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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

It has some rough edges, but Motorola’s Xoom a credible iPad competitor

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver June 28-July 4, 2011 issue #1131 High Tech Office column

Tablets were big in 2010 following the launch of Apple’s iPad, and all indications are that they’ll be bigger in 2011, with both increased sales of iPads and the release of models from companies previously known for mobile phones or netbooks and laptops.

Recently Dimensional Research reported 68% of the businesses it studied were already deploying tablets or planned to do so by next year (51% of the businesses, however, weren’t sure why). Tablets are also being blamed for declining netbook, notebook and desktop PC sales.

Smartphones running Google’s Android mobile operating system have emerged as the most successful competitor to Apple’s iPhone; many tablet manufacturers are hoping that Android will allow them to similarly compete with the iPad. But early efforts, like last winter’s Samsung Galaxy Tab, were hampered because Google had not yet released a version optimized for tablets and there was a lack of Android apps optimized for a tablet’s larger display.

Motorola’s Xoom is among the first models available in Canada running the new made-for-tablets Android 3.0 (Honeycomb); it’s been available since early April from Best Buy, Future Shop and Telus. Currently, there’s only one model available: a 10.1-inch widescreen (1,280 x 800 resolution) display with 32 gigabytes of internal storage and Wi-Fi. Unlike Apple’s iPad, there is no 3G option, though a 3G model is available in the U.S.

Many of Xoom’s hardware specs match those of Apple’s new iPad 2: a dual-core processor running at one gigahertz. About 10 hours of battery life (and the ability to go several days without needing charging – Motorola claims 14 days standby time); it also has a pair of cameras.

Some of its specs beat the iPad’s: there’s a MicroSD memory card slot. Camera resolution handily tops the iPad 2. GPS is built in, while Apple makes it available only on its 3G models. A mini-HDMI port and real USB port are built in – iPads require adaptors to connect to TVs, projectors or digital cameras. And Xoom’s $599 price is $20 cheaper than Apple’s equivalent model.
I had the loan of one for a week.

There are some rough edges. Yes, there’s a memory card slot. But it doesn’t work; a software update to enable it is promised. The 16:9 ratio widescreen display makes it better than the iPad’s 4:3 ratio display, but also makes it less usable as an e-book reader. Often, the relatively high resolution means text is uncomfortably small (and hard to enlarge). And while – unlike Apple’s products – Flash is supported, it works sometimes, somehow.

Shutting down applications to save system memory is possible – but awkward. And, too often, the browser displays mobile versions of pages designed for smaller displays.

Despite those grumbles, in many ways it’s very nice. The interface is responsive and performance is snappy. With one gigabyte RAM (double the iPad 2), multitasking works well. The email and Gmail apps have been tweaked to take advantage of the larger screen. Notifications and widgets on the home screen and voice navigation features outclass anything Apple offers. I like the browser tabs – just like on a “real computer” – and much more convenient than Apple’s equivalent. You can synch bookmarks with Google’s desktop Chrome browser.

Reportedly, there’s much improved support for business-network Exchange servers – something I’m unable to test. Plug a Xoom into a Windows system and you can copy music, movie, photos and documents into the appropriate locations – no ungainly iTunes needed. (Mac users can do the same after downloading a utility from android.com/filetransfer.)

Apple’s App Store has far more tablet-centric apps than Google’s Android market (a search in the Market for “tablet” got me 3,765 hits) and more apps overall, but the gap will almost certainly narrow over time.

Even with its current rough edges, Motorola’s Xoom tablet is the most credible full-sized alternative to Apple’s iPad to date; when the memory card slot is enabled, 3G (or 4G) versions come to market and more apps designed for Android tablets appear it will only get better.

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