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: Hardware
Although the real value of a tablet comes from its OS and apps, you can't get to them without the hardware they run on. And hardware is the area where the iPad 2 has the most improvements over its predecessor. The iPad 2 sports a dual-core 1GHz A5 CPU chip, matching at the spec level the Xoom's dual-core Nvidia Tegra processor; both are based on the ARM chip architecture. The iPad 2 also adds front and rear cameras (supporting FaceTime videoconferencing and motion video capture), and it's capable of display mirroring through a $39 HDMI-out connector. It supports 3G tethering as well, another feature present in Xoom but lacking in the original iPad.

Performance. The iPad 2's new processor makes a noticeable difference in apps' load times and responsiveness, such as when panning in Google Earth or parsing documents in iWork Pages, compared to the iPad 1. The Xoom is no slouch, either, with similarly snappy responsiveness. I had significantly fewer Android apps with which to test the Xoom's speed, however, so I can't fully assess app performance across the two tablets.

The iPad 2 and Xoom performed similarly in their network usage, both on Wi-Fi and over 3G. The iPad 2 Wi-Fi + 3G models come in both AT&T and Verizon Wireless versions, whereas the Xoom uses Verizon Wireless only. The AT&T network is usually faster but less available, whereas the Verizon network is less speedy but more broadly available. I did find that the Xoom usually received emails and updated its calendar slightly after the iPad 2, even though both were connected to the same Wi-Fi network and pulling from the same IMAP, Google, and Exchange servers.

For battery performance, I found that the iPad 2 lasted nearly twice as long as the Xoom -- 9 or 10 hours versus the Xoom's 5 or 6 -- in regular use with Wi-Fi enabled. In light use, the Xoom stretched to 8 hours, while the iPad 2 ran 11 hours. That matches the iPad 1's battery performance.

Device hardware. The iPad 2's enclosure design featuring glass and aluminum is much classier than the Xoom's black blockiness. The iPad 2's aluminum, though, can feel dangerously slippery, whereas the textured plastic of the Xoom is more grippable. The thinner iPad 2 has shaved off two ounces to weigh in at 1.3 pounds, compared to the iPad 1's 1.5 pounds, making it that much lighter than the 1.5-pound Xoom. Two ounces doesn't sound like a lot, but it makes a difference: The iPad 2 is more comfortable to hold longer, especially with one hand, due to the lower weight and thinner enclosure.

Some reviews of prerelease iPad 2s said the thinner design can make it a bit harder to connect cables to the iPad 2's dock connector, whose surrounding bezel is now slightly angled, and that the angle would prevent it from working with some iPad 1 docks. But I didn't find it a problem; I had no trouble connecting a variety of cables to the dock or using the iPad 2 with a couple of docks I own. Still, it is possible some docks may have a fit issue. And I did have difficulty attaching cables to the dock port when the Smart Cover wrapped over to the back of the iPad 2 because it obscures the edge enough to make finding the port harder. The same is true with the Sleep/Wake switch at top.

The Xoom has no physical switch to turn off its ringer as the iPad 2 does (note that the switch on the iPad 2 is configurable to either turn off the ringer or to lock screen rotation). The Xoom's low-profile volume switches are hard to find, given they are black like the case, and don't give much tactile feedback when pressed. Neither device has an LED indicator to show whether it's powered on.

The Xoom's power button is on the back of the case -- not a great spot. It's easy to lose track of which side is up on the Xoom, so good luck finding the power button; of course, it's not visible while you're using the tablet. The iPad 2's power button (at top) is easier to locate, and the iPad 2 wakes itself automatically if its (optional) Smart Cover is opened -- nice.

The magnetic Smart Cover is indeed smartly designed. It snaps into place easily, folds out of the way easily, helps clean fingerprints on the screen, and remained snuggly attached in my backpack tests. The cover ($40 for polyurethane and $80 for leather) does not protect the iPad 2's aluminum back, which may concern some users fearful of scratches. No doubt there'll be plenty of cases and portfolios for such folks. But I was disappointed that the Smart Cover doesn't affix magnetically to the back of the iPad 2 when turned back; it only does so to the front. There are also a variety of cases, skins, and portfolios for the Xoom should you be concerned about damaging its screen or plastic case, but none have the imagination of Apple's Smart Cover.

The iPad 2's aluminum back -- which Apple's Smart Cover was designed to expose, not hide as other covers do -- is flatter than the first-gen iPad's, so the iPad 2 doesn't wobble as you type on it when it rests uncovered on a table or desk. The Xoom's back is also mainly flat, and wobbling is not an issue.

The Xoom offers more hardware features than the iPad 1 -- but not more than the iPad 2. Those who favored the Xoom over the iPad based on hardware specs will need a new reason.

The Xoom does have a MicroUSB port and a Mini HDMI port. The Mini HDMI port lets you connect to a monitor or TV to mirror the Xoom's display through an optional (about $10 online) cable. The iPad 2 uses a pricey ($39) dock-to-HDMI cable to do the same mirroring -- support for HDMI comes from iOS 4.3, which means you can also use the HDMI cable with a first-gen iPad, 2010-era iPod Touch, or iPhone 4. On the iPad 2, you can also mirror to a VGA monitor or projector using the optional $29 VGA connector that other iOS devices also support. But those other devices can't mirror via HDMI or VGA; they merely output video from apps that explicitly support video-out.

The utility of the Xoom's MicroUSB port is limited: It can't be used to charge the Xoom, as it can on most smartphones. The Xoom has a proprietary power connector. The only use for a MicroUSB port, at least today, is to connect a USB keyboard, assuming you have a MicroUSB-to-USB adapter. There is no MicroUSB port on the iPad 2, but the $35 Apple Camera Connection kit adds a USB connector and SD card dongle for use with digital cameras (not other USB devices). The iPad 2 also comes with a proprietary power adapter that serves as its sync cable as well, but tens of millions of iPods, iPhones, and first-gen iPads use it (so you can share cables and adapters), whereas only the Xoom seems to take its particular power connector.

The basic, 3G-capable $630 iPad 2 comes with 16GB of nonremovable flash storage, whereas the $800 Xoom comes with 32GB. (For $730, you can get a 32GB iPad 2 model, and for $830 a 64GB one). Even with the higher cost of an Apple HDMI cable, the Xoom remains $50 more expensive for an equivalently capable but less sophisticated device. The difference narrows to just $20 if you add the Camera Connection kit to the iPad 2's price. That's not a huge margin -- nor a justifiable one.

I found the iPad 2's screen easier to read -- both in sunlight and in office lighting -- than the Xoom's screen, which suffers from excessive reflectivity. I disliked the Xoom's widescreen (16:9) display, because Web pages and other content appear too squished in landscape mode. The iPad 2's old-fashioned 4:3 ratio is more comfortable for most apps; only when I'm watching HD movies do I wish the iPad 2 were widescreen.

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