Editors' note: The Xoom is upgradable from 3G to Verizon's 4G LTE network. This requires that you ship your Xoom to Motorola for the upgrade. While you can expect faster download speeds, once your Xoom is upgraded, all other details remain identical as the 3G Xoom, so this review still applies.
Also, as of June 2012 the Xoom is upgradeable to Android 4.0. For details on the advantages Android 4.0 offers over Honeycomb, check the Android 4.0 section of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime review.
The Motorola Xoom tablet is easily the best competition Apple's iPad has ever seen. Sporting a 10.1-inch screen, front and rear cameras, HDMI output, a dual-core processor, and Google's tablet-optimized version of Android, the Xoom is entering the tablet wars with guns blazing.
Priced at $800 off-contract or $600 with a two-year commitment from Verizon, the Xoom isn't out to win frugal customers. Instead, Motorola is taking the approach used with its successful line of Droid smartphones: emphasizing the device's horsepower and the many capabilities not found on its Apple counterpart.
To this end, the Xoom's spec sheet is an all-star cast of dual-core processors, multimegapixel cameras, expansion slots, and maxed-out RAM. Combine the hardware with Motorola's exclusive access to Google's long-awaited Android Honeycomb operating system, and you have one of the most talked-about tablets of 2011.
Does the reality of the Xoom match up with the hype? Let's dive in and see what's working and what could be better.
Design and hardware features
With a 10.1-inch screen, you'd think Xoom would feel larger than the 9.8-inch screen-wielding iPad, but it actually comes off as slightly smaller. As tablets go, the Xoom carries its weight in its hips, stretching its screen area out to a more wide-screen-worthy 1,280x800-pixel WXGA aspect ratio.
This wider screen, coupled with the landscape-oriented positioning of the Motorola and Verizon logos, makes the Xoom a natural fit for use in a landscape view. This is fundamentally different from the original iPad, which prescribes a portrait orientation with its placement of the Home button. Of course, either device will reorient its apps and home screens for however you prefer to hold it, but nonetheless, the Xoom is ostensibly made for landscape view, whereas the iPad's design is naturally geared for portrait.
Motorola also slims the total device size down by running a 0.5-inch bezel around the screen, instead of the 0.75-inch bezel on the iPad. It's a small yet meaningful difference in a number of ways. The bad news is that the slimmer bezel offers less area for your thumbs to grip the screen, making it less comfortable to hold with one hand. And although the Xoom is only a tenth of a pound heavier than the original iPad, the smaller bezel and wider form of the Xoom make it noticeably heavier to hold in one hand. On the upside, when holding the Xoom in portrait, the thin bezel makes it easy to get your thumbs over the screen, making thumb-typing much less awkward than on the iPad.
The Xoom's keyboard, in general, deserves a round of applause. With its ample size and well-spaced virtual keys, typing performance is excellent in both landscape and portrait orientations. The keyboard supports multitouch for speedy typing, dedicated tab and emoticon keys, and a dedicated button to quickly jump you into keyboard settings. The keys are slightly smaller and more rectangular than the iPad's, but the overall performance is both swift and accurate.
On the bottom of the Xoom you'll find connections for Micro-USB, Micro-HDMI, a socket for the included power adapter, and a pinhole microphone. Don't let the HDMI port fool you, though. In order for us to get video out from the Xoom, we first had to dock it in Motorola's $129 HD speaker dock. Once we did, though, the entire Honeycomb experience was mirrored on our TV, allowing apps like YouTube and Maps some room to show off.
Up on the top edge you'll find a standard headphone jack packed conspicuously in the middle and a removable door to its left that conceals the microSD expansion port and a place for a 4G SIM card, both of which were disabled at launch. Motorola is promising microSD card support (up to 32GB) shortly after the product launch, enabled by an over-the-air update. Support for Verizon's 4G network is also forthcoming, though later in 2011, and not without submitting your Xoom to an authorized dealer for a hardware update.
Finally, there's the back of the Xoom, which includes a 5-megapixel camera and dual-LED flash, a stereo pair of speakers, and a sleep/wake button. Again, the layout of all these features somewhat dictates that you hold the device in landscape view, less you risk obscuring the camera with your hand. Camera quality is about what we'd expect from any high-end smartphone: good, but not point-and-shoot quality, and easily ruined by fingerprints on the lens. Video quality is also good, recording up to 720p. In spite of its capabilities, the Xoom makes for a comically large camera or camcorder by today's standards. We felt a bit silly snapping photos in public, holding the Xoom up in the air like Moses on the mountain. Still, it's a great capability to have, and one which Apple has received considerable flack for leaving off the original iPad.
A front-facing 2-megapixel camera is also included on the Xoom, geared for video chat. We tested the camera using the included Google Talk app, and it worked without a hitch over both Wi-Fi and Verizon's 3G data connection.
The Xoom has plenty of features under the hood, as well. For horsepower, you have a 1GHz dual-core processor with 1GB of RAM at its disposal. You really notice it, too. System performance purrs along, even with multiple browser tabs open, Pandora playing in the background, and e-mail notifications popping up.
Other features of the Xoom are par for the course these days. There's Bluetooth 2.1 support for audio and peripheral support (including Bluetooth keyboards). The Wi-Fi antenna supports bands up to 802.11n. Embedded sensors for screen brightness, accelerometer, and gyroscope are all onboard. There's even a barometer sensor inside, though no apps yet to support it.