Tablet deathmatch: Apple iPad 2 vs. Motorola Xoom

The Xoom gave the original iPad a strong challenge, but does the iPad 2 knock it back down?

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Deathmatch: Applications
The native apps are comparable on the two devices, providing email, camera, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, a music player, a YouTube player, a notepad app, and SMS messaging. The Xoom provides a third-party notes app, filling a hole in the standard Android app suite.

But the Xoom also includes the standard (still beta) Android Navigation app, which speaks directions as you navigate, as well as provides an on-screen live map and written step-by-step directions. The iPad 2's Maps app has comparable on-screen navigation capabilities but does not speak them as you drive. Unlike the iPad 2, the Xoom comes with a calculator app and instant messaging app; neither tablet has apps for weather or social networking. The Xoom also comes with the Movie Maker app for video editing; for the iPad 2, Apple's nicely designed equivalent, iMovie, costs $5.

Neither device supports Flash Player, though Motorola pushed an update meant to prepare the Xoom for Flash Player just this weekend. Adobe promises that Flash Player 10.2 for the Xoom's Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" OS (and for Android 2.3 "Gingerbread") will finally be available from the Android Market on March 18. There of course won't be a Flash Player for the iPad due to Apple's prohibition.

Right now, the real issue with the Xoom is the scarcity of available apps. Longtime standby apps such as the New York Times aren't available yet, but the number of tablet-specific apps in the Android Market has more than doubled in the past two weeks, from 16 to 37.

However, only a few tablet-specific Android apps take advantage of the Xoom's larger screen; the new USA Today tablet app does. (Two weeks ago, in my original comparison, the smartphone version of USA Today wouldn't load on the Xoom, though it did install.) More typically, "tablet" apps remain stretched renditions of the smartphone version.'s Kindle app, for example, displays one too-wide-to-read page when in landscape orientation, rather than two facing pages as on the iPad 2. The Xoom doesn't display such legacy apps in a smartphone-sized window, as the iPad 2 does, to clue you in. Additionally, I haven't found Android apps that auto-adjust their display and capabilities depending on whether they're running on a smartphone or tablet -- a feature that has quickly become very common in the iOS world.

The Xoom and other Android tablets will need a better stable of apps to foster the addiction that iPad users exhibit with their tablets. The growing selection does show some of the promise of the tablet form factor, but none is exceptional.

App stores and app installation. There are tens of thousands of apps for the iPad 2's iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. Android doesn't have anywhere near the same library of apps as iOS, but its smartphone-oriented apps portfolio is now in the thousands and growing, with many relevant apps such as Quickoffice, for which the Xoom includes a basic version with limited creation and editing capabilities. I often find that iOS apps are more capable than their Android equivalents (such as the Kindle app) -- but not always (Angry Birds, for example).

Both the Apple App Store and Google Android Market separate iPad apps from smartphone apps, simplifying the search for appropriate titles. The Apple store also indicates which apps auto-adjust for the iPhone and iPad, so you know they can be run on both devices and appear native on each.

Unlike Apple's App Store, the Android Market is not curated; developers will have an easier time getting their apps listed, but the market also lets cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking programs or other apps and steal user information. Apple's App Store seems to be less at risk to such Trojans. The Android Market is also slower to load than the App Store and not as easy to navigate within the app details.

You don't have to use the Android Market to get apps onto the Xoom. If you want to get down and dirty, you can configure the Android OS's application settings to install software from other sources.

Installation of apps is similar on both platforms: After selecting an app, you confirm your store account information and wait for the app to download and install. Both mobile operating systems let you know if you have updates available. On the iPad 2, the App Store indicates the number of available updates. On the Xoom, available updates are displayed in the notifications pop-up at the bottom left of the screen.

The Xoom uses the Android Market to remember your paid apps (but not your free ones) and a separate sync utility for handling media files transferred from your PC, but in this regard it's no match for the iPad 2. Thanks to the iPad's reliance on iTunes as its command center for managing media, apps, and documents, the iPad makes it much easier to manage your device's content. If you get a new phone, it's a snap on iTunes to get the new one up and running with the same assets as before. There's no such easy way to transfer the assets to a Xoom from a previous device.

App management. The iPad 2 has a simpler app management process than the Xoom. For example, it's easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPad and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders. Just tap and hold any app to invoke the "shaking apps" status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or tap the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.

Like the Android smartphones, the Xoom lets you drag apps to any of its home screens, which appear in preview mode below the apps matrix. (Unlike with Android smartphones, you cannot long-tap an app to move it to the current home screen.) The full list of programs is available in the apps page, which you access by tapping the Apps button at the upper right of any home screen. But the Xoom has no groups capability for presenting apps, and you can't rearrange the roster in the apps page -- just in the home screens.

The Xoom supports the Android OS's widgets feature. Widgets are mini apps that you can place on the home screens and can be very helpful, showing the latest email message or Facebook update or the current time in a large clock. Thus, you can see at a glance the current status of whatever you want to easily track -- one of Android's superior UI capabilities. The iPad 2 has no equivalent capability. The Xoom, like other Android devices, also has pop-up notifications that make it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts, whatever you happen to be doing. Alerts appear in the lower right of your screen -- not at the top as in Android smartphones. Again, the iPad 2 has no equivalent.

Multitasking. The iPad 2's iOS 4.3 supports multitasking if enabled in the apps themselves; Apple has made specific background services available for multitasking, rather than let each app run full-on in parallel, as on a PC. As you switch iOS apps, they suspend, except for their multitasking-enabled services, which conserves memory and aids performance. By contrast, Android supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties. From a usage point of view, these differences aren't apparent; on both devices, apps appear to multitask the same.

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps. On the iPad 2, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of active apps, and it's easy to see what's running and switch among them. On the Xoom, a persistent menu icon provides access to all running apps at any time, and it even shows a preview window of what the apps are currently doing (like Mac OS X and Windows 7 do in their taskbars).

The winner: The iPad 2, mainly because there are so few tablet apps available for the Xoom. But the widgets and notifications capabilities of the Xoom's Android OS are very handy, and you feel their omission on an iPad 2 after you've used an Android device for a while. Plus, the Xoom's ability to show all running apps and what they're doing is a really nice feature the iPad 2 can't match.

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