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Before Rush, One Tablet Stands Out

Thursday, 24 Feb 2011 | 2:44 PM ET

It’s an old pattern by now. Phase 1: Apple introduces some new gadget. The bloggers and the industry tell us why it’ll fail. Phase 2: It goes on sale. The public goes nuts for it. Phase 3: Every company and its brother gets to work on a copycat.

Motorola Xoom
Source: motorola.com
Motorola Xoom

It happened with the iMac and the iPhone. Now the iPad is entering Phase 3. Apple sold 15 million iPads in nine months, so you can bet that 2011 will be the Year of the iPad Clone.

Starting Thursday, you’ll be able to buy one of the most eagerly awaited iPad rivals: the Motorola Xoom. Like most iPad aspirants, this one runs Google’s Android software — but the Xoom is the first that runs Android 3.0 (code-named Honeycomb), which Google designed for tablets instead of phones.

The Xoom continues Motorola’s recent streak of attractive, compact and well-built gadgets. Unless you inspect the back panel (rubberized plastic instead of silver aluminum), you might not be able to tell this touch-screen slab from the iPad.

There are some differences, though. One is the price: the Xoom costs a stunning $800, $70 more than the equivalent 32-gigabyte iPad (WiFi and 3G cellular). You can get the Xoom for $600 if you’re willing to commit to a two-year Verizon contract. That means paying $20 a month to get online using Verizon’s cellular network (if you can get by on only 1 gigabyte of data), instead of just Wi-Fi hot spots.

The Xoom also has a dual-core processor, which, according to Motorola, means smoother game animation. And it has cameras. On the back, there’s a 5-megapixel still camera that can also record high-definition video. On the front, there’s a low-resolution video camera for video chatting. The new Android software includes a beefed-up Camera module, which gives weird prominence to gimmicky effects you’ll never use, like Solarize, Sepia and Polarize.

Clearly, a camera is useful on a tablet, and will remain a gigantic competitive advantage for the Xoom — at least until the iPad 2 comes out next month (if Apple sticks to its usual annual update pattern, that is). If the new iPad doesn’t have a camera or two, I’ll eat a tablet.

Motorola Enters Tablet Space
"New York Times" Technology Columnist David Pogue reviews Motorola's new Xoom tablet and compares it side-by-side to Apple's iPad.

The Xoom’s screen has slightly higher resolution than the iPad’s, and it gives the tablet a slightly different shape — more like a business envelope than a greeting-card envelope. The screen shape is a better match for hi-definition videos, but worse for photos and maps.

The Xoom has stereo speakers instead of mono, a battery good for 10 hours of video playback and a power button on the back panel. Motorola says that later this year, a software upgrade will let the Xoom take advantage of Verizon’s 4G cellular networks, which means better downloading speed in a few lucky cities.

One very cool feature: The Xoom has an HDMI jack, meaning that a single cable can send both audio and hi-def video to a TV. That’s a perfect proposition for the peripatetic PowerPoint presenter.

Motorola’s dock doctor has been working overtime, too. You can buy either a speaker dock or a charging dock that automatically activates the Xoom’s slide show or alarm-clock mode. If the Xoom’s hardware were the whole story, it wouldn’t be much more than an anecdote. Those hardware improvements alone won’t knock the iPad —especially the iPad 2 — off its pedestal, especially considering the price premium.

No, the more important story here is Honeycomb, the Google tablet software. This is the real iPad competitor; Honeycomb tablets in every size, shape and price range will soon be arriving in stores.

So how is Honeycomb? Four words: more powerful, more complicated.

The screen now bears two strips of tiny icons. In theory, the top ones pertain to the program you’re using, and the ones across the bottom ones resemble the system tray in Windows: status icons and pop-up menus for various settings.

But these icons are darned cryptic; you’d think they were were designed by aliens. Google seems to have overlooked a huge drawback of unlabeled icons on a touch-screen computer: there’s no way to see their names or functions before you open them. There are no pop-up tooltips, for example. All you can do is touch one to activate it, see what happens and learn from the annoying experience.

The new strips don’t always make sense, either. Why, for example, does tapping the clock icon bring up your list of notifications (completed downloads, incoming text messages and so on)? Why do you access some settings by tapping a bottom-strip icon, and the rest of the settings by tapping a top-strip icon? Does Android want to be Windows when it grows up?

Some of the changes in Honeycomb are fresh. There’s a pop-up menu of list of recently opened apps — not just their names, but miniature screens that show you exactly what you were doing when you left off. Widgets (small windows that display the latest data from, say, your Gmail or Twitter accounts) are more flexible now; for example, you can scroll through their contents without having to open up a whole big app. You can drag individual messages into e-mail folders.

Lovingly ripped-off

In the miscellaneous category, Google has blessed the Web browser with tabbed windows and an “incognito” mode (in which you leave no cookies, history or other tracks that might let someone see what you’ve been up to). When you’re using Google Maps to view a major city like San Francisco or New York, you can twist with your fingers to reveal the three-dimensional outlines of actual buildings. (Useful if you’re the pilot of an ultralight aircraft, I guess.)

Other improvements might best be labeled, “Lovingly ripped off from the iPad.” Take the new Gmail and e-mail apps, for example (still no word as to why we need separate apps for Gmail and other account types). They’ve been redesigned to perfectly mimic the iPad’s mail app. That is, when the tablet is upright, the message fills the screen; when it’s horizontal, the message list appears at the left side, with the selected message in the main window. The Contacts app is similarly similar.

There’s a Books app that mimics the iPad’s iBooks app, right down to the three-dimensional page-turning animation. (It accesses Google’s attractive new e-book store.)

All the other Android goodies are still here, like speech recognition and impressive GPS navigation. Motorola says that an upcoming download will let the Xoom play Flash videos online — something the iPad can’t do.

At the moment, few apps are designed for Android tablets’ larger screens. By contrast, there are 60,000 apps available specifically for the iPad (not counting the 290,000 iPhone apps that also run on it, at lower resolution). But that’s a temporary objection; the Android library is growing at a white-hot pace.

If you’re interested in a tablet, you’d be wise to wait a couple of months. You’ll want to consider whatever Apple has up its sleeve for the iPad’s second coming, of course, but also Research in Motion’s business-oriented BlackBerry PlayBook and Hewlett-Packard’s juicy-looking TouchPad tablet, which runs the webOS software (originally designed by ex-Apple engineers for the Palm Pre smartphone).

It’s not crystal-clear at this point why the world needs all of these competing tablets, each with different operating systems and app stores. There’s not enough differentiation to justify the coming onslaught of models; most of these companies seem to cranking out tablets just so they can say, “We have an iPad thingie, too!”

In the meantime, Motorola should be congratulated for the Xoom. For xealous tablet fans, it’s an excellent, xesty tablet with a xany price tag — but a lot of xip.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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