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Motorola Xoom Tablet

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Tablets appear to be just this side of useless until you own one, after which they’re just this side of indispensable. Unquestionably the hot device of the past year, a tablet can become a walking web browser, a personal video player, a game console no one else has to know about, a two-way video communication terminal and the known universe’s least compact MP3 player… pretty much all at once.

In that you can download innumerable applications to a tablet, it can also be a lot of other things I haven’t thought of. You can largely make one into whatever you need it to be.

The ubiquitous iPad tablets were doing all of the foregoing long before most of their current competitors were anything more than rumors and vaporware. While iPads are decidedly cool devices, they aren’t without their issues. Chief among these are:

  • They’re expensive.
  • They’re unintuitive to use in some respects, and even simple tasks seem to involve a lot of flash and screen graphics.
  • They’re made by and thereafter largely controlled by Apple.

The latter concern arguably calls for a moment’s elaboration. Unlike Windows computers, tablets can only acquire new software, or “apps,” through an on-line application store. In the case of an iPad, the application store is provided – and censored – by Apple. It’s not without its quirks. For example, Apple has at various times removed apps from Germany’s Stern Magazine, required Bild Magazine – another German publication – to change its content for use in its iPad / iPhone app, prohibited Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore from publishing his satirical works for Apple’s devices, removed a news reader application from its app store because it could view the topless “page three” girls of British newspapers… and so on.

Apple has also refused to allow the iPad’s web browser to support Flash, a common component of web pages… which breaks quite a few of them.

At the same time, Apple has permitted an uncountable, unwashed hoard of barely functional amateur applications – appropriately known as “crapware” – to take pride of place in its application store, to the extent that finding useful software for an iPad often entails hours of wading through an alligator-infested swamp of monkey dandruff.

If you can’t quite bring yourself to beat up your plastic for an iPad, you’ll probably have considered the alternative, to wit, an Android tablet. Android is an open-source operating system developed by Google for use with smart phones, and more recently, polished up to run tablet devices. Because it’s effectively free for the developers who choose to install it on their tablets, it allows said tablets to be somewhat less expensive than a comparable iPad. Android is in no way funky or unpolished, and the user experience of an Android tablet is every bit as rich and seamless as that of an Apple device.

At least, it can be.

Full Xoom

The Motorola Xoom Android tablet is everything a tablet should be – as we’ll get to in a moment, it’s very much an iPad without any baggage from Apple. It was the first of the serious Android-based tablets, and in that it was designed before the ensuing tablet price wars and a general race for the bottom of the barrel, it suffers none of the cut corners, bent rules and economic deathtraps of its later competitors. It totally rocks.

A substantial number of less expensive tablets have appeared in the wake of the Xoom. Some, like Amazon’s Kindle Fire, are nicely made but substantially less powerful. A fair number of the ones from Chinese manufacturers that no one ever heard of prior to last week are dreadful beyond all description. It’s possible to find putative Android tablets for about a hundred dollars as I write this, and for the most part, they’re suitable only for use in keeping wobbly furniture in place.

The Motorola Xoom tablet costs about five hundred dollars as of this writing, which is about a hundred dollars less than a comparable iPad. It’s fairly seething with functionality, including:

  • 32 gigabytes of storage.
  • A five megapixel camera, with LED flash.
  • A two-megapixel web cameras.
  • A one-gigahertz dual-core processor.
  • A 10.1 inch WXGA display panel with 1280 x 800 pixel resolution.
  • HD 720p video playback.
  • Bluetooth.
  • 802.11 a,b,g,n WiFi.
  • A GPS receiver.
  • A 24 watt-hour battery that will keep the tablet running for ten hours or so, or in standby for about two weeks.

More significant than all of the foregoing, however, is that the Xoom is really built. It’s a solid little beast, with no rough edges or flaky bits of plastic. It’s utterly reliable – mine hasn’t crashed once. It has a remarkably responsive touch screen, amazing image quality, flawless sound, surprisingly respectable cameras and lots of stuff to tap and drag.

Also worth noting, the Xoom comes with a minimum of spurious applications installed as it exits its packaging – that would be “bloatware” for more jaded users of technology. While you can ultimately download your brains out and fill a Xoom with apps ‘til its virtual eyes bleed, you won’t have to spend your first hour before it uninstalling trial versions and demos.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Xoom pops up with lots of Google software and resources punctuating its screen. Motorola Mobility was acquired by Google in November of 2011.

X Factor

Unboxing a Xoom tablet is about as complicated as unwrapping a sandwich. The Xoom comes with a diaphanously thin instruction pamphlet, which serves to illustrate where its power switch is located and how to plug in its charger. Virtually everything else involved in using a Xoom is genuinely self-explanatory.

In the event that you encounter something that proves to be otherwise, you can use the Xoom’s own web browser to locate assistance. The symmetry is breathtaking.

The set-up screen for the Xoom is laudably brief – its largest issue is acquiring the appropriate keys for whatever WiFi source you intend to have it communicate with. In completing it, you’ll have your first experience of the virtual keyboard that’s part of the Xoom’s implementation of Android. A virtual keyboard is one that appears on your tablet’s screen when it’s needed, and lets you type by touching the screen surface. The Xoom’s keyboard makes admirable use of its screen real estate, and is flawlessly responsive.

As an aside, a Xoom tablet can support a physical Bluetooth keyboard, should you find its virtual keyboard not to your liking… or if you decide to author a novel with it.

In its nascent state, a Xoom tablet can access the external universe through the web browser installed with it, a version of Google’s Chrome software. Its default web browser is some distance removed from exceptional, but it does serve to illustrate the degree to which an Android tablet can be personalized. Tap the Android Marketplace application – this being the application store for Android software – and you can download a browser to better suit your universe, including:

  • Dolphin, a “gesture-based” browser designed specifically for tablet users, which I confess I never quite warmed to.
  • Firefox for Android, which proved to be shockingly awful, especially compared to its exemplary manifestation under several desktop environments. An improved Firefox browser for Android is said to be in the pipe.
  • Opera, something of an “also-ran” browser under Windows, acquits itself handsomely on a tablet.

Like many of the offerings at the Android Marketplace, all the browsers were free.

Given a few days to browse the Android Marketplace – and a lot of bandwidth you have no loftier uses for – you can install a great deal of software on a Xoom tablet. A 32-gigabyte virtual hard drive would be risible on a desktop computer, but it’s a vast canvas for the relatively small applications that lend themselves to a tablet’s architecture. As such, it’s useful to keep in mind that a Xoom tablet can keep track of a lot of applications.

The Android desktop is virtual. If you succeed in filling its initial screen with application shortcuts, just tap and drag it away – it will be replaced with a fresh one. You can slide effortlessly between virtual desktops.

Infrequently-used applications can reside in a Xoom’s application file, rather than on its desktop, so they’ll stay out of your face until you need them.

Android has an elegant, intuitive management facility for quickly uninstalling applications you no longer require. It can also tell you, for example, which of your installed applications are responsible for the most significant demands upon the tablet’s battery, and how they’re using its available storage. The Android Settings screen is singularly easy to navigate, and will present you with no large words or scary graphics.

Moving files between a Xoom tablet and another device, such as a desktop computer, is also largely effortless. The Xoom has a USB port – plug it into a computer running Windows, for example, and it will appear as a network device. It presents its host computer with a number of folders for things like video, music and such.

The Xoom’s WiFi hardware is impeccable – I was able to walk around in the woods behind our house with it and remain connected to the world, a surreal experience if you don’t encounter any bears.

The GPS receiver in the Xoom is also seriously leading edge. With any of a number of navigation apps installed on it, the Xoom can become a navigation system, complete with verbal turn by turn instructions. It’s somewhat larger than a TomTom, but the maps are free.

The Xoom is also equipped with an accelerometer, a barometer and an internal gyroscope – none of which I’ve had the opportunity to interact with directly as of this writing.

If you habitually read the small type in technology specifications, you’ll note that the Xoom’s processor is somewhat removed from the fastest chips used in contemporary tablets. The specifications arguably don’t tell the entire story in this regard – the Xoom is sufficiently quick for the sorts of things tablets can be reasonably called upon to do. Faster processors consume more power, and as such, will shorten the time between chargings for the tablets in which they reside. The Xoom’s processor seems to be an optimum compromise in this regard.

The Xoom is easily the best tablet I’ve encountered to date. Its hard-edged, immediate implementation of Android is ultimately more productive than the iOS operating system installed on iPads. Its paucity of animations, special effects and other bits of CGI make it seem sparse and dry at first, but these are the qualities of an iPad that ultimately made me want to consign one to the back of a drawer. The Xoom is a much more robust device than any of the other Android tablets available. Equipped with Motorola’s fitted gel case, it feels as if it could survive the ascent of Everest… or possibly even airline carry-on luggage, if you’re really adventurous.

The Xoom is, to be sure, among the most expensive of the current generation of Android tablets. It’s easily worth the damage it will do to your credit card – long after you’ve paid the bill and forgotten about it, a Xoom tablet will still be a blast to use.