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

Page 2 of 3

The Xoom's on-screen keyboard also suffers unnecessary restrictions, due to the addition of Tab and other keys on the left side. Their placement makes the keyboard less than full-size and, thus, hard for touch-typing. In contrast, the iPad's keyboard omits or moves some of those keys.

The display itself is also too reflective. To read the screen, I had to turn off the lights in my office. Over time, I'm hoping that my fingerprints will create a matte effect and diffuse the light, as it has on my iPad. The iPad too uses an overly reflective screen, but it is less distracting (when cleaned) than the Xoom's.

The other ergonomic error is in how the Xoom handles text selection. The method is similar to the one that Apple pioneered in iOS: Tap and hold to begin the selection, then move the on-screen tabs to highlight the string of text. But the location of the tabs in the Xoom doesn't always match the location of the text that is being selected. The problem occurs most frequently in Google Docs, where the tabs are often a half-dozen characters beyond the highlighted text. I'm not sure it's right to blame Google Docs, as the iPad's selection tabs track properly there.

Android 3.0 has few other changes
I was surprised by how similar the "Honeycomb" version of Android is to the smartphone versions. Tablet makers have been frustrated by the delays in Honeycomb's release, causing most to ship tablets using the ill-fitting 2.2 "Froyo" version. Google has updated its Gmail and E-mail apps to take better advantage of the larger screen (other than the lack of visual subfolders or text size adjustments), and you can now drag folders and messages using your finger in both apps, rather than use menu controls.

With Android 3.0's richer notifications capability, apps' icons can now provide preview modes, such as images associated with the sender when new messages come in, a live display of your calendar's appointments closest to the current time, or thumbnails of books or music covers in media apps. These are nice usability and rich-context touches you'd expect from Apple but which Apple doesn't offer.

I was hoping the mobile Chrome browser would offer better support for HTML capabilities such as contenteditable, which many Web-based apps use to allow WYSIWYG, Word-like editing. The good news is that in Android 3.0, you can add and delete text in WYSIWYG mode (not possible in iPad's mobile Safari), though you can't select text for copy and paste. In AJAX-based editors, I couldn't edit or select the text, whereas I can do both in mobile Safari. Of all companies, Google should be offering Web smarts and cloud savviness in its products, but it's as uneven in this regard as Apple and other competitors.

Android 3.0 adds a Recent Apps pop-up list to make it easier go back to your most frequently used programs. Apple's iOS 4 comes with the same capability, though in a different form, in the apps bar you get when double-pressing the Home button.

The Xoom lacks Adobe Flash support, but Motorola says it will add that capability via an update later this spring. I've been hearing Adobe Systems and others promise Flash support on mobile devices for years, so I'm not holding my breath for anything soon. Given that Flash Player 10.1 for Android smartphones finally shipped last fall, it's likely Flash 10.2 for Android tablets will show up someday. (We all know the chances of Flash on an iPad are nil.)

I was also disappointed that the Xoom uses the same browser identifier code as Android smartphones, as that means many sites display in their mobile versions, not in their regular desktop versions. On a tablet, those mobile versions look wrong, as you can see if you go to mobile.infoworld.com or to our test site mobile iphone.infoworld.com on a Xoom. The iPad has its own browser identifier, so its browser shows regular websites.

So far, I don't see much else that Android 3.0 brings to the table. Of course, if you think about it, the iPad version of iOS is not very different than the iPhone version; apps and the UI adjust to become richer in their display on the larger screens, but the basic OS is the same. The greater overlap with earlier versions of Android might be a positive sign.

Related:
| 1 2 3 Page 2
From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.