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

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The Android app gap continues
The other worrisome aspect of the Xoom is the availability of apps. There are tons of programs in the Android Marketplace, but not many are optimized for tablets; almost all are just scaled to the larger window. The Kindle app is a good example: On the iPad, in landscape mode the Kindle app shows two pages side by side, so the widths of each line are reasonable. But the Android 3.0 Kindle app simply stretches the page to the full widescreen expanse, in which the lines of text become impossibly long to read. The Android version of the Kindle app also has fewer capabilities than the iOS version.

Both these UI and functional inferiorities are emblematic of a larger Android problem that I believe will matter more on a tablet such as the Xoom than on a smartphone. In this regard, Apple's greediness on subscription commissions notwithstanding, the iPad is a better device. Somehow, quality has to become a priority on the Android platform.

To be fair, Android's areas of superiority over iOS -- such as its voice navigation features -- carry over to the Xoom. In the case of voice navigation, some of those advantages are multiplied in the tablet form factor. Further, the final Android 3.0 SDK was released only yesterday, so the true capabilities of Android tablet apps are yet to be seen. Even so, it's clear that older Android apps don't always translate well to the tablet context (as the Kindle app shows), and there's no legacy display mode in Honeycomb to handle them, as there is on the iPad.

What you get for $70 more than an equivalent iPad
The blogosphere has been fretting about the Xoom's $800 price tag for weeks, especially because it's $70 over the bill for an equivalent iPad. The complaint is that Apple is a premium provider that always charges accordingly, so how could a Motorola device cost more than Apple's?

The Xoom does offer front- and rear-facing cameras, unlike the current iPad (though the iPad 2 is likely to have them this spring). It also has one MicroUSB port for PC syncing and for peripherals such as cameras, as well as a Mini HDMI port for HD video output. A VGA cable for the iPad will run you $30, whereas as a Mini HDMI-to-HDMI cable (not included with the Xoom) costs about $15; the price difference thus shrinks to $55. On the other hand, few video projectors support HDMI, so you'll need a VGA adapter for the Xoom as well, which adds another $20. Clearly, the Xoom's Mini HDMI port is meant for watching movies on a big-screen TV, not for business purposes.

Also, Apple's AirPlay technology is a much cooler way to watch videos on the big screen from your tablet, though it requires a $100 Apple TV. (With a compatible TV, you can stream from an Android device via the Twonky app.)

Otherwise, with the screen differences noted earlier, the Xoom is equivalent to an iPad, so the price premium -- especially given the less sophisticated apps and OS of the Xoom -- seems unjustified to me. Yes, you can get the Xoom for $600 if you commit to a two-year contract for a data plan. Verizon Wireless charges $20 for 1GB of data per month (other, pricier plans are available) in return for that commitment, versus $50 for 1GB on a pay-as-you-go basis. AT&T charges $25 for 2GB -- and AT&T requires no commitment. Of course, AT&T's network is less reliable than Verizon's network, though it's faster when it is available. I suspect that when the Verizon iPad arrives, its data plan will cost the same as the Xoom's. So the $200 savings for a two-year commitment doesn't seem like much of a discount when you add in Verizon's higher data prices.

Bottom line: The Xoom seems overpriced, and it has some ergonomic issues, not to mention its built-in business apps still are inferior -- a factor that each new Android OS seems to ignore.

But I believe the Xoom is the first real shot in the tablet wars. For most users, the iPad's advantages won't be that critical, and it wouldn't take much for Google and Motorola to fix most of the gaps in the OS and in the native apps. Android fans and Apple-haters will love the Xoom, and even Apple fanboys will appreciate that the Xoom is a real tablet, unlike previous pretenders such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

This story, "First look: Despite stumbles, Xoom closes in on the iPad," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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