Tablet deathmatch: Motorola Xoom vs. Apple iPad

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The Xoom and other Android tablets will need a better stable of apps to foster the addiction that iPad users exhibit with their tablets. So far, there are just 16 such apps in the Android Market. They show some of the promise of the tablet form factor, but none is exceptional.

App stores and app installation. There are tens of thousands of apps for the iPad's iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. Android doesn't have anywhere near the same library of apps as iOS, but its smartphone-oriented apps portfolio is now in the thousands and growing, with many relevant apps such as Quickoffice, for which the Xoom includes a basic version with limited creation and editing capabilities. I often find that iOS apps are more capable than their Android equivalents (such as the Kindle app) -- but not always (Angry Birds, for example).

Both the Apple App Store and Google Android Market separate iPad apps from smartphone apps, simplifying the search for appropriate titles. The Apple store also indicates which apps auto-adjust for the iPhone and iPad, so you know they can be run on both devices and appear native on each.

Unlike Apple's App Store, the Android Market is not curated; developers will have an easier time getting their apps listed, but the market also lets cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking programs or other apps and steal user information. Apple's App Store seems to be less at risk to such Trojans. The Android Market is also slower to load than the App Store and not as easy to navigate within the app details.

You don't have to use the Android Market to get apps on the Xoom. If you want to get down and dirty, you can configure the Android OS's application settings to install software from other sources.

Installation is similar: After selecting an app, you confirm your store account information and wait for the app to download and install. Both mobile OSes let you know if you have updates available. On the iPad, the App Store indicates the number of available updates. On the Xoom, available updates are displayed in the notifications pop-up at the bottom left of the screen.

The Xoom uses the Android Market to remember your paid apps (but not your free ones) and a separate sync utility for handling media files transferred from your PC, but in this regard, it's no match for the iPad. Thanks to its reliance on iTunes as its command center for managing media, apps, and documents, the iPad makes it much easier to manage your device's content. If you get a new phone, it's a snap on iTunes to get the new one up and running with the same assets as before; there's no such easy way to transfer the assets to a Xoom from a previous device.

App management. The iPad has a simpler app management process. For example, it's easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPad and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders. Just tap and hold any app to invoke the "shaking apps" status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or tap the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.

Like all Android smartphones, the Xoom lets you drag apps to any of its home screens, which appear in preview mode below the apps matrix. (Unlike with Android smartphones, you cannot long-tap an app to move it to the current home screen.) The full list of programs is available in the apps page, which you access by tapping the Apps button at the upper right of any home screen. But the Xoom has no groups capability for presenting apps, and you can't rearrange the roster in the apps page -- just in the home screens.

The Xoom supports the Android OS's widgets feature. Widgets are mini apps that you can place on the home screens. Widgets can be very helpful, showing the latest email message or Facebook update or the current time in a large clock. Thus, you can see at a glance the current status of whatever you want to easily track -- one of Android's superior UI capabilities. The iPad has no equivalent capability. The Xoom, like other Android devices, has pop-up notifications that make it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts, whatever you happen to be doing. Alerts appear in the lower right of your screen -- not at the top as in Android smartphones. Again, the iPad has no equivalent.

Multitasking. The iPad's iOS 4 supports multitasking if enabled in the apps themselves; Apple has made specific background services available for multitasking, rather than let each app run full-on in parallel, as on a PC. As you switch iOS apps, they suspend, except for their multitasking-enabled services, which conserves memory and aids performance. By contrast, Android supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties. From a usage point of view, these differences aren't apparent; on both devices, apps appear to multitask the same.

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps. On the iPad, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of active apps; it's easy to see what's running and switch among them. On the Xoom, a new persistent menu icon provides access to all running apps at any time, and it even shows a preview window of what the apps are currently doing (like Mac OS X and Windows 7 do in their taskbars).

The winner: The iPad, mainly because there are so few tablet apps available for the Xoom. But the widgets and notifications capabilities of the Xoom's Android OS are very handy, and you feel their omission on an iPad after you've used an Android device for a while. Plus, the Xoom's ability to show all running apps and what they're doing is a really nice feature the iPad can't match.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that the iPad and Xoom both offer capable Web browsers. Note that neither is as HTML5-savvy as their desktop versions, however. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, the Xoom's mobile Chrome racked up 195 out of 300 (better than Android smartphones' 176) points, versus 242 for desktop Chrome (version 9.05), and the iPad's mobile Safari scored 196 versus 208 for desktop Safari (version 5.03). Tests by mobile IDE developer Sencha suggest that the Xoom browser is inferior even in HTML4 display compared to the iPad's; I didn't notice a qualitative difference other than greater font support on the iPad in my admittedly subjective browsing.

The main differences between the iPad and Xoom browsers are cosmetic. Both browsers have persistent buttons or fields for Back, Forward, Bookmarks, Refresh, and navigating tabbed panes. The Xoom's browser shows a row of tabs at the top for each open browser window, whereas the iPad displays a button showing how many windows are open; tapping it opens a screen that previews all open windows. The Xoom automatically opens a Google search page when you bring up a new tab; that's a waste of time and bytes (which matters if you're on a 3G data plan). The iPad opens a blank window instead.

Both browsers can share pages via email, but the operation is faster on the iPad, which also lets you print the page to a wireless printer (either to an AirPrint-compatible printer or to a local wireless printer connected via one of the many printing apps available for the iPad). But the iPad's separate Search and URL boxes are less convenient than the Xoom's unified URL and Search box; you have to be sure to tap the right box on the iPad. The Xoom also has a separate search control, if you prefer.

Unlike Android smartphones, the Xoom's touch keyboard offers a .com button -- like the iPad and iPhone -- when entering URLs, which is a significant timesaver.

Both browsers let you select text and graphics on Web pages, but only the iPad lets you copy graphics. The Xoom can save graphics to the tablet's local storage. The iPad can save images to its Photos app.

Both browsers have settings controls over pop-up windows, search engines, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging. Where the Xoom falls short is in its browser identifier. It uses the same ID string as the Android smartphone browser, so you can't see the full desktop sites such as InfoWorld.com that redirect smartphone users to a mobile-friendly site. (To see InfoWorld on an Android device or any smartphone, go to iphone.infoworld.com.) The iPad has a unique browser ID, so most sites treat it like a desktop, which is appropriate for its 9.7-inch screen.

Using the cloud-based Google Docs on either device is not a pleasant experience. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can edit a text document but only awkwardly, and although you can edit appointments in Google Calendar, you're restricted to day and month views (no week or agenda views). Partly, that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the Safari and Chrome browsers are simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through a mobile-friendly front end. It's also because the mobile Safari and Chrome browsers don't support all the capabilities their desktop counterparts do.

The winner: A tie, despite the iPad's slight advantage in being able to copy Web images and print Web pages.

Deathmatch: Location support Both the iPad and the Xoom support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. As noted earlier, the Xoom's beta Navigation app is better than the iPad's Maps app when it comes to directions while driving.

Although both the iPad and the Xoom ask for permission to work with your location information, the Xoom does not provide controllable settings for location use by the device or individual applications, as the iPad does.

The winner: The Xoom, for its better navigation app.

Deathmatch: User interface It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, though it's not always true, as evidenced by the MobileMe service. But the iPad's iOS 4 is in fact a better-designed UI in many respects, allowing easier and faster access to the device's capabilities and information. Where the Xoom's Android 3.0 OS outshines the iPad in terms of UI is through its widgets and notification capabilities, as previously mentioned.

Android users will find the Xoom's UI both familiar and strange. Gone are two standard buttons at the bottom of all Android smartphones: Search and Menu. These buttons now appear at the discretion of each application in the upper right of the screen. The standard Home and Back buttons remain at the bottom of the Xoom screen, though they use entirely different -- and ugly -- icons. These two on-screen buttons and the notification widget take up the entire bottom of the screen, shrinking the available viewing area. (On Android smartphones, these buttons are in the case rather than on-screen, and the notification widgets appear only on the home screens, not in all screens.) This loss of screen especially matters on the Xoom in landscape orientation, where the widescreen layout already shortens its screen area uncomfortably compared to the iPad.

Operational UI. The Xoom doesn't suffer the excessive reliance on the Menu button as Android smartphones do. The Xoom instead uses its larger screen to make relevant controls easily accessible on-screen, as the iPad and iPhone always have.

The Android OS's Settings app can be disorienting, and the white-on-black text makes it nearly impossible to view in bright daylight. For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. (Bluetooth is handled the same awkward way.) The iPad's iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, works equivalently on the Xoom's Android OS and iPad's iOS. For text entry, I find the iPad's on-screen keyboard to be easier to work with than the Xoom's, with clearer keys and better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application. Although I appreciate the intent behind the Xoom's use of Tab and other keys not found on the iPad, the result is that the keyboard is not full size in landscape orientation (the iPad's is) and thus difficult for touch-typing. I'm sure I'll eventually get used to it, but it remains an annoying UI decision.

Text selection and copying. The Xoom's Android OS falls short compared to the iPad's iOS in its text selection. If you're tapping away and realize you've made a mistake not caught by the autocorrect feature, such as when typing a URL, it can be difficult to move the cursor to that error's location in the text. If you tap too long, the screen is filled with the Edit Text contextual menu; it took me a while to figure out how to tap long enough to move the text-insertion cursor to a new location without opening that menu. It is true that Xoom is not as bad in this regard as the various Android smartphones I've tested.

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