Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Xoom Tablet Review

In this blog I review the Xoom tablet.

Reasons for Purchasing the Xoom
I have been considering purchasing a tablet for several months as the form factor would be a benefit in contrast to my laptop. And although I was originally drawn to the Xoom I had intended to purchase a slightly less expensive tablet.

However, when Staples (I presume a US only national electronics store) offered a $100 USD coupon for tablets I choose to purchase a 16 gig, wi-fi only model running Honeycomb 3.2 for $399 USD.

Intrinsic Attributes
I haven’t extensive experience with other tablets so I will not be able to contrast the Xoom.

The first thing I noticed the weight of the tablet. It is not prohibitively heavy, but it was far heavier than I expected. But I would prefer a solidly built tablet rather than the crappy, plastic lid to my wife’s laptop that pops apart from a light, sharp knock.

The bevel seems very minimal which I expected to be a good feature but I have largish hands I found that my fingers habitually end up touching the screen. This is not absolutely horrible but it is slightly distracting when menus suddenly appear or the screen changes otherwise when I do not expect it. I have gotten better at avoiding this as my use has continued and the use of a portfolio case has greatly reduced this as well.

I find the power button and volume controls suboptimal.

The power button is inconveniently located on the back of the tablet, especially when using the portfolio case opened and folded back at which point the power button is inaccessible. The button is quite responsive even if it is located unconventionally.

The volume controls seem to offer the inverse situation; they are well placed and very accessible, but the buttons themselves are difficult to use as they are very unresponsive to touch. Additionally, the buttons do not protrude much and I have trouble determining which button I am touching. Including an immediately accessible (i.e. within two taps) on-screen volume control via the the lower right menu icon would greatly improve this situation.

The on-screen keyboard is adequate, although slightly too narrow for my (somewhat large) hands to fit comfortably. I am a touch typists, I do not need to look at the keyboard, and I use all my fingers, but on the Xoom I find that typing with my first fingers from both hands (and sometimes only one hand) and looking at the keyboard to be the quickest if I value accuracy. The voice-to-text functionality is quite helpful in some cases and I have even used it during conversations on IRC.

I am aware there are on-screen keyboards available for purchase in the Android market that splits the keys and moves them close to the sides for use with thumbs although I have not explored this yet. Friends that have Android tablets have highly recommended purchasing one. Another option is to purchase the Bluetooth keyboard available from Motorola, although this seems to violate the purpose of the tablet to me.

I have heard complaints of how some applications scale on the screen. I noticed an icon on the bottom right of the screen that allowed the user to choose is the applications is the scaled to fit the screen or zoomed to fit.

Lastly, I have found the battery life exceeded my expectations. Granted I do not use it extensive throughout the day, but I do use it daily and charging is required after approximately three days use.

The browser is sleek, stable, and functions well, featuring some very well designed (if slightly hidden) functions that are helpful.

The UI is clean and very functional, managing screen real estate well. And as opposed to Fab’s experiences, I have not suffered a browser crash yet.

Flash was not installed by default but was easily available in the Android market and has functioned well.

Two-finger zooming is available, which is not only a helpful feature but sometimes a necessity to select a small link on the screen.

The typical controls (back, search, etc.) are available when you are scrolling down the page by touching the header for the current tab . This was a very helpful feature although I stumbled upon it by accident.

Holding down a link brings up a small menu that will allow you to open that link in a new tab, among other options. Again, this is a very handy functionality that I stumbled across by accident.

In general I found the browser to meet all of my needs, although I tend to view specific pages rather than randomly surf the internet.

The Xoom includes a native Gmail application by default and it works wonderfully. The UI is uncluttered and exceptionally functional and it integrates with Gmail without problem. This could be a study of functional minimalism for other developers.

It functions as well as I could expect and I can only offer one criticism; since my hands do not fit the onboard keyboard and I haven’t bought a split-keys, thumb-type keyboard yet, I do not actually answer many emails with it. I can poke out simple, quick replies with my pointer finger(s), but alas, that is not my style as I am naturally garrulous. So at this time I generally only use it as an email reader.

Google Books
A significant amount of my time on the Xoom is spent reading and my use of Google Books has yielded an extremely pleasant experience with only a few niggles of mention.

Google Books has a clean, uncluttered, and intuitive UI. I would not say that it is superior to others, but equivalent and certainly very functional.

Books can be searched and purchased through the Android market. Prices are a pleasant as I have generally found that I can purchase an ebook cheaper than the identical paperback at the local brick-and-mortar store, which is a sharp contrast to other ebook retailers (I’m looking at you Amazon).

I recently discovered a handy feature; if during lunch at work I were to open a book in a browser at my desktop then the book is at the same spot I stopped reading the night before with my Xoom. I concede that this is more a functionality provided by Google Books, but it is still appreciated.

The first niggle is the Xoom’s weight, as noted above. At 1.6 pounds (730 grams) I find it comparable to a large book, although certainly less bulky or cumbersome to such a book. It doesn’t seem heavy at first, but sustained reading begins to make it uncomfortable to hold with a single hand.

The second distraction to mention is the screen lock. I prefer to read with the tablet like I would hold a sheet of paper, i.e. long dimension vertical. In order to lock the screen I need to get into the system settings and look for the toggle and I would conversely need to unlock it when I am doing other tasks. I admit that this is not difficult, but other tablets have made this far more accessible. I would suggest adding the screen lock toggle to either the settings icon for Google Books or adding it to the lower right menu icon.

Google Music
Much like the Gmail application the Google Music application is straight forward, uncluttered, and functions easily.

A downside is that Google Music still seems to be in closed Beta. I imagine this disappointed to many but it will open soon enough.

And since the music is streaming you don't have to store anything on the tablet.

Until know I have generally eschewed YouTube as I find most of it is rubbish. However, after discovering the Yogscast and their Minecraft series of videos I now watch quite a bit from time to time.

The default YouTube application is nice, although I find the UI slightly crowded. I would suggest moving the suggested videos window onto the type of sliding window that is hidden until the double arrow window bar is tapped.

Watching videos, including HD, is wonderful and the Xoom handles video exceedingly well. In full screen mode the UI is minimized, uncluttered, and fades from view leaving the screen clean.

Video Chat
The inclusion of a forward facing 2MP camera suggested that video chat would be readily available across the preferred platforms. Unfortunately video chat is currently not available in either Skype or Google+ hangouts. I was especially disappointed by the exclusion of hangouts, although I understand that this may be coming.

The good news is the Google Talk is included by default and works very well.

But I would still like to be able to have a video chat with multiple people with my Xoom.

What I Haven’t Done
The time I spend with tools tends to be on tasks for which I find them useful and I don’t generally spend a lot of time mucking about with them. To wit, there are many areas that I have not, and simply may not, explore with the Xoom.

I have not downloaded many applications from the Android market. I buy what I know I want and research them a bit before I even consider buying them. So I don’t feel qualified to comment on the market.

I haven’t downloaded and watched any movies. With only 16 gigs of memory I suspect I would need to actively maintain a minimalistic library of videos on the Xoom. I could have bought the 32 gig model or add an SD card, but I didn’t and I haven’t.

I haven’t even plugged in the USB cable yet. It’s still in the clear plastic bag from when I opened the box. I will open the bag and use the cable when I have need. I just don’t need to yet.

Lastly, I haven’t really played any games on it. I did spend some time with Angry Birds just to experience it. But I have limited time and if I spend any time on games it’s on Minecraft.

The lower right menu icon is a convenient access to the typical settings. Just not the settings that I typically want to access.

I would find it excitingly useful if I could choose what setting were visible when I tap the lower right menu.

Obviously I use many of the Google services and they are well integrated and supported on this tablet. And I use them for a majority of my experience with the Xoom. So much so that I might start joking it's the Google Xoom.

Do I like the Xoom? I do, very much so. It certainly has integrated well into my consumption of electronic media and I might spend up to two hours a night using it. But that use is more in a consumptive manner than a creative one.

Would I recommend it to all my friends? No I would not. But I would have a hard time recommending any tablet at all.

Tablets are still fairly expensive (even with the coupon) and I could not say that it would holistically replace a laptop for most people. For example, I typed this blog on my desktop machine and not the tablet.

However, if you have the disposable income and are looking for a good "toilet computer" to consume media, I would certainly not dissuade you from purchasing this tablet.
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