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Two Android tablets take on Apple: One is up to the task

Can Android tablets match the iPad in usability? Yes, if they apply an important lesson from Apple.

Motorola's Xyboard/Xoom 2 is an elegant design. It's the software that isn't so elegant.
Motorola's Xyboard/Xoom 2 is an elegant design. It's the software that isn't so elegant. Motorola

Comparing Apple's iPad 2 with Motorola's XyBoard and Amazon's Kindle Fire is fraught with peril. But here goes anyway.

Let me preface my review by saying that a few overzealous readers (I'm being charitable with that description) almost invariably call the writer (me) an idiot for not being as savvy and/or perceptive as they claim to be. That's par for the course. But let's get a few things straight here.

First, this isn't an official review. Like the kind you would find at CNET Reviews. Second, I don't favor one manufacturer over the other. So, let me state the obvious (though, I realize, this will never satisfy conspiracy theorists). If Product X makes what I need to do easier, then I will favor it over Product Y.

And, third, as a corollary to the above, I have personalized needs, like anyone. A graphic designer will place a very different set of demands on a tablet than I would. So, my use case doesn't necessarily apply to everyone.

That said, I have used the iPad 2, the Motorola XyBoard (aka Xoom 2), and the Amazon Kindle Fire long enough to understand their strengths and weaknesses for my particular needs.

I've had the iPad 2 for 10 months (and if you count the original iPad, that's about 22 months of iPad use). The XyBoard for about 2 months. The Amazon Kindle Fire for a little more than 2 months.

And availability addresses an important point. Apple has been making 10-inch-class consumer tablets longer than anyone. That gives Apple an advantage. Based on my own personal preference, I had to wait until Motorola came out with the second-generation Xoom to justify the purchase of a 10-inch-class Android tablet. (Motorola didn't ship its original Xoom until about a year after Apple announced the original iPad.)

So, here's my (admittedly somewhat cursory) evaluation.

Xyboard with Android 3.2 is in dire need of performance tweaking: Web browsing is probably the most basic task that anyone can ask a tablet to do. Unfortunately, the Xyboard doesn't do that basic thing well.

The stock Android browser on the Xyboard can be deceiving. In the first few weeks I used the Xyboard, Web browsing seemed fast. That's because, as it turns out, I wasn't using it for extended periods of time. In other words, when I picked up the Xyboard and played with it for 15 minutes or so--which I tended to do in the first few weeks because I couldn't immediately wean myself off the iPad that I had customized over the previous ten months--it seemed fast.

But once I started customizing the Xyboard and used it for long stretches (as I'd been doing with the iPad), it broke down.

News Web sites, which tend to have a lot of graphics, began to refresh too slowly. YouTube became very erratic: sometimes working OK (i.e., refreshing pages at acceptable speeds), sometimes not--tempting me to drop-kick the tablet across the room. Keep in mind that this is predicated on all things being equal with the iPad and Kindle Fire, i.e., not related to connectivity.

And, bizarrely, the Xyboard can't access the mobile versions of some Web sites, despite relying on a mobile browser. (Browsers like Skyfire solve this particular problem but introduce others. And Opera Mobile can be faster, but it too has its own problems.)

Even a simple thing like typing in a Web address in the stock browser can become so slow (molasses comes to mind) that you have to wonder what Motorola and/or Google were thinking. (Google, after all, is slated to become Motorola's parent company).

And it gets worse. My Xyboard, despite being announced just as Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) was being released, came with Android 3.2. And it won't get Ice Cream Sandwich until "Q3" (third quarter) of this year. If, in fact, Motorola doesn't delay the update (not unheard of in the annals of promised updates).

I don't know if ICS would solve the performance problems, but it might at least be a start.

I could go on, citing other negatives (text input), but I won't because I've covered the most serious shortcoming for me: browsing.

I want to like the Xyboard: Not only because I spent my own money but because I like the design--more than the iPad's. That was probably the single biggest reason I walked into my local Verizon store and grabbed the Xyboard.

I like the wide 10.1-inch screen and I like the way it sits in my palm (again, more than the iPad on both counts). And I like the LTE "4G" (though it doesn't work in 4G areas as consistently as I had hoped).

I also know that the Xyboard's dual-core Texas Instruments' OMAP 4430 chip with an Imagination SGX540 graphics chip has a lot more potential than Motorola and/or Google have been able to wring out of it. I know there's potential for some very snappy sustained performance, but Motorola and/or Google haven't optimized the software to enable that.

Amazon got it right with the Kindle Fire: The Kindle Fire (Android 2.3) is a much better experience. Browsing with the built-in Android browser is reliable and consistently faster than browsing on the Xyboard. E-mail works as advertised, text input is snappy, and the apps that I need work well. (And note that the Kindle Fire uses the same TI chip as the Xyboard does.)

So, how did a Web retailer create a tablet for $199 (about $500 less than what I paid for the Xyboard) that works surprisingly well for a Gen 1 product? And do a better job than a device heavyweight like Motorola? I would submit that Amazon is much more focused on fusing the software with the underlying hardware. Sound familiar? Yeah, just like Apple.

Of course, in some respects the Fire is very different from the iPad. It's smaller (7-inch screen), runs Android, and is not billed as being as versatile as the iPad. That said, as a limited-function tablet, it works surprisingly well.

And if Amazon comes out with a larger tablet as rumored, I would seriously consider it based on my experience with the current Fire.

The iPad 2 just works: Which brings us to the iPad 2. I don't have much to say because the iPad just works. On pretty much everything (browsing, e-mail, light productivity) I need it to do, the iPad delivers. In fact, it comes about as close to a productivity device as a tablet can get.

While there are some obvious limitations to extended data input, formatting, and precise image editing (among other tasks), that could change in a heartbeat.

In other words, imagine an Apple-designed hybrid tablet-laptop (think: Asus Transformer Prime as a template) running iOS. Would that render the MacBook obsolete? An interesting point to ponder as we wait for Apple's imminent iPad 3.

Updated on February 19 at 1:30 a.m. PST: amending discussion about YouTube issues.

Updated on February 21 at 1:00 a.m. PST: A Xyboard Android update is now available that installs Honeycomb 3.2.2. After installing the update, some of the browser performance issues--that I had been having for almost two months--appear to be fixed. More later.