When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in January 2010, Apple jumpstarted a tablet market that had never really taken off. Naturally Google, as the company behind the Android, had to get involved but it was caught off guard by the iPad’s success, and it took some time to modify Android for use on larger, higher resolution tablets.
It wasn’t until the Motorola Xoom was revealed in January 2011 that we got a glimpse of Google’s tablet vision. The Xoom was the launch product for Android 3.0 Honeycomb and it was touted as an iPad killer.
It didn’t quite work out that way – the chunky Xoom was an awkward disappointment compared to iPad and met with poor sales. It should come as no surprise to see Motorola rapidly following up with an improved sequel. Although the software and screen size remain unchanged, the Motorola Xoom 2 10.1” features a drastically changed, thinner chassis and some extra app embellishments.
The original Xoom design language has been totally overhauled. Its looks, its cold plastic back, its diagonal corners and thin 8.6mm profile all echo the recently released Motorola Razr (see p64) and the 599g weight makes it easy to hold.
Around the sides of the tablet, you’ll find volume controls, a headphone jack and a mini-HDMI TV connector. Sadly you don’t get a HDMI cable in the box, but Motorola can be forgiven, as the Xoom 2 is one of the few Honeycomb tablets on the market which can be charged via the standard micro USB port, rather than a lumpy, proprietary power brick, making it far more convenient for carrying around. We place a lot more importance on standby battery life with tablets than run time – around 10 hours. With email syncing on, the battery dropped around five percent per day when left, so you could easily only have to charge the Xoom 2 once a week which is good news for casual tablet users. There’s no 3G option for data on the go however.
The screen features a 1280×800 10.1inch capacitive touchscreen panel and packs in more pixels than an iPad but there are pros and cons. While colour performance is excellent, viewing angles are shallow and the top layer is a fingerprint magnet and very obvious in indoor light. Whichever way you hold it, a tablet just isn’t meant for taking photos and it comes as little surprise that the 5MP camera is poor. Results are noisy, and auto-focus really struggles, sometimes taking several seconds to adjust and then failing anyway. There is the standard front facing 1.3MP camera if you want to have video chats over Google Talk.
One strange hardware feature of the original Xoom was a microSD card slot that shipped inactive. A firmware update eventually opened it up for use, but Motorola’s skipped over it entirely with the Xoom 2. The Xoom 2 features 16GB of internal storage of which about 12GB is available to the user and that’s it. By contrast, the iPad 2 has 16, 32 and 64GB options and the (admittedly chunky) Toshiba AT-100 can support 128GB SDXC memory cards. Unfortunately, one other design flaw has been overlooked. Original Xoom owners will readily tell you how poorly positioned the power/lock button was. Amazingly, Motorola has not learnt from this, and has made it even more tricky to press here. It’s a poorly defined key on the right hand edge of the tablet that’s almost impossible to push with success first time. This shouldn’t be hard, it should be seamless. There should be no ‘knack’ required, it should be so easy to press that you don’t ever have to think about it. We really can’t stress enough how annoying it is: it will be a possible dealbreaker for some.
While Honeycomb has been updated, the Xoom 2 does very little that the original did not. Honeycomb itself is an intelligent operating system. The home and back buttons are on the screen itself, while Google and voice search options are always present at the top of the homescreens. The keyboard is excellent, with large buttons and a context sensitive bar that pops up with predicted words and punctuation marks. Multitasking is easy via the apps drawer, and notifications are handled superbly, dropping into a tray on the bottom right: these can be ignored or individually removed. Google’s core apps make good use of the huge screen size: Gmail uses two panes to show your inbox and messages, while the browser has visible tabs along the top, and is very similar to Chrome on a computer. It’s fast too due to the 1.2GHz dual-core processor. It scored a tremendous 80,000 in our Rightware BrowserMark benchmark test.
On top of that, Motorola has added a few pre-loaded apps, though disappointingly some of these (Dijit and Motoactv.com) are little more than shortcuts to prompt you to download or buy another product. You’ll find a few business focused chat room and collaboration apps included, such as Fuze Meeting and GoToMeeting, though as ever with corporate software, if you don’t know what it is, you almost certainly don’t need it. Along with these, you’ll find Motocast, a custom DLNA media streaming app, installed. Set it up and you can view music, images and video from your PC’s hard drive over your network. This can be readily achieved on any Android device with the free Skifta app from Qualcomm, but it’s always good to see this option built-in. With a mini HDMI cable, you can stream video on your computer to your TV. It’s a nod to rivals such as the Sony Tablet S which, although not a Android tablet revelation, is a multimedia powerhouse and a clear sign of how far Android tablets have progressed in just one year. There’s also an unusual note taking option built in to the Xoom 2, triggered from the notification tray in the bottom right. Something similar to Microsoft Paint appears, and you can jot down a doodle or add text to it. It’s basic, but so is a notepad so we can’t argue. As a bonus, you can also upload these notes to the excellent brain bank service Evernote.
An easy criticism to throw at the Xoom 2 would be the lack of Ice Cream Sandwich Android 4.0, now shipping on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Motorola says an update is coming, and regardless, we’re not convinced it’ll change a great deal on tablets. Much of what it adds, such as a multitasking bar and more powerful Google apps, is drawn from Honeycomb. More of a problem is that Honeycomb seems like it now lacks something. That’s largely down to the lack of Android apps optimised for Honeycomb tablets which, to make matter worse, aren’t clearly discoverable. It’s pot luck whether you get a tablet app or blown up mobile app. In other words, even Google is guilty of this. For some reason, its Videos movie service is available for Android phones in the UK but not tablets and it’s another area which the Sony Tablet S beats Xoom 2 hands down too. That sounds trivial, but it’s symptomatic of a wider problem with Android on tablets, and one Google urgently needs to address. In the meantime, be aware of what you’re buying into. There’s very little the Xoom 2 can do that your Android phone can’t and the flourishing eco-systems for iPad and iPhone mean the same isn’t true for iOS anymore.
Aside from the spectacularly poorly positioned power button, there isn’t a great deal wrong with the Motorola Xoom 2 but it’s beaten by the Sony Tablet S and doesn’t have a new enough OS to compete with the iPad 2.