The $600 Motorola Xoom is the first slate to run Android 3.0 (a.k.a. Honeycomb), Google's long-awaited operating system designed for tablets. Motorola wisely refrained from altering the stock experience, which means it's a chance for the world to see tablet computing exactly as Google intends.
Before getting into the Honeycomb experience, let's talk hardware. Motorola has put together a powerful slate featuring NVIDIA's 1 GHz dual-core Tegra 2 processor and a gigabyte of RAM. It makes for a slick, speedy experience; apps open instantly and run smoothly.
The only physical keys to be found anywhere on the device are a pair of volume control buttons on the left side and a power button on the back where the user's fingers curl under the display. Beside the power button is a five megapixel camera capable of capturing 720p video. A two-megapixel camera is centred above the screen on the front side.
A slot for microSD cards up to 32 GB in size - to complement the Xoom's 32 GB of onboard storage - sits on the top edge, though it won't work until Google releases a firmware update. The bottom side plays host to microHDMI, miniUSB, and plated power connectors for the docks Motorola is selling as optional accessories. However, multiple recharging solutions may not be critical given the slate's excellent battery life. I used the tablet casually for days without needing to recharge. Without formal testing, I'd warrant about 10 hours of power on a full charge under normal use.
With a screen measuring 10.1-inches, you might think the Xoom would be significantly larger than the 9.7-inch iPad, but Motorola's display has a 16:10 aspect ratio, which means the total real estate is actually a smidgeon less. The bezel is a little thinner, too, making for a noticeably smaller top surface area. That said, it is a few millimetres thicker and, at 730 grams, a couple of chocolate bars heavier than an iPad 2.
I wasn't overwhelmed by the 1280-by-800 resolution display's picture quality - blacks begin to appear washed out when viewed at even modest angles - but it was perfectly acceptable under most circumstances. Plus, the screen is made of Corning's durable Gorilla glass, making it highly resistant to scuffs and scrapes.
Now, let's get back to the operating system. Earlier versions of Android simply weren't built with tablets in mind. Slates that use Android versions 1.9 through 2.2 have been functional in my experience, but the impression that they're just big phones has been hard to shake.
That's not the case with Android 3.0, an operating system clearly intended for larger displays that offers many features almost PC-like in their design and use.
The home screens start off more or less empty, with a Mac-like row of shortcuts leading to frequently used apps and services at the bottom. All five home screens can be quickly and easily personalized by tapping the "+" sign in the top right of the display, which leads to lists of apps, widgets, wallpapers, and other items that you can simply drag to the home screen of your choice. Android customization has never been so easy.
A persistent taskbar viewable in all apps sits at the bottom of the display. On the left side are three buttons; one to move back to previous apps, another that returns to the home screen, and a third that calls up your five most recent applications, which continue to run until closed. This last feature is a brilliant addition for multitasking, allowing users to jump between apps almost instantly.
The right side of the task bar is home to a clock, network manager, battery gauge, and a download status indicator. The corner also plays host to pop-up notifications for e-mail, calendar events, and instant messages.
The Web browser, meanwhile, offers tabbed browsing and support for Flash 10.2. It's in many ways similar to using Google Chrome on a PC, and far and away the most robust and intuitive Internet browsing experience I've had with a tablet.
Honeycomb's large, responsive, and precise virtual keyboard feels good and makes data entry a breeze. However, an alternate interface exists in a mic button in the top left corner of the desktop that activates a variety of voice recognition features ranging from web searches and map directions to sending e-mail and listening to music. I spent only a little time with voice recognition but it seemed to work extremely well; saying "listen to Willow Smith" returned dozens of YouTube videos featuring Will and Jada's daughter.
Road warriors will want to take note that this first Xoom is WiFi only. Motorola says other models - presumably designed with mobile data plans in mind - are in the works. Until then, if you want to use the Xoom on the go you can pair it with an Android handset with hotspot functionality (Android 2.2 or higher).
The Xoom can handle all of the things we've come to expect from a slate while moving one step closer to a more powerful PC experience. This should make it appealing to users with professional ambitions. In fact, a Motorola rep suggested that he thought it was a "viable replacement" for a netbook or laptop. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it is one of the best bridges yet between the tablet and PC worlds. I'd wager plenty of gadget buyers have been waiting for just such a crossing.