Xoom: Tablet impresses, but drawbacks remain

The Xoom has a lot of features to like, and a lot to set it apart from the ever-growing crowd of tablets; but it also has a few drawbacks.

All eyes are on the Motorola Xoom tablet, and for good reason: It's the first device in an expected multitude to ship with Google's tablet-optimized Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). The Xoom has a lot of features to like, and a lot to set it apart from the ever-growing crowd of tablets; but it also has some drawbacks that temper my enthusiasm about it.

One drawback is its price: $800 with no contract on Verizon, and $600 with a two-year contract (prices as of February 23, 2011). More critically, I experienced some issues with the display and image rendering during my hands-on evaluation of the Xoom.

Motorola Xoom

Using the Xoom confirmed my earlier impressions of Android 3.0: The OS is vastly superior to its predecessor and is so different to use that it's practically unrecognizable as a close relative of the Android widely deployed today. The software's tablet optimization was evident in the home screens, the widgets, the music player, the browser, the e-mail, and even the YouTube player. Missing, however, was the Adobe Flash 10.2 player, which is coming soon but wasn't available in time for this story.

The Hardware: style and class

The Xoom zooms to the top of the tablet class in overall style and design. The build quality is solid, with volume and power buttons that are easy to press and a sturdily constructed SIM tray that doubles as the MicroSD Card slot cover. It has a soft, rubberized feel along the top, and black metal on the bottom when held in horizontal mode. It also has its buttons and other elements configured for that orientation.

Clearly, the device was designed with landscape orientation in mind: In that position, you hold it with two hands, and the front-facing 2-megapixel camera sits at the top middle of the display, just as the Webcam on a laptop typically is. The stereo speakers, at back, appear to the right and left, with plenty of clearance for your fingers (this positioning is unfortunate, however, if you plan to listen to music while the pad is lying flat, with its screen face-up). The micro-USB and HDMI-mini ports are at bottom, perfect for mounting the Xoom in its optional dock (standard dock, $60, Speaker HD dock, $150). The power button is located on the back, to the left of the rear-facing, flash-equipped, 5-megapixel camera. The button lies where your forefinger naturally lands when you hold the Xoom in both hands.

The Xoom runs Nvidia's Tegra 2 platform, with a dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and 32GB of on-board user memory. The MicroSD Card slot permits users to double their storage space as they use the device -- a boon for anyone who tends to pack gadgets with media. Unfortunately, the MicroSD Card slot is not enabled at launch, so early shoppers will have to wait until a software update comes along (eventually, Xoom will ship with the slot enabled).

The display measures 10.1 inches diagonally, with 1280 x 800-pixel resolution. The widescreen's 16:10 aspect ratio makes it perfect for viewing video; but for folks accustomed to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the 9.7-inch Apple iPad screen, it may take some getting used to. The unit also stands an inch taller than the first-generation iPad, but it feels comfortable when you hold it landscape-style in two hands.

You'll definitely want to use two hands: Like the first-generation iPad with 3G and Wi-Fi, the Xoom weighs 1.6 pounds. The weight is manageable for periods of two-handed operation, but intolerable for extended one-handed operation. A third-generation Amazon Kindle weighs one-third as much as the Xoom.

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