Let’s face it; Apple currently dominates the tablet world and it’s about time it had some competition. Some analysts claim Apple will continue to do so until at least 2015, and so far Samsung and the others haven’t made much of an impact.
The first Galaxy Tab, and the many low-cost tablets, have merely given Apple ample ammunition to use against Android.
But, even Apple’s iPad is in many respects little more than an iPhone or iPod touch blown up, so the tables may have turned now Google has launched the new Android Honeycomb operating system specifically with tablets in mind.
At least that is the theory, as it is still early days and Motorola’s XOOM may struggle to be accepted when it is carrying the flag for Honeycomb single handedly for now. This is because Google chose Motorola to produce the XOOM as its ‘reference device’, to not only showcase the OS to the public, but also developers who get to buy something real to work on.
This is fine, and Motorola will no doubt sell many XOOM’s to developers as a result, but the OS still doesn’t look completely finished. Whereas Apple waits until it gets everything just right, Google likes to give people access to things in advance. Remember how long Google Mail was in beta, along with many other services that still are? If you don’t mind being an unofficial tester, you’ll not be put off but many will.
The tablet itself looks like any other tablet from the front, with only the Motorola text to enable you to tell it apart from other tablets, Apple excepted. On the rear, you’ll find a simple Motorola logo in the middle and a 5-megapixel camera (with dual-LED lamp) above. It’s quite an increase on the 0.7-megapixel sensor on the iPad 2, but you’re very unlikely to want to take photos with something of this size.
A camera can fit in the ‘nice thing to have for a rainy day’ box, then.
The XOOM also has stereo speakers on the back, which are very loud in use, plus a power button that is easy to press with your index finger when held as Motorola would expect you to hold the tablet – firmly and with both hands.
At the top of the XOOM is a 3.5mm headphone jack, while at the base of the tablet are a few different sockets. I initially made the mistake of assuming that the micro-USB socket allowed you to charge the device. With most tablets having proprietary connectors, I was very pleased that I could use the many chargers and USB leads I have accumulated in the last year or two.
Sadly, you can only use the USB socket for transferring data. For charging, you’ll need to use a separate, higher-power, mini-DC cable that fits in further along. For travelling, this means you’ll need to pack a separate power supply or invest in a second travel charger. Suddenly, I’m not so excited.
In addition to these sockets, there’s also a connector to allow you to hook the XOOM up to your HD TV. The Motorola doesn’t use the new MHL connector standard which combines the ability to carry HD video and audio with a cable that fits a micro-USB socket, nor does it come with the separate HD cable in the box.
Honeycomb may look substantially different, but it can still run almost every app designed for existing Android smartphones. That means plenty of apps to choose from, but – just like the iPad scaling up iPhone apps – the results may not be too pleasing on the eye.
With a screen measuring just over 10-inches, displaying 1280×800 pixels, there’s a lot of screen to fill and some apps don’t look quite right, or only fill a small part of the screen. Some also work in only landscape or portrait modes, which causes even more frustration. The apps that do scale up look as bad as they do on the first Galaxy Tab and the other Android 1.x and 2.x based tablets, so what Google needs are more apps designed for for tablets, and as quickly as possible.
At the time of doing the review, there were a handful of apps designed for tablets, using the extra screen resolution in more innovative ways (like splitting the screen into separate panels) and using smaller text sizes – a real complaint on the Galaxy Tab. Two examples are Opera’s Mobile Browser (V11) and CNN’s news app, looking just like something designed for the iPad. Even if you’re hoping for Honeycomb to compete, or beat, Apple’s tablet – Honeycomb needs apps that look as slick as only an Apple developed app usually can.
Rather than create a new list of optimised apps from scratch, I’ve opted to link to a comprehensive one at Droid Forums that is being updated regularly.
Google’s own core apps have all been given a facelift too, with huge improvements to the gallery and YouTube apps, a better calendar and a new email client that splits the screen just as you’d expect on the iPad or most desktop email clients. Your contacts can also be viewed more easily, with an A-Z list down the left hand side and a separate panel to display numbers, email addresses and key information like birthdays etc.
Android Market has a new layout too, making it easy to see the apps you’ve installed (or have paid for but not yet installed, if you use multiple devices) but I could not find any section to show apps specifically designed for Honeycomb – something that is going to be essential to ensure a good quality user experience (as well as encouraging developers to redesign their existing apps).
With a very responsive on-screen keyboard (the device is quick and responsive for everything, thanks to the dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 chipset running at 1GHz per core), it’s easy to enter information, yet for most of the time you’ll probably be content to just view information. In fact, unless you’re a heavy forum user or need to send lots of emails, the most you’ll use an on-screen keyboard for will be entering URLs in the web browser.
The web browser is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the large screen. With a higher resolution than some computer monitors and netbooks, you really can’t beat the XOOM for web surfing. Adobe Flash support is included as standard on the UK released models, and the dual-core processor makes everything fly along.
In fact, you won’t see the XOOM slow down for virtually anything, although the screen rotation seems to have an annoying delay which must be intentional rather than a sign of any slow-down. As you glide around the improved gallery, scan for music or search through videos on YouTube, you will realise that Honeycomb really is the right version of Android for tablets, and takes things a lot more seriously than iOS.
The model reviewed here was the Wi-Fi only version which, unlike Apple’s iPad, still gets the GPS receiver fitted inside. While you’ll need to stay close to a Wi-Fi hotspot, carry a MiFi or another phone with a personal hotspot facility, you can take advantage of Google Maps and other navigation software without having to shell out another £100 for the 3G model.
Besides more pixels, Honeycomb has smaller text and icons, which makes the XOOM look a lot less like a toy than the iPad. It means that on a single home screen there’s room to fit loads of app shortcuts and widgets. A single panel can display eight columns and seven rows!
So far, most of the widgets are far too small and feel lost, having been designed for much smaller screens. Like the optimised apps, this needs to change as it seems silly having scrollable widgets when it would make more sense to have a larger widget in the first place.
When you install a new app from Android Market, it decides to place a shortcut on the home screen. If there’s an option to turn this off, I haven’t yet found it, and it’s a pretty silly option given you can press the Apps icon at the top right to bring up a list of apps, including a separate screen for the apps you’ve downloaded and installed. From here, you can also jump straight to Android Market by pressing the small Market logo at the top.
Other changes include the notifications that are now down at the bottom right of the screen, next to a clock that shows off a new Sci-Fi inspired typeface. I don’t like the clock typeface at all, but there’s no way to change any of the fonts, colours or layouts yet, just the wallpaper. Hopefully that will come with a future update too.
Notifications can be eliminated one-by-one by pressing the ‘x’ at the right hand side, but there’s no ‘clear’ option to remove them all. If you don’t want the screen to fill up, you can now turn notifications off completely. From the same part of the screen you can also easily access a range of key settings, such as flight mode, screen brightness or locking the screen in portrait or landscape.
New emails are also shown here, complete with a contact image if it exists.
The other big change is the lack of physical navigation controls underneath, or to the side of, the display – whether as touch-sensitive keys or physical buttons. In order to ensure the home, back and menu buttons are always in the right place, they now appear in graphics form on the screen itself. Rotate the screen and they move, so they’re always at the bottom left.
It’s a very clever idea, but does mean losing some of the screen to display them. The icons normally remain on at all times, but in some applications they will fade out to form tiny grey dots that show you where to press to reveal the original buttons or the notifications. That’s a very neat feature, but it isn’t good that some apps will keep the graphics on at all times. If you have a particular favourite movie player besides the standard Google one, you’ll probably be stuck with the icons on constantly.
Searches and other functions are now found at the top of the screen, while the menu button appears at the bottom left when an app has a menu to be accessed the old-fashioned way.
Back and forth
I had some initial concerns that Honeycomb would cause confusion when swapping between it and other Android smartphones. I needn’t have worried, however, as despite being able to run Android apps, the XOOM feels like it has very little in common with Android 2.x and older.
That could be both a blessing and a curse, although Google has hinted that it can see Honeycomb being gradually introduced on future smartphones, so perhaps it’s worth taking the time to start getting used to it – as the current Android OS we know and love could be on its way out. As we get more smartphones with screens over 4-inch in size, and resolutions of 960×540 pixels and above, the tablet and smartphone will begin to merge together.
I can only hope that an OS designed for a larger screen won’t ruin the experience for an ordinary phone. It would also be potentially suicidal for Google to do anything that will ruin the existing user experience that has made Android so popular in such a short space of time.
The biggest problem is the size and weight of the XOOM. It’s heavy in the hand, and it actually feels a little too big for when you’re watching a movie or playing a bit of Angry Birds Rio (one of the few titles to take advantage of the big-screen). The weight is quite likely down to the very large battery and the impressive battery life of the XOOM, ensuring you don’t have to keep it on charge every minute that it isn’t being used.
If you ask someone why they want a tablet, the usual answer will be that it is great for looking at photos or watching films. Despite all of the things you can do on a tablet, watching films seems to be the first thing people think of as a reason to buy one – even if sales of Portable Media Players were never that impressive.
On the face of it, a large widescreen display should be ideal, making it perfect for the commute to work, or on a long trip.
Now here’s where I found a problem. When you hold the XOOM in your hand, it’s quite close to your face. For things like reading emails or web surfing, it’s not an issue. You move your eyes around the screen like looking at a newspaper. However, chuck on a movie and you want to see the full picture.
There’s a reason why people don’t sit a few inches away from their living room televisions, and that’s the same reason you won’t want a 10-inch screen right up close to your face. To move the XOOM away and get a more comfortable view, you will end up holding it rather unnaturally, and it does weigh a not insignificant 715g remember!
So, if movie watching is at the top of your list of needs, I really do have to say that the XOOM is actually too big.
Now you could buy the optional docking station, which lets you sit back and watch from a distance, but that won’t really work very well for the commute or sitting in an economy class airline seat – or even in the backseat of a car, unless you’re chauffeured everywhere in a long wheelbase limo and have something to place it on.
What you probably want is something with a smaller screen instead. The first Galaxy Tab was a disappointment because it didn’t have the right OS, but the screen was a pretty good size. Even the Dell Streak in its 5-inch form was perfectly adequate for pictures and movies. In fact, let’s face it, you could even say the same about any smartphone with a 4-inch screen or bigger, of which there are many.
You might disagree with my opinion that the screen is too big, but there won’t be many people disputing the fact that the XOOM is nowhere near as slim as the iPad 2, and it is very heavy. It’s also pretty expensive, and we now know that Samsung has two new tablets, that are each just 8.5mm thick and lighter, with a choice of 8.9-inch or 10.1-inch models. Suffice to say, the 8.9-inch model is looking like a potential favourite.
So, what is the conclusion? Well, the OS is not quite there yet, which impacts on the whole package – that and being a little too big. I’m sorry to say that Google, but it still needs work and Android Market must differentiate between apps for smartphones and those for tablets, given the changes in screen size and layouts.
I know the apps will come, so the problem is likely only to be short-lived, especially when more Honeycomb tablets arrive, but on that basis it has to be worth waiting.
If you do buy a XOOM, you’ll be assured of getting all the improvements when they’re released, so don’t worry about it becoming obsolete, but given the high price of the XOOM either as the Wi-Fi only model or with 3G, waiting could save you a bit of money too.
The XOOM gives a positive taster of the future, and Honeycomb looks like it will get all the key ingredients to give the iPad serious competition, but for now it is only for the early adopters and Android fanboys.
Check back in a few months and the situation will hopefully have changed, and my advice will change accordingly.
Ratings (out of 5)
* see conclusion above for more information