As Apple prepares to ship its iPad 2, the first viable Android competitor packs a punch
Apple's iPad singlehandedly created a new form of computing in 2010 and, in the process, launched the year of the tablet. Not coincidentally, 2011 is the year that everyone else is trying to catch up -- while Apple is moving its iPad to the next level.
But the next-gen iPad isn't yet on the market. Today, it's still a competition between the original iPad and the recently shipped Xoom from Motorola Mobility. The Xoom is the first Google Android-based tablet that has a 10-inch screen like the iPad and, more important, uses the tablet-optimized Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" OS. (Earlier Android tablets, such as the so-so Samsung Galaxy Tab, used the smartphone-oriented Android "Froyo" 2.2 instead.)
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How do the iPad and Xoom compare? I put both through their paces for a few weeks to find out. Follow me as I walk through their key capabilities and compare them. I also point out any changes promised in the new iPad, in case you're waiting until it's available to make a decision.
As you'll see, the Xoom is a credible competitor to the iPad, even exceeding it in some areas. But it has odd omissions and flaws that Android smartphones do not, making me wonder if the tablet and smartphone teams at Google and Motorola Mobility ever compare notes. It definitely feels as if the Xoom were rushed to market to reach stores before Apple's new iPad announcement.
Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts
For testing these essential business functions, I used a personal IMAP account, a personal POP account, a personal Gmail account, and a work Exchange 2007 account. Both devices work directly with IMAP, Gmail, and POP; my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the tablets, my laptop, and the server.
Both devices try to autodetect your settings wherever possible, and both do a good job. Setting up Exchange access on both devices was also simple. Unlike most Android devices, the Xoom supports on-device encryption, so it easily connected to our corporate server and passed its Exchange ActiveSync policies. My email, contacts, and calendars flowed into the Xoom's apps. And unlike the Motorola Atrix smartphone's convoluted set of email applications and difficulties sending email accounts in some configurations, the Xoom's regular Email app allowed me to access and send my messages and easily switch among accounts as needed.
Email messages. Working with emails is equivalent on the two tablets: Both use the large screen to provide common controls at all times, and both let you see a selected email without opening it when in landscape orientation. The Xoom tablet displays mail as black text on a white background (as does the iPad), not as white text on a black background in the manner of Android smartphones; the messages are thus much more readable.
In both devices, you can reply, forward, mark as unread, delete, and move messages while reading them. You can also delete and move emails to folders from the message lists. On the iPad, you can easily delete individual messages from the email list: Swipe to the left or right and tap Delete on the iPhone. On the Xoom, you long-tap (that is, tap and hold) the message to get a menu of options such as Delete and Open.
The iPad's email display keeps a folder or message list on the left and the message preview on the right, whereas the Xoom's display works more like Mac OS X's Columns view: If you tap an account, its folders appear at left, while the list of messages for the selected folder appear at right. If you select a message, the message list moves into the left column and the right column becomes the message preview window. The iPad approach is more predictable, and the Xoom approach more flexible. For example, it allows you to drag a message from the list into a folder, which you can't do on an iPad because you can't see the folder and message lists simultaneously.
Where the Xoom stumbles is in not retaining the subfolder relationships in Exchange, instead displaying all folders and subfolders in one big list. Well, not all -- some of my Exchange subfolders went missing. In IMAP accounts, you also get a big folders list, but at least the IMAP list displays the parent folder as part of the subfolder name (such as InfoWorld/Newsletters and InfoWorld/Authors) so that you have a clue to the original hierarchy. (Oddly, Motorola's Atrix smartphone does display IMAP folder hierarchies visually.) Also for IMAP accounts, the Xoom doesn't display your junk folders, so you can't scan for misflagged emails as you would on the iPad.
In a stupendous omission, the Xoom has no facility for searching emails. In fact, there's no systemwide Search button on the Xoom as there are on all Android smartphones such as Motorola's own Atrix. By contrast, the iPad displays the search box at the top of the message list and lets you constrain your search to the To, From, or Subject fields.
Getting to the top of your email list isn't so obvious on the iPad, though it is easy: Tap the top of the screen. On the Xoom, there is no fast-jump capability -- although you can find it on Android smartphones such as the Atrix.
In general, Android devices favor small text that is hard to read for my middle-aged eyes, and there are few controls to ameliorate their youth-oriented design. The iPad lets you specify very readable sizes for the text in its Settings app. The Xoom provides zoom controls at the bottom of your email window, but they appear only if you begin scrolling through the message. However, the zoom settings are retained for your other emails (except -- and unlike the iPad -- where the email's HTML formatting specifies a fixed size, which overrules your preferences).
Email management. Both devices support multiple accounts and universal inboxes. I prefer the way the Xoom navigates among email accounts: Just tap the account name at the top left of the Email app and a pull-down menu appears listing each account and the Combined Account, which shows a universal inbox. The iPad too has a universal inbox, as well as an inbox for each active account. Below the inboxes are a list of accounts that when opened show all the folders for that account in a nice hierarchical display. I don't think the iPad needs the two lists; the universal inbox followed by the individual accounts would be just as easy and less cluttered. This is a case where the Xoom's UI surpasses that of the iPad.
The Xoom does separate Google email into the separate Gmail app -- a longtime Android OS behavior imposed by Google. Although you must have a Google account to use the Xoom, you don't have to use Gmail if you don't want to.
The iPad has a message threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicks to go through messages, but at least finding the messages is substantially easier. (The iPad's iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) The Xoom has no equivalent. Instead, it lets you flag emails, then see all flagged emails via the virtual Starred folder.
Using the basic version of Quickoffice included with the tablet, the Xoom can open PDF files, images, and Office files; after tapping the Attachments link, you get a list of attachments and an option to view or save each one. The iPad's native QuickLook viewer handles a nice range of formats, and it opens attachments with one tap (downloading them if needed at the same time). Of course, on either device, to edit those files you'll need an office app such as Quickoffice Mobile Connect Suite or Documents to Go Premium. The iPad doesn't open Zip files unless you get a third-party app such as the $1 ZipThat. Neither does the Xoom, even though opening Zip files is a standard capability on Android smartphones.
Both the iPad and Xoom remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that they look up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list, either by tapping them (on the iPad) or long-tapping them (on the Xoom).
Contacts and calendars. Both the iPad and Xoom offer three of the same calendar views: day, week, and month. But only the iPad supports the list (agenda) view. Moving among months is easy on both, as is shifting between weeks on the Xoom, and both can display multiple calendars simultaneously. The iPad makes it slightly easier to switch through week or month views, thanks to on-screen buttons and sliders -- but this is a minor advantage. The two devices also have comparable recurring-event capabilities.
Both the Xoom and iPad can send invitations to others as you add appointments, but whereas the iPad invitations are sent immediately, the Xoom invitations take tens of minutes to show up. On the iPad, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice. On the Xoom, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange invitations to your calendar with Maybe status, which is not apparent until you open the appointment. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email app, as well as accept or decline the invitation. But you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts.
Both the iPad and the Xoom have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries on the iPad. You can jump to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On the Xoom, a blue box appears to the side of the contacts list as you begin scrolling, and if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet to find the contact you seek. It's not as simple as the iPad approach, and its "secret handshake" nature means many users won't know it exists.
On the iPad, to search your contacts, drag up above the first contact to reveal the Search box. On the Xoom, you can search your contacts if you click the Search button. You can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. The iPad has no similar favorites capability.
The iPad supports email groups, but you can't create them on the iPad; they must be synced from your computer's contacts application. And you can't pick a group in the iPad's Mail address fields. Instead, you select a group, then open it up to select just one member, repeating this step to add more names. It's a really dumb approach to groups. The Xoom both supports groups and lets you create them, though the process is unintuitive: When you add or edit a contact, there's a field in which you can select or create a group. You can't start by creating a group and then adding contacts to it; instead you have to go to each contact in turn. Also, the groups capability is not available for Exchange-based contacts. And you can't send email to groups, so it's not a feature that has much value.
The winner: The iPad, thanks to its more capable email and calendar capabilities. The Xoom's lack of email search and its awkward folder handling are surprising flaws that should not exist.
The native apps are comparable on the two devices, providing email, 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's Maps app has comparable on-screen navigation capabilities but does not speak them as you drive. The Xoom comes with several apps not found on the iPad, including the Calculator and two apps that take advantage of the Xoom's camera: Camera and Movie Maker. (The iPad doesn't have a camera, though the forthcoming iPad 2 will.) Neither tablet has apps for weather or social networking, though the Xoom comes with the Google Talk instant messaging app.
Neither device supports Flash Player, though Adobe continues to promise it for the Xoom "in a few weeks." There of course won't be a Flash Player for the iPad due to Apple's prohibition.
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