Xooming to Nowhere

Last time I talked about my evaluation of the RIM Playbook tablet (actually, I intended to write about both the Playbook and the Android-based Motorola Xoom, but I never got that far…), which you may recall I found somewhat loathsome.  Today I want to focus on the more promising of these two devices – the Motorola Xoom tablet.  Playing with it I was initially impressed, and it seemed a worthy adversary to Apple’s iPad, but I wanted to give it a more thorough going-over, so I decided to wait a few days to see how things went.

And somehow, I kind of wish I hadn’t.

Never As Good As The First Time

From a form-factor perspective, the Xoom is on a par with the iPad, with simliar dimensions and weight.  The touch screen is responsive and the Android OS was stable.  It may only be my imagination, but it sure seemed like the Xoom’s screen was much more susceptible to oil finger-smduges than iPad, although this could well be a case of confirmation bias.  My iPad screen is generally so smudgy that I don’t even see the prints any more.

Video performance, on the other hand, is definitely worse than on the iPad.  Full-screen video was choppy (streamed over an 802.11n network, it was barely watchable and even then was likely to induce seizures), and physics-intensive games like the ubiquitous Angry Birds stuttered as well.  Again, the iPad avoids these issues almost wholely due to its proprietary A4 GPU; the Xoom (apparently) has no such secret weapon.

Why For Wifi?

What was most surprising was the extremely poor wifi connectivity.  Sitting 15 feet with a clear line of sight to my 802.11n wifi router, the Android showed 2-3 bars and listed my connectivity as “fair.”  I think not!  The iPad from the same seat showed no such issues.  Downloads from the app store (Wyse PocketCloud and, yes, Angry Birds) repeatedly timed out and had to be restarted.

Now, I’m not sure if the problem here is with the salsa or the chips, but it was a game-changer for me.  It’s a mobile computing device, and wireless connectivity is all you’ve got; it simply cannot be this shoddy.  In a clinical environment with ultrasound machines, MRIs, CAT scanners 2.4Ghz and 5Gphz wireless phones and – God help us – Microwave ovens, not to mention enough metal in the walls for Robert Downey Jr. to manufacture several dozen Iron Men, wireless signal is always an issue.  I tested against the corporate wifi with similiar results.

It’s hard to understand how two companies like Google and Motorola missed the boat on this one.

Other Things I Didn’t Like

People keep trying to hide their email clients.  I’m not sure why.  While I am a gMail customer (it’s tough to turn 75GB of free disk space, after all), I’m generally not a fan of web-based email and I still find gMail limiting to use when compared to a nice, big, fat, give-me-all-your-RAM-yum-yum email client like Outlook.  The Xoom doesn’t really have an email client, just a notification window on the desktop that shows you your most recent messages.  Clicking on it when there are no new messages simply changes the view on the icon (All Messages, Unread Messages, etc.).  Simply put, I hate this!   I look at email the same as a singleton enclosure:  When I want to do email, I want an email client, with all my messages, folders/labels, rules and everything else intact, not a bare minimum of functionality which has been decided for me.

Someone Stole Your Battery…

The first thing I do with any tablet is to turn up the screen brightness all the way.  I find the screens to be too dim to read easily without it.  I know this can have a dramatic effect on battery life, but it’s never proved to be an issue on the iPad, with which I continually get 11-13 hours before it’s below 10% remaining charge.  I managed to drain the Xoom twice over the weekend, even with a very short (2 minute) timeout, just by leaving it lying around and unplugged from the charger.

Summing Up

In the end, I found I didn’t care for the Xoom, but not for any one obvious reason.  The Android marketplace is very respectable (although I found it somewhat confusing to navigate), with lots of good applications.  But you’ll be frustrated downloading them, if my experience is any indication.  The screen was sub-par, and the wifi even more so.  Priced about the same as the iPad ($799 for the Verizon 3G + wifi model), it’s too expensive a device to have these issues, and now that Google has removed Android “Honeycomb” from the open source world, it’s getting nearly as proprietary as the iPad.  If I’ve got to play in a sandbox, I’ll at least play in one that doesn’t leak when I use it.

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