April 13, 2011

Motorola XOOM First Impressions



motorola xoom android tabletImage by osde8info via FlickrI got my hands on a XOOM recently. Before I give you my first impressions, here is a little bit of background. I have an iPad. It has some shortcomings so I'm willing to consider another tablet. I like all mobile platforms more or less and I find they each have their strengths. Android is my work platform. I'm an inbox-zero Gmail dude, so integration of Gmail is a big plus for me, especially priority inbox.
Hardware Side of the House

The XOOM is one spiffy tablet with some kick butt hardware. You can feel it in your hands. It's heavy. The battery has been good on its promise. The screen is crisp and has great resolution. The unlock screen is funny though. You have to draw a circle with your finger. A simple swipe would have made it better for me.

I question the position of the start button. It's at the back of the tablet and it is painful. The way I hold the tablet, I still can't remember after a few days where the darn button is in the back. I had the screen set to turn off at 30 sec, but had to reset that to 2 min because it was turning off on me all the time. Since the power button is at the back, you have to lift the tablet to turn it back on and since I don't remember where it is, I have to flip over the XOOM sometimes. This makes for a very disruptive experience in whatever I'm doing.

This is a landscape tablet. It just feels better this way and from what I have seen from the adds and various sources, this is always how it's shown in pictures. A tablet for me is a consumption of information galore device. My reflex is to hold it portrait, thinking the display of web pages and various apps will be better. It doesn't feel as natural to the eyes in that position though, so after a little while your hands scream flip this thing into landscape.

Software, Honeycomb and Google Apps

The big thing on the software side is the new Android Honeycomb. This is an OS optimized for larger screen size as Google points out. From an outsider's standpoint, there are a lot of new things and they are noticeable:
  • Smarter and bigger widgets - less need to open an app to get at the information you want;
  • Notifications - the jury is out if this is better; it's more like Growl on the Mac than the pull down list it was on previous versions of the OS;
  • Camera interface - slicker with more control on photo settings;
  • Video chat in Google talk - it's a nice to have but don't know if it's really useful;
  • Simpler multitasking - apps running or recently used are easily accessible;
  • System bar - docked at the bottom; getting away from hardware buttons to navigate; it also displays your notifications. Just reading another review from androidcentral, it's very Microsoft like indeed.
Big Rocks in the Software Experience

Keyboard: Google has created what looks like a new keyboard. The layout is good for me. More importantly it allows for accented characters. I was happy to see support for French Canada, which means they have internationalization on their radar. I don't understand why the autocompletion suggestions are disabled by default. The autocompletions work in both English and French; this is excellent for me. They are a little difficult to get at due to the size of the tablet. To type in landscape, sometimes I feel I don't have a good grip on the tablet and I will drop it. This is not a good feeling to have! I look forward to swiftkey's keyboard implementation, which is what I use on my mobile, works well and is a time saver. The video they have on their website is interesting.

Web Browser: Tabbed browsing is now available. This is a good thing.

Google Apps/Gmail: Out of the bunch this is the ONE big thing. Gmail has seen a dramatic change. The experience is excellent and so much better than my iPad experience with email. The implementation is making smart use of the additional real estate. It's now a multiple pane experience:
  • Email list on the left and open email on the right;
  • Labels\folders on the left, email list on the right;
  • Ability to drag and drop between one and the other.
The multiple panes are also known as UI Fragments for the developers. This is part of the new SDK and I'm looking forward to seeing more applications making use of it. Which brings me to my next point - Applications.

Applications: For the most part they are still the applications we use on the mobile. There are no real applications aside from the Google apps and movie studio. It's slim pickings. We need to see more support for the new form factor. Regular handset applications look ok, because Android is much smarter about resolution than iOS. You don't have a magnified view. The flip side is, there is a lot of real estate that goes unused.

On the widget side there is still room for innovation because of the additional real estate. They can almost become applications of their own. It's a new world out there with Android and Honeycomb and I look forward to seeing what people are going to be cooking up to create rich experiences with this new technology.

Getting Your Applications from the Cloud: This is where you get to see the difference between Microsoft and Google. With MS, when you buy an application you're likely to have to buy it again to use it on another device. With Google, when you buy an application, because the bulk of its value resides in the cloud, you get to use its front end using a native experience on all devices you own. They download automatically as you log in for the first time and off you go. You have to experience it to feel the relief; you're up and running so much faster. This is very powerful from Google's part.

Wrapping Up

The XOOM is a good tablet. Honeycomb is showing good promise for a new round of innovation with tablet as a form factor. For example, I imagine the promise of a live dashboard even more vividly with this type of device and platform; a combination of geo-location and smart implementation of widgets.

Would I trade my iPad for a XOOM? OMG this is a tough one. Downside - right now application support on the tablet form factor is a problem for Android. I'm a big fan of reading information and I subscribe to magazines using Zinio. It's not available to this day on the XOOM. I suspect as I get to play more with it I will notice other applications missing. Huge Upside - I think the Google apps and the Gmail/Calendar integration are fantastic. It makes my experience very productive and smooth.

If I need to hit the road tomorrow, I still need to bring my iPad to have access to my magazines. To pick up a XOOM for that trip, give me the two little things below and I will be a happy camper:
  • Zinio on the device;
  • More accessories, at least a XOOM fitted protective case.

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