Apple’s iPad 2 arrives in stores tomorrow. Which means that Motorola’s Xoom tablet already faced tough odds when it made its own retail debut late last month. But after spending a week and change with this thing, I see a bigger problem: It has trouble holding its own against the current iPad.
That’s not what I expected from my brief inspection of a prototype Xoom at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. But it does fit into a growing pattern of tablet manufacturers thinking they can compete with Apple’s bestselling device by putting the right specifications on the box — instead of trying to match the iPad’s elegance and ease of use.
The Xoom’s first flaw is its marriage to Verizon Wireless, which sells it for $799.99 without a data plan or $599.99 with a two-year contract. Those prices easily exceed what Apple will charge for a 3G iPad 2 with the same 32 gigabytes of storage — but they could have been far worse. According to a leaked Best Buy ad, Verizon was considering requiring payment for a month of data service on the full-priced version before its WiFi could be used.
When WiFi is increasingly ubiquitous and new phones come with WiFi Internet sharing built in, even if at extra cost, it’s bad business to debut a tablet with a wireless carrier lodged between customer and manufacturer.
Then again, a WiFi-only version of the Xoom will supposedly sell for $539 at Sam’s Club stores, which is still more than an entry-level iPad 2.
What does the Xoom’s higher price get you? (Note: The name, which Motorola and VzW insist on writing in all caps, is no relation to the now-defunct Web-hosting site older readers may remember.)
The Xoom does run a great version of Google’s Android operating system. This 3.0 “Honeycomb” release was rewritten for tablet use and shows it with a beautiful, gesture-driven interface. Applications whoosh on and off the screen; a simple icon at the bottom left brings up a list of thumbnail views of open programs, a far more useful multitasking interface than the iPad’s.
But few Android programs are optimized for tablet use so far; others just have their phone-sized graphics sprawling across the Xoom’s 10.1-in. display. That situation should improve quickly, but for now it’s an issue.
And one promised feature, compatibility with Adobe’s Flash Web multimedia, will require a separate download from the Android Market that hasn’t been posted yet.
The Xoom’s hardware also looks underdone. It offers fine battery life — like the iPad, you can consult it throughout a workday without running out of a charge — but can only be recharged with its own, proprietary charger. Unlike every other mobile device with a micro-USB port I’ve tried lately, you can’t plug it into a computer or any phone’s USB-compatible charger for a slower replenishment.
As for the Xoom’s cameras, their resolution (5 megapixels on the back, 2 MP on the front) easily beats those on the iPad 2. But their usability may not: On a review unit loaned by Verizon Wireless, only the included Google Talk application allowed video calling. Trying to place a call with the Android version of Skype crashed the entire tablet every time.
The Xoom also includes a microSD Card slot, but that doesn’t work and will require a software update to be activated. The story’s even worse with the promised upgrade to support Verizon’s 4G network: Although that will be free, you’ll have to ship the thing back to Motorola for the upgrade.
For more where this came from, see the video below. As I say there, I can only wonder if Motorola wasn’t hoping the iPad 2 would arrive with a $599 starting price ... or if that company thought it was competing with a different kind of tablet entirely.
Have you thought of getting a Xoom, or have you picked up one yourself? What’s your assessment of this gadget? What would you like to see in a non-iPad tablet?