Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First Thoughts on the Xoom

The Motorola Xoom is the Android answer to the iPad, or at least its supposed to be.  Its the first device to have Google's new Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system optimized for tablets on it.  I've had the Motorola Xoom for a few weeks now, just long enough to have formed an opinion about it.  While in some ways its still far from being at the stage it should be in order to be competitive with the iPad, the device and platform is showing a tremendous amount of potential and it really is very fun.

One of the first surprises on unboxing the Xoom was that the power plug is surprisingly thin. Smaller than a headphone jack thin.  While some people rave about the Honeycomb boot animation, my eyes were bothered by it (migraine sensitivity sucks).  The real surprise was putting in my google log in info and having all of the apps I'd ordered on the Android market automatically download to the Xoom.

Well not all.  While apps that require root downloaded, some apps that were listed as incompatible, especially alternative launchers did not download.  (Launchers, are also known as home screens.  They are a special kind of app in that they are the phone's main interface for the phone and also launch apps.) Also, not all of the apps that downloaded worked or worked well.  Not unexpected really.  Its unlikely that all the apps even work on my original phone.

Overall, the Android Market on the Xoom is a huge improvement over what I have on the Droid X.  Updating apps is simple not glitchy.  Whats disappointing is how sparse the tablet specific selection is.  While many non-tablet specific apps work fine there really should be more out there by now.  In particular, Skype is still not finished yet.  This among other still missing features makes the Xoom feel as if it were rushed to market to beat the iPad with full functionality left for a future release.

I do want to note that side loading apps is pretty much a requirement to get the best experience out of the Xoom.  Side loading is when you load an app without using the market, either through a file manager or another method such as emailing to yourself.  While the stock launcher is nice, the app drawer moves through apps page by page, something that takes forever if you already have a phone full of apps that gets synced to the zune.  The launcher apps I mentioned above can actually be installed, just not through the market.  For me, Launcher Pro works best.  Oddly enough, I just switched out Launcher Pro for ADW EX on my Droid X because Launcher Pro had too many resource issues.  With the Xoom's far greater firepower it isn't an issue.  Launcher Pro fixes the app drawer problem, provides better widgets, allows icons to be resized and lets more screen real estate get used up. Its pretty much perfect for a tablet.

Another side load app, is the Amazon App Store. I did run into a few issues, the free version of Backbreaker was not Tegra enabled so did not play properly.  Otherwise, it was great to get some free apps that would otherwise be paid.

While the Xoom can't match the iPad for brightness its home page UI is way more useful and beatiful.  The Xoom has the horsepower, screen real estate and battery life to run the best of the live wallpapers on the Android Market without concern.  Scrollable widgets allow you to go through recent emails, facebook posts, twitter, news, etc directly from your homepage.  The gmail widget works well, as do the  Launcher Pro Plus widgets and Colorize widgets.

The large screen makes Circle Launcher widgets very effective means for accessing various apps. Its no problem at all to put 12-15 games in one Circle Launcher and be able to easily see each icon. For those of you unfamiliar with Circle Launcher, its a widget that looks like an ordinary icon until you press it, at which point it creates a ring of icons for other apps, or contacts or bookmarks that you can select from.  The layout's for the launchers can be saved so you can backup and restore the launchers from crashes or if you need to wipe the device.

One more app that needs mentioning is Rock Player lite. Video playback on tablets is essential and Arc Media, which was the first app I tried was completely worthless, under both rendering settings. I'm not sure if its something particular to the Xoom or just difficulties in handling formats not prepared for phones. Rock Player had no difficulties in playing files moved directly off the media server onto the Xoom.  I'm still looking for a good organization tool however.

So far Xoom development is still in its infancy.  A big recent announcement was that SD card support was just enabled.  The developer community on XDA were the ones to make the breakthrough, beating both Google and Motorola.  The Xoom is rootable but custom roms like Cyanogen or Liberty are a long ways off. I'm hoping that Google and Moto don't let this slide and try to keep pace with the hacker community.  Right now the Xoom feels like its still in release candidate, fun for geeky types but just not polished enough to be commercially viable.   The game changer that I think would make it no contest would be, ironically enough, windows. There really is no need for a ten inch screen on a remote.  If Google can somehow manage to split the screen so that you can have two apps side by side it would be huge.

Google and Moto need to get their acts together and do more than just make this a proof of concept device.  Its been pitched as Honeycomb, Android on the Tablet and the shortfalls in kludging Honeycomb into a usable form in time to get on the market have to be resolved before the shortfalls define the Honeycomb experience.

Edit: I was working on this late last night and didn't bother with de-jargoning.  I will be going back and explaining in more detail what some of this stuff means for those of you who are interested in learning more about the Xoom and Android. Pretty much done now.  One thing I learned along the way was that both the iPad 2 and the Xoom have some fundamental design issues that make them ill suited to being everyday couch TVs.  Apparently there's a hardware issue integral to the Tegra 2 chip that means that one of the most popular formats for hi def video won't play. Its no problem to load up the Xoom before a trip and make sure everything is properly converted but its too much to convert large files just for everyday viewing.


  1. Yeah, it's awesome. Lisa was playing with it on the train to DC last night. She'll probably take it with her to taiwan this summer