the card slot at the center of the device's top edge. Motorola doesn't provide headphones with the Xoom, but it worked well with standard earbuds and my Sennheiser HD-280 headphones. The bottom of the device has a micro-USB port, a mini-HDMI output, a port for the Xoom's charger, and contact points for the Xoom's dock.

The Xoom comes with its own proprietary power adapter. It has a very large two-prong wall wart that plugs into conventional power sockets. The prongs can be flipped down into the brick. The end that fits into the Xoom's charger port is a round plug like the kind you would find on a laptop charger, but much thinner. It doesn't appear to be possible to charge the Xoom via micro-USB.

Buttons and build quality

Unlike Android-based phones, the Xoom doesn't have the standard back, home, menu, and search buttons built into the device. These features are exposed through the Honeycomb user interface, obviating the need to integrate them into the hardware. This is a big win for usability compared to previous Android-based tablets like the Galaxy Tab, where we found ourselves accidentally hitting the capacitive buttons on the bezel.

The Xoom has a total of three hardware buttons integrated into its shell. A pair of volume buttons is conveniently located near the top of the left-hand edge. There is also a power button on the back side near the top-left corner on the same plastic plate as the camera. The power button is round, inset, and slightly concave. We didn't have any issues with hitting the buttons by accident on the Xoom.

The Xoom's build quality is very good. It has a smooth matte black finish on the backside that feels soft but not quite rubberized. The front has solid glass nearly from corner to corner. The glass covers both the screen and bezel, but the back part of the case creates a plastic lip around the edges of the screen. The lip is thicker than the one on the Galaxy Tab and is quite noticeable when you hold the device.

Dimensions and form factor

The Xoom is 9.8-inches long, 6.6-inches tall, 0.5-inches deep, and weighs approximately 1.6 pounds. The weight and depth are roughly comparable with that of the original iPad, but the Xoom has a more rectangular widescreen form factor.

The shape of the case is slightly tapered—when you hold it in portrait orientation, the top is a little bit thicker than the bottom. It feels pretty evenly weighted in landscape orientation and is relatively comfortable to use. When I hold it on each side, my thumbs can meet in the center of the screen, which means I can pretty easily reach user interface elements that are at the center.

I generally felt most comfortable operating the Xoom in landscape orientation and using it with my thumbs, but users with smaller hands might need to hold it with one hand and use an index finger. The device really feels like it was intended to be used in landscape orientation.

It's a bit less comfortable in portrait orientation. Due to the length, the way that the weight is distributed feels off when it's held vertically. You can get a better balance if you hold it near the top rather than near the keyboard when you use it in portrait, but it's still not great. The taper also makes it feel strange when held vertically.

The dimensions are excellent for video, but not particularly good for intensive reading. When I'm holding the Xoom in portrait orientation, I feel like only the top two-thirds of the screen are in clear focus for text readability and I have to re-angle it a bit when I start to get down to the bottom.

Whether the Xoom's 16:10 ratio or the iPad's 4:3 ratio is better is going to depend on what you are doing. The Xoom's aspect is better for video whereas the iPad's is arguably better for reading.

The relative awkwardness of using portrait mode on the Xoom isn't a huge issue, because most of the Honeycomb software seems to favor landscape orientation. One issue that's worth noting, however, is that a lot of the existing Android phone applications are designed to be used in portrait orientation. Until more third-party developers start making native Android tablet software, Xoom users will end up having to use portrait orientation more often than they might like.

Performance and reliability

The Xoom's performance is quite good. Animated transitions and other interactive elements of the user interface are very smooth—more fluid than many of the Android phones that we have tested. Applications start up quickly and there isn't a lot of latency when we switch between programs. The device's generous 1GB of RAM is enough to keep a lot running at the same time.

We used Quadrant and Linpack to conduct benchmarks of the device. Our quadrant score was 1,894. The performance was comparable to that of Motorola's Atrix, which is also powered by a Tegra 2. The score on Linpack was 36.576 mflops—also comparable with the Atrix 4G.

The results of the Quadrant benchmark

Our Xoom review unit was provided by Verizon and came with 3G enabled, so we were able to test it on the company's EVDO network. Browsing performance was excellent over WiFi and reasonably good over 3G. We had no trouble playing streaming videos or using other bandwidth-intensive features.

Although the Xoom performs well, its reliability leaves a lot to be desired. During a week of very heavy use, I had between 5 and 8 incidents of applications force-closing every day. The issue wasn't isolated to third-party applications—Google's own software crashed pretty regularly.

On one occasion, the Xoom hung and refused to wake up from a suspended state when I pressed the power button. This was particularly troubling because pressing and holding the power button didn't help at all and the device seemed totally unresponsive. I eventually asked a Verizon employee, who explained that, when the Xoom locks up, you can force a soft reset by holding the volume-up and power button simultaneously.

Android in general is not especially robust, but the stability issues I encountered on the Xoom seem worse than the relatively minor stability problems I've had over the past few years with my various Android phones. I imagine that the stability problems will be ironed out as Google improves the platform.


The Xoom introduces Android's new tablet-friendly user interface. There are a number of differences in behavior and layout that distinguish it from the conventional Android smartphone experience, but it's still similar enough to be mostly intuitive to existing Android users. Significant user interface differences are apparent in Google's home screen, Web browser, messaging software, and the Android Market.

In addition to the significant tablet-related user interface improvements, Android 3.0 also introduces a number of compelling new APIs that will make it easier for developers to build native Android applications for large form-factor Android devices.

Home screen

Google has heavily reworked the Android home screen and application launcher to make them more suitable for tablets. The minimalist "holographic" design has a lot of transparency and glowing blue lines. The aesthetic appears to be loosely inspired by Tron Legacy.

Like previous versions of Android, Honeycomb's home screen consists of pages with application launchers and widgets. These can be arranged by users, but they snap to a grid. Honeycomb expands on those capabilities and offers an improved presentation and a lot more space to lay out items.

The Honeycomb home screen

Android phones with the stock home screen have a 4x4 grid for placing icons and widgets. The Xoom, however, has a more spacious 8x7 grid. This allows the user to have a lot more icons on a home screen page and also opens the door for more sophisticated widgets.

When the user is dragging around an icon or widget, the home screen will display hash marks that represent the structure of the grid. This visual cue makes it easier to see how much space you have for adding new items.

Honeycomb has introduced a new home screen editing tool that is more convenient than the previous menu-based system for adding new widgets and other items. You can open the home screen editor by clicking the plus button in the top right-hand corner of the home screen. The editor displays a gallery of home screen items in the bottom half of the screen and shows thumbnails of your home screen pages on the top half of the screen.

The home screen editor

You can drag an item from the gallery onto a specific home screen page. If you hover on a page, the editor will zoom in and give you finer-grained control over the placement of the item. The home screen editor gallery has tabs that you can switch between to peruse available widgets, application shortcuts, wallpapers, and special-purpose launchers.

Honeycomb also comes with an application drawer, just like previous versions of Android. The drawer, which can be accessed by clicking the "Apps" button in the top right-hand corner provides convenient access to all of your applications. Instead of a scrolling vertical list, the applications in the drawer are arranged into pages that you can you scroll through horizontally. The first or last column of icons on the previous or next page are displayed as outlines so that you can see that more are available.

The Honeycomb application drawer

The drawer also has navigation tabs at the top that you can use to filter the displayed applications. The "My apps" tab will show you only the ones that you installed whereas the "All" tab will show you all applications, including the ones that came with the device. You can click the little shopping bag icon in the top-right corner to open the Android Market.

When you long-press an icon in the drawer and start dragging, the software will display thumbnails of your home screen pages—just like the ones in the home screen editor—so you can add shortcuts directly from the drawer.

Dragging an application launcher onto a home screen page

One of the nicest features in the new launcher is easy support for uninstalling applications. Instead of having to open up the market or application manager to remove a program, you can just start dragging its icon and drop it on an "Uninstall" option that appears in the top-right corner during a drag event.

Lock screen

Honeycomb comes with a new lock screen interface. Instead of the conventional unlock slider that Android offers on phones, the new tablet lock screen has a lock icon in circle that must be dragged to the boundary of a larger circle. If the drag operation isn't completed, the screen will remain locked. The icon is positioned near the side of the tablet in landscape mode in such a way that it is most convenient to activate it by sweeping to the right with your right thumb.

The Honeycomb lock screen

The lock screen also displays a large clock, the current date, and the network and battery icons. You can see an envelope icon on the screen when notifications are present, but it doesn't show the notification messages on the lock screen. I'd really like to see Google enhance the lock screen to show notifications or read-only widgets of some kind—perhaps like the third-party WidgetLocker tool. It's unfortunate that the Android developers didn't take the opportunity to explore that kind of functionality when they created the new version of the lock screen.

Bottom panel

A notification panel is persistently visible along the bottom edge of the screen. The left-hand side of the panel has back and home icons that function like the equivalent hardware buttons on Android phones.

Right next to the home icon, you can see the task icon—a pair of overlapping rectangles. When the user taps the task icon, the software will show an overlay on the screen with thumbnails of the user's most recently activated programs. The user can tap one of the thumbnails to switch to the associated application.

Honeycomb's multitasking interface

The list of recent applications is limited to five when the device is held in landscape orientation and six when it is held in portrait orientation. This feature is roughly equivalent to the task switching display that appears when the user long-presses the home button on an Android phone.

Honeycomb's richer presentation for task switching makes better use of the available screen space, but doesn't really come with any improvements to the underlying functionality. Honeycomb's multitasking capabilities are comparable to that of previous versions of Android and still fall short of webOS or conventional desktop operating systems.

Third-party Android tablet applications are supposed to expose their menu actions through the new titlebar APIs that were introduced in Honeycomb, but there are still many existing phone applications that rely on the conventional hidden menu system that is used on Android phones. In order to retain compatibility with those applications, Google opted to supply a menu icon in the user interface that appears alongside the task switching icon in the notification bar.

The menu icon, which looks like a rectangle with six inner squares, only appears in applications that have menu items that aren't otherwise visible on the screen. When the user taps the menu icon, the application will show the relevant menu items as a grid of translucent buttons that are centered at the bottom of the screen.

A conventional Android menu activated in TweetDeck

The inconsistent menu placement between tablet and phone applications running on Android 3.0 is one of several minor usability blemishes that have resulted from Honeycomb's design changes. These issues aren't seriously detrimental to the quality of the user experience, but they detract from the software's predictability enough to be distracting, even to seasoned Android users.

The right-hand side of the notification panel has a digital clock and icons that reflect the current network signal strength and battery status. You can tap this region to expand it into a larger overlay that will show slightly more data. Any pending system notifications that haven't been dismissed will also be shown beneath the overlay. You can tap the overlay to expand a settings panel that can be used to adjust the most significant preferences.

The popup settings overlay

The contents of this settings panel allow the user to toggle airplane mode, get quick access to WiFi settings, toggle the screen orientation lock, adjust the screen brightness, and toggle notifications. You can also tap the "Settings" item at the bottom to get to Android's full settings application. The settings panel is convenient and well-designed. The screen brightness slider and orientation-lock buttons prove to be particularly useful on a tablet.

Web browser

Honeycomb comes with an enhanced Web browser with a richer and more tablet-friendly user interface, reasonable performance, and a nice assortment of new features. Thanks to the improved software, the Xoom offers a much more desktop-like Web browsing experience than the Galaxy Tab and other previous Android-based tablets.

The Honeycomb browser has a tabbed user interface, much like that of a conventional desktop browser. You can close a tab by tapping its associated X icon and you can create a new tab by hitting the plus icon in the tab bar. The browser appears to limit the user to a maximum of 16 open tabs at the same time. I never found myself hindered by that limit during regular use and only discovered it during a deliberate effort to see if there was a cap.

The Xoom's Web browser
The URL bar is hidden to conserve vertical space when the user scrolls down

The user can scroll through the contents of the tab bar by dragging it horizontally to the right or left. This makes it possible to have more tabs open than can be displayed on the screen. Unlike Chrome, the Honeycomb browser won't shrink the tabs as more are added to the tab bar, and in this respect it's obviously designed to be more finger-friendly than Chrome.

One of the new features introduced in Honeycomb's browser is support for incognito mode, which allows the user to avoid having their activity recorded or preserved by the browser. Because the Honeycomb browser doesn't support the concept of multiple browser windows, the incognito mode is exposed as a per-tab feature. You can create an incognito tab by selecting the relevant option from the browser's menu. The incognito tabs are signified by the same creepy stalker dude icon that is used in Chrome.

CuteOverload in Incognito mode

Another great new feature that brings Android's browsing experience closer to Chrome is support for bookmark syncing. You can enable this feature through the browser's settings panel and choose which of your linked Google accounts it will use for the syncing.

Setting up synchronization with Chrome in the Xoom's browser

There is also a slick new automatic Google sign-in feature that will allow the browser to automatically log you into Google services such as Google Reader or Gmail when you access them in the browser. This feature is optional and can also be configured to use any of your linked Google accounts, including a Google Apps account that is on a custom domain.

Although Android's Web browser has inherited some nice features from Chrome, it still doesn't share Chrome's superior rendering engine. It lacks Chrome's robust support for advanced Web features like some of the more complex corners of CSS3. I also noticed occasional rendering glitches that showed up during zooming. The browser's limitations could prove disappointing for Web developers who are pushing the boundaries of Web standards and rely on the latest HTML5 features (more on this later). In practice, however, such weaknesses won't be noticed by a majority of users during day-to-day browsing.

I was largely satisfied with the Xoom browsing experience. Pages load quickly, especially over WiFi. The sites that I visit regularly were displayed properly and worked as expected when I tested some of the more elaborate JavaScript features. JavaScript animations can be a bit sluggish in some places, like the feature marquee on the front page of Ars, but the browser generally performed well enough to meet my needs

Browser user-agent issues

As we discussed at length in our review of the Galaxy Tab, one of the biggest problems with Web browsing on an Android tablet is that the user-agent detection code on most websites isn't sophisticated enough to distinguish between Android tablets and smartphones. This is a problem because it means that most websites will show Xoom users a phone-optimized version that is poorly suited for the more desktop-like tablet.

On practically every mainstream website that I visited, I had to find a link to convert to the full view. Some of the websites where I encountered the problem include Wikipedia, GigaOm, and CuteOverload. It's especially frustrating on sites that don't remember the user's preference from one visit to the next.

The mobile version of Ars isn't very pleasant on a tablet

Standards support and limitations

As we recently discussed when we looked at Mozilla's criticisms of Internet Explorer, the criteria that Web developers use to judge browsers is often very different than the perspective of a regular end user.

Developers increasingly want to use Web technologies as a platform for building rich applications. Some of the latest and greatest Web standards provide really great features for creating Web-based experiences that rival the smoothness of native mobile programs. The high quality of the WebKit renderer on the iPad has opened the door for a lot of innovation in that area. Developers have been hoping that the work they are doing on next-generation Web applications for the iPad would be able to seamlessly transfer to Android-based tablets. Unfortunately, that's where the Xoom falls short.

Professional Web developers seem to be disappointed with some of the technical weaknesses of Honeycomb's HTML rendering engine. Sencha's Aditya Bansod wrote up a particularly scathing critique after evaluating the browser's performance and standards support. He indicates that the Honeycomb browser falls short of Apple's mobile version of Safari in some key areas, particularly in its handling of CSS animations. Bansod characterizes the Xoom's browser as being below production quality and contends that the browser's rendering engine is simply "not ready for prime-time" on a tablet device.

Bansod's specific complaints about the rendering engine's limitations are accurate, but it's important to remember that he's speaking from the perspective of a Web developer. The issue here isn't that the Android browser is failing as a day-to-day Web browser, it's that it doesn't support the kind of dynamic and visually sophisticated functionality that is needed to make mobile Web experiences that match the elegance and refinement of native applications.

In light of Google's vocal enthusiasm for using the Web as an application platform, it's a bit surprising that the company is so far behind Apple in supporting that vision on a mobile device. When I tested toolkits like JQuery Mobile and Sencha Touch on the Xoom, the gaps in the Honeycomb browser's rendering engine were painfully apparent. Animated transitions stuttered and certain visual elements were not rendered correctly.

Again, I want to emphasize that these rendering issues don't detract from the browser's adequacy at handling regular websites that users are likely to visit. This is solely about the rendering engine's potential to handle next-generation mobile Web applications.


Unfortunately, Motorola doesn't bundle its own custom messaging application with the Xoom. Users will have to rely on Android's own native e-mail client, which leaves a lot to be desired.

The conventional e-mail client in Honeycomb has a sophisticated new tablet-friendly user interface and a number of much-needed new features, but it still suffers from extremely poor protocol implementations and exhibits a number of long-standing bugs.

The new e-mail application has a three-column layout that was designed for the tablet form factor. The application will typically display two columns at a time in landscape mode. In the main view, you will see a column on the left with all of the folders in your mail account. On the right side, there is a wider column that shows a list of messages in the selected folder. You can tap a folder to load its contents in the right-hand pane.

Viewing the contents of a folder in the Honeycomb e-mail client

If you select a message, the application will transition to a different view—the message list will be displayed in a left-hand column and the contents of the selected message will be displayed in a pane on the right. Items in the message list are accompanied by checkboxes that you can toggle to select multiple messages. This mechanism allows the e-mail client to support batch operations.

Reading an e-mail on the Xoom

The actual message view is very clean and well-designed. Information about the sender is displayed in a light blue banner at the top, with reply, forward, and star buttons. You can use a pinch gesture to zoom in or out of the message view. As you zoom, the text of the message will automatically be reflowed to fit the screen size. You can also drag or flick-scroll to pan the message contents in any direction.

One of the most grating historical weaknesses of Android's mail client has been the lack of support for moving messages between folders. Google has finally addressed that weakness in Honeycomb. When you select a message, you can move it by clicking the folder icon in the toolbar and then selecting a destination folder from the popup dialog. You can also move multiple messages at the same time using the batch selection feature.

Moving a message between e-mail folders

An even more impressive addition in Honeycomb is support for using drag-and-drop interaction to move messages between folders. When you long-press a message, a draggable overlay will pop out. When you drop it on one of the folders in the left-hand folder list, the selected message will be moved to the desired folder. This feature vastly simplifies mail triaging, an activity that Android's mail client has historically been unable to support in previous versions.

Moving a message between e-mail folders

Although the user interface of the new e-mail client is pretty good, there are still some long-standing usability problems that haven't been addressed. For example, the new version of the mail client still doesn't properly detect and display nested Maildir folders from IMAP servers. The mail client will display the flat folder names with the delimiter, which means that the end of the name will often be truncated for deeply nested folders.

In addition to those sorts of presentation issues, there are a number of more serious problems with the mail client's underlying IMAP protocol implementation. For example, deleting a message in the client will not delete the message on the server or cause it to be moved to a trash folder. Instead, it will simply mark the message as read on the server and hide it on the client. Due to issues of that nature, the Xoom's e-mail client simply isn't reliable—much like the default e-mail client in previous versions of Android.

Motorola, HTC, and many other handset makers typically ship their own mail clients on Android phones so that users won't have to suffer with the mediocrity of Google's poor effort. Motorola's mail client on the Droid X and Droid 2 is especially good and fills in a lot of the gaps, but it's not available on the Xoom.

Users who want an acceptable IMAP e-mail experience on the Xoom will have to install a third-party application, such as K-9. Unfortunately, K-9 hasn't been updated to take advantage of the Android 3.0 APIs yet and doesn't have a tablet-friendly user interface at this time.

Google's ongoing failure to provide decent e-mail support on Android continues to be a major disappointment in Honeycomb. Prospective Xoom buyers who care a lot about IMAP or Exchange e-mail support should probably pass on the Xoom or wait until third-party applications like Touchdown and K-9 have proper tablet interfaces.

Calendar and address book

The Xoom comes with the standard Google applications, including a calendar and address book that synchronize with the company's popular Web services. The user interfaces are simplistic, however, and didn't impress me very much.

The calendar application allows you to switch between day, week, and month views from the titlebar. In the week and day views, it displays a small month overview on the right-hand side and a switcher for filtering the user's individual calendars. There doesn't appear to be an agenda view of any kind, and you can't get details about an item by tapping it in the month view.

Viewing a week in the Honeycomb calendar application
Adding a new event to the calendar

Although Samsung's custom calendar application for the Galaxy Tab had some odd design characteristics, it felt a whole lot more functional to me. I especially like the way that the Tab's calendar application displayed the agenda view side-by-side with the full-month view in the calendar. The Xoom's calendar just doesn't match up on features and isn't even as nice as the regular Google Calendar Web interface. One nice touch, however, is that you can use pinch-zooming to expand or contract the size of hour blocks in day and week view.

The address book on the Xoom is also pretty simple, but it gets the job done and doesn't really lack any features that I need. It shows a scrollable list of your contacts in the the left-hand column and will allow you to select one to display more information in the right-hand column. You can click the pencil button in the titlebar to edit a contact, and you can filter with the built-in search box.

Viewing my contacts in the Honeycomb address book

The address book will automatically suck in your contacts from Twitter, Gmail, and other accounts. I follow hundreds of people on Twitter and don't really want that kind of clutter in my contact list. Fortunately, the application has a drop-down menu that lets you filter to see just one account. You can also create a custom view that filters out specific accounts.

Google Books

Google Books is an e-book reader that Google launched alongside its Web-based bookstore. Honeycomb comes with a special tablet-friendly version that looks good on large form-factor devices. The application has a simple 3D book cover display that allows you to select the book you want to read.

Viewing the books in my library on the Xoom

It will format the text as two pages side-by-side in landscape orientation and as a single page in portrait orientation. The text is clear and legible for comfortable reading. When the user is reading, the application hides all of the controls, including the contents of the notification area. You can flip pages by dragging to the left or right. It displays a slick 3D page-turning animation as you drag.

Reading Great Expectations in landscape orientation
Flipping a page in the e-book reader

Controls will appear when the user taps the screen. Text display settings can be accessed by tapping the letter button in the titlebar. You can adjust the brightness, text size, typeface, and line height. A slider along the bottom allows you just jump forward through the text.

Configuring the text settings

The e-book software is good, but could use a few more improvements. The biggest issue is the lack of support for side-loading books. It would be really nice if there was a way to read arbitrary epub files in the application. Due to the lack of this feature, users will still have to rely on third-party e-book software for reading books that were obtained from other sources. Unfortunately, Aldiko—my favorite e-book application for Android—has some rendering problems on the Xoom. I also had some trouble getting the Vintage Comics application to display properly on the device.

Aside from the lack of support for side-loading, my other complaints with Google's e-book application are very minor. I appreciate its effort to minimize on-screen distractions, but I'd really prefer it to not blot out the notification area. In particular, I want to be able to see the clock on the screen when I'm reading.

I think that Google's e-book software is pretty good, but the Xoom's weight and size detract from its suitability as a device for reading books. The awkwardness of holding the Xoom in portrait orientation for long periods of time is particularly problematic in that respect. If you don't mind reading novels in landscape, which is well supported in Google's own software, then it might not be an issue for you.

If you are an Android enthusiast and regard e-book reading as an important feature in a tablet, you might be better off getting a Nook Color and modifying it to run additional software. I personally prefer the Nook Color over the Xoom for reading novels and working through my Google Reader feed.

Music application

Google has developed a whole new music application for Honeycomb. It provides a slick 3D user interface that resembles the Cooliris-based photo gallery application that Google introduced on the Nexus One.

When you first launch the music player, it will show you a 3D stream of album covers representing new and recently played songs in the user's music library. As you flick through the stream, the albums will fly across the screen. The 3D animation is extremely smooth and fluid.

A stream of recent and new music

You can use the navigation menu in the application titlebar to switch between different views. For example, you can see a 3D wall with all of the albums in your library by selecting the "Albums" view.

The album wall

When you tap an album, the application will show you a list of tracks. You can tap a song to start playing it or you can use the drop-down menu to the right of the song to add it to a playlist. When a song is playing, the application will show the cover art and a seek slider that you can drag to jump through the song.

Listening to a song on the Xoom

The music application is a nice step up from the one included in stock Android. The 3D user interface is elegant, functional, and intuitive. It does a nice job of demonstrating the kind of user experience that can be delivered on Android when developers take advantage of 3D rendering.

Getting music onto the device wasn't as straightforward as I had hoped. Most Android phones have limited internal storage capacity and are built with the assumption that the user will store media on a microSD card. The Xoom, however, has lots of internal storage and, at the present time, no working microSD slot.

This is an issue because Android typically doesn't allow the user to mount the system's internal flash memory as a conventional mass storage device. You can't just plug the Xoom into a USB port to drag and drop your music onto the filesystem.

The Xoom uses the MTP protocol to expose the user-visible parts of the device's internal storage to a desktop computer. MTP tends to work pretty well-out-of-the-box on Windows, but Mac OS X users will need to install the Android File Transfer program. Unfortunately, no such application is available for Linux users. If you want to access the Xoom's internal storage through Linux, your best bet is to try mtpfs, a FUSE-based MTP protocol implementation.


Honeycomb introduces a new on-screen keyboard that puts additional spacing between the keys for more accurate text input. In landscape orientation, it is wide enough to accommodate full-handed typing. In portrait orientation, the keyboard is a pretty good size for two-handed thumb typing.

Honeycomb's on-screen keyboard

You can also sort of thumb-type in landscape mode, but I found that attempting to do so was a bit awkward. The landscape keyboard is really best-suited for use when the tablet is on another surface—like your lap or a table—and you don't have to hold it up while you are typing.

I was able to achieve a pretty good typing speed when I used the landscape keyboard with the tablet placed on the slightly angled surface of my desk. I can't quite touch-type on it, but it felt surprisingly close to using a regular keyboard. My typing accuracy on touchscreen keyboards tends to diminish at fast speeds, however.

On a real physical keyboard, you can feel the boundaries of each key and the space between them. This provides a lot of physical cues—which you don't have on a touchscreen keyboard—that help make typing more accurate. A common way to help compensate for the absence of those physical cues on a touchscreen keyboard is to increase the spacing between the keys, making it so that you are less likely to hit a boundary between keys or press two keys at once by accident. I think that Google got this right on the Honeycomb keyboard. The keys are large enough that they are easy to press, and they are spaced well enough to reduce mistyping.


Although mobile platforms haven't been able to attract games that match the depth of dedicated console titles, casual gaming is an area where tablets have a lot of potential. I tested some of the most popular free Android games on the Xoom to see how it impacts the experience.

The review unit that I received came with a game called Cordy already installed. This proved to be a clever and engaging game with nice 3D artwork. Despite being set in a 3D environment, it plays like a screen scroller, which helped keep the controls simple. The player directs a little robot through the world and collects energy that can be used to unlock doors. The 3D rendering performance in Cordy is excellent on the Xoom. It's smooth as butter to play and very enjoyable.

Cordy, an Android game with nice 3D graphics

The free version that is available from the Market has a limited number of levels (I managed to work through the whole thing in one sitting) but they promise to make more available in future updates. I was pretty impressed with this game, though it took a bit of time to get used to the touchscreen controls.

One game that is a bit more graphically intensive is Dungeon Defenders, an odd fusion of ARPG and tower defense genres. It's also available on the PC and the iPad. The Android port has pretty good 3D graphics and felt quite smooth during gameplay. The game itself has a bit of a learning curve, so I didn't get very far before moving on to test other things.

A 3D wizard in Dungeon Defenders

In an effort to highlight games for Android that take advantage of the Tegra 2 hardware, NVIDIA has published a Honeycomb-compatible application called the Tegra Zone. There aren't many games listed in its directory yet, but it's worth watching. When you click the "Get It Now" button on one of the games, it will punt you over to the Android market.

NVIDIA's Tegra Zone application

In addition to these sophisticated 3D games, I also tested some of the classic Android favorites. Angry Birds plays well on the Xoom and looks great on the tablet's large screen. The most popular version of Solitaire for Android disappointingly didn't fill the whole screen.

Some of the classics like Paper Toss and Bonsai Blast simply expanded to fill the space. They were entirely playable, but didn't look very good due to the stretching. Bonsai Blast is still an awesome game and feels great on a tablet, so I'd really like to see it get some higher-resolution artwork.

Bonsai Blast stretched to fit on the Xoom

One of my favorite games to play on the Xoom is Glow Hockey, a simple table hockey game with glowing colors and trippy particle effects. It's a port of an iPad game, so it's not surprising that it's a good fit on a tablet form factor. It's designed to be played in portrait orientation, but it ends up being a lot more comfortable to play in landscape orientation on the Xoom.

Glow Hockey on the Xoom

After testing a variety of games, I can conclude that Honeycomb and the Xoom hardware are a good match for touchscreen gaming. The Xoom's excellent hardware-accelerated rendering and large screen make it particularly good for immersive 3D games like Cordy. If Android tablets can attract enough users who are willing to pay for software, I think it's very likely that the major commercial game developers will support the platform.

Third-party development

Android's rising popularity makes the platform attractive to a growing number of third-party application developers. Although the breadth and volume of the Android Market still trails behind that of Apple's App Store, Google is arguably making headway in its effort to augment developer mindshare and improve the Android Market experience.

Inspiring developer enthusiasm for Android tablets is one of the biggest challenges ahead for Google as the company works to build the platform's credibility on the tablet form factor.

During the process of writing this article, I discussed Honeycomb with several third-party Android application developers to see how they feel about the new version of Android and the opportunities that await them on new devices like the Xoom. The general attitude is one of cautious enthusiasm. There is a lot of excitement about the possibilities for building richer and more expressive user interfaces—particularly about the prospect of being able to build user experiences that incorporate hardware-accelerated 3D rendering.

Although several of the developers who spoke with me about Honeycomb are already prototyping new tablet-friendly versions of their applications, none of them were ready yet to have their efforts published on Ars. A preview of the Honeycomb SDK was first made available last month and the APIs were only finalized a last week, so it's not particularly surprising that third-party development efforts are still at an early stage.

There are a few challenges that have generated minor concern among third-party developers. The biggest barrier right now is the lack of clarity regarding best practices for building applications that work across form factors. It's going to take some time for developers to wrap their heads around the best approach.

Honeycomb's new Fragments system will help reduce the burden of building applications that work seamlessly across tablets and phones. Applications that rely on those APIs can currently only natively operate on devices that run Android 3.0, however. This posed obvious challenges for developers who wanted to take advantage of the new functionality. Fortunately, Google has published a static library that will help address the issue.

Another barrier to Honeycomb development that Google is working to remedy is the poor performance of the Android emulator. The emulator has always been sluggish, but it was still generally pretty usable with previous versions of the Android operating system. The emulator performance issues are greatly exacerbated, however, in Android 3.0. It's almost painful to do serious testing and debugging of Honeycomb applications in the emulator.

The launch of the Xoom is particularly significant for the Android application development community because it offers a real-world hardware environment on which third-party developers can test their Honeycomb software. It supports Android's USB debugging capabilities, so it's possible to deploy software directly to the device from the Eclipse IDE during development. Because it's a much more comfortable environment for testing than the sluggish emulator, it will hopefully make Android tablet development a lot more palatable.


The Xoom's impressive hardware specifications and ambitious feature lineup are intriguing, but the product falls short of its full potential due to a general lack of completeness. It feels like it was rushed to market and delivered to consumers prematurely. The number of headline features that are simply absent at launch is emblematic of the device's deficiencies.

If you will pardon the indulgence, I want to share a marginally relevant personal experience. The Xoom reminds me of a trip I took to Russia a number of years ago. The Russians have meticulously consolidated their nation's vast assortment of historical artifacts and cultural treasures into a single enormous collection, which is housed in a former palace in Saint Petersburg. The facility, which is known as the Hermitage, is easily one of the greatest museums on the planet.

It's an amazing museum, but there is a downside to putting everything of interest in one place. Everywhere else I went in Russia, at virtually every major historical site, the tour guide would have to explain that the items on display were artificial reproductions because the originals were all at the Hermitage. The explanation was repeated with such comical frequency at so many different places that it quickly became an inside joke among my fellow travelers in the tour group. After a week of seeing placeholders of where all of Russia's coolest stuff used to be, we finally got to see the originals (and much more) at the Hermitage.

My experience with the Xoom feels like a similar situation. The product has an extraordinary set of features, but the best are simply not available at launch. While I was testing the device and studying the documentation, I was confronted repeatedly with disclaimers which explained that various features will arrive later in updates. There are so many of these disclaimers that it soon became absurd. The device, in its current state, is like a parade of promising placeholders.

The Xoom's assortment of absent features will likely all be available this Summer, but the launch configuration feels like a beta release. Consumers who buy it today will have to send it back in for a week at some point before they can get the complete product. I think bringing it to market in this condition was a pretty dubious move.

As a reviewer, I'm finding it particularly hard to evaluate the Xoom. When I test beta hardware or software, I tend to give the manufacturer or developer the benefit of the doubt and focus on the product's potential. I'm tempted to approach the Xoom from that perspective, but I just can't rationalize that kind of leniency for a product that has been officially released and is selling for $800.

If you compare the Xoom against the iPad 2 today, there isn't much of a case to be made in favor of the Xoom. If you make the same comparison four or five months from now when the Xoom has all of its features intact, the story is going to look rather different. LTE and Flash are both desirable features that would make the Xoom look really appealing to a decent-sized mainstream audience.

It's worth keeping in mind, however, that the tablet market will be more competitive by the time the Xoom gets all its features. There are a number of Honeycomb-based devices launching in the near future, some of which seem a bit more polished. It's also possible that we will see the second wave of Android 3.x tablets arrive this summer. At that point, the platform will be more mature and the third-party software ecosystem for Android tablets will have had some time to evolve.

I have some confidence in Google's ability to address the stability issues and problems of that nature, but it's not really clear yet if Motorola will be able to roll those improvements out in a timely manner. Motorola's track record on updates is better than some of the hardware makers and it's possible that the lack of customizations will make it easier for the company to keep the Xoom updated. But there are still risks in adopting glitchy software when there are so few guarantees about when fixes will be available.

If you are looking for the best tablet available today, then look no further than Cupertino. If you are an Android enthusiast and you want a good tablet that runs the same software as your phone, you should wait a few months for everything to solidify before you decide which Android tablet you want. Don't jump for the Xoom just because it's the first—they rushed it out prematurely hoping to capitalize on exactly that.

The main legitimate audience for the Xoom today is third-party application developers. If you are a third-party application developer and you need to get your hands on real-world Honeycomb hardware in order to start working on your commercial Android software projects, then the Xoom is really not that bad a value.

Although this review has largely been negative, I want to make it clear that I'm not completely dismissing Android as a tablet platform. The basic elements we are seeing in Honeycomb are compelling, and there is a lot of potential under the hood. Android has a long way to go before it's competitive with iOS on tablets, but it could have a lot to offer when it finally catches up.

The Good:

  • Built-in software is more tablet-friendly than pre-Honeycomb Android tablets
  • It will eventually support desirable features like LTE and Flash
  • Plenty of RAM for multitasking and intensive Web browsing
  • Dual-core processor and NVIDIA GPU offer great performance for gaming
  • Good integration with Google's Web services

The Bad:

  • The software is not particularly stable or robust
  • Requires a proprietary power adapter and can't charge through microUSB
  • Users have to rely on the MTP protocol to manage media on the device
  • The built-in e-mail client has extremely poor protocol support
  • There are very few third-party Android applications designed for the form factor
  • The Google Books e-book application doesn't support side-loading content
  • Very few websites handle the Honeycomb browser's User-Agent string correctly
  • The browser's support for advanced CSS3 features lags behind Safari's

The Ugly:

  • The Xoom has to be shipped back to Motorola for the LTE upgrade
  • Key features like Flash and the microSD slot don't work at launch

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