First look: Despite stumbles, Xoom closes in on the iPad

The first Android 3.0 tablet, from Motorola Mobility, supports business email and shows signs of a real challenge to Apple

First things first: The Motorola Mobility Xoom tablet is no iPad-killer -- yet.

But if Motorola and Google were to make some needed refinements, the Xoom could well be a serious competitor to the iPad and show the way for the masses of Android tablets yet to ship.

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At first glance, the Xoom looks like an iPad, but the power button is on the back, which could be an issue if the device is in a case or on a stand. You'll also find the standard Android controls are virtual buttons that always appear on the screen, not physical buttons as in Android smartphones. There's a MicroUSB port and a Mini HDMI port, and a slot for a future (extra cost) LTE 4G upgrade, as well as front and rear cameras -- but does the device itself offer meaningful capabilities that challenge or at least equal the iPad's?

Finally, business-class email support
The big news for business users is that finally there's an Android device that supports enterprise-class Microsoft Exchange out of the box. The Android 3.0 "Honeycomb"-based Xoom supports on-device encryption and more Exchange ActiveSync security policies than previous Android OSes have. That means more business users will be able to use the native E-mail and Contacts apps rather than have to purchase NitroDesk's Touchdown app.

But the email client remains less capable than the iPad's. Most annoying is the poor support of folders. Exchange subfolders aren't displayed relative to their parent folder, but on the same level -- your hierarchy is gone. In addition, not all subfolders display. For IMAP email, the subfolders are prefixed with their parent folder's name (such as Newsletters\InfoWorld and Newsletters\Slashdot); you can at least see the relationship, even though the visual nesting cues that you'd get on a desktop email client or in an iOS device's Mail client have vanished.

I also wish that the devicewide encryption didn't require an hour's wait to be activated -- your Xoom is essentially a brick for 60 minutes the first time you try to connect to an encryption-demanding Exchange server. The Exchange support is very welcome, but why must it take an hour? There is no lapse on the iPad, after all.

Ergonomic mistakes
Like the iPad, the Xoom is a 10.1-inch tablet with on-screen controls, but it uses the widescreen format. Although it's as wide as the iPad, it's not as high. The 16:9 display is better suited for watching HD videos than the iPad's 4:3 display, but everything else feels cramped.

The constrained feeling permeates the Xoom and shows the lack of ergonomic consideration by the UI designers. (It's not clear what was implemented by Google in Android 3.0 and what Motorola contributed in its MotoBlur UI overlay, as this is the first Android 3.0 device available.) As with many PCs, the resolution is too high (1,280 by 800 pixels versus 1,024 by 768 for the iPad) on this widescreen display; as a result, text is shrunk to hard-to-read sizes. The lack of controls to adjust the text size meant I required my reading glasses to work with the Xoom. That's not the case on the iPad.

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