From iPad to Xoom

tl;dr summary

My goal with this is to see how it would replace my iPad in day-to-day use. I use my iPad as a productivity device to check email, write posts for this site, and catch up on my reading. I am not a gamer whatsoever, so I won’t comment on how Honeycomb stacks up against the iPad in the tablet gaming market.

It’s certainly possible to replace the iPad with the Xoom if you are willing to accept some major tradeoffs in terms of app quality, integrated experiences and media playback. There truly are very few apps designed to take advantage of Honeycomb and very few upconverted apps that do so gracefully.

My general experience with Honeycomb and the Xoom was positive, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone over an iPad because of its poor third-party app offerings.

The Full Review

Around this time last year, I posted my first Android article where I used a Nexus One for a few weeks as a replacement for my iPhone. I followed it up in January of this year with a similar article for Windows Phone 7. I do these articles not because I want to show you how superior Apple’s hardware and software experience is, but because I am genuinely curious about other platforms. I have been a phone junkie since I was in high school. I’ve been using smart phones since they had styluses. I enjoy using new technology and enjoy seeing the different ways companies approach similar problems.

Though I make a living selling products for the Apple platforms, it’s healthy and wise to keep up-to-date with what the competition is doing. That is why I ended up purchasing an Android 3.0 powered Motorola Xoom a few weeks ago. At $599 it is certainly not the cheapest device I have ever purchased to silence a nagging curiosity, but it is the most intriguing. I have been intrigued by how the major players in the tablet market like RIM, Google and HP are going to approach the iPad’s year head start. I was curious to see how usable Android 3.0 was a replacement for the iPad.

Most gadget site and tech columnist reviews don’t go deep enough with a device to show how truly useful it is over an extended period of time. My goal with these writeups is to see if I am able to replace my default device, in this case an iPad, with the new hardware and to write about my experiences. It’s my hope that others will find the tomb of words on this page useful as they debate iPad versus Android.

I’ll do my best to not grade on a curve and point out the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms.

Who Am I?

Before diving into the Xoom and Honeycomb, it’s best to describe the tasks I use my iPad on a daily basis.

  • Every morning I check my email, Facebook and Twitter while in bed. I scan through my RSS feeds periodically as well.
  • Throughout the day I check Twitter and my RSS feeds on the device and send articles I find interesting to Instapaper.
  • I do quite a bit of reading using Instapaper, Kindle and a variety of magazine apps.
  • I write blog posts and other articles using my own Elements app.
  • I’ll occasionally use MindNode Pro to map out ideas.
  • At night I keep the iPad by the couch to look up stuff that goes through my head as I’m watching television.

I am not a gamer, so I won’t even touch the usefulness of the Xoom as a gaming tablet because it’s something I am completely unfamiliar with. I use tablets for both consumption and creation.

A Brief Aside On The Xoom Hardware

While my main purpose of writing this is to talk about Android 3.0 as a software experience, I would like to take a moment and talk about the Xoom hardware itself.

The Xoom feels good in your hand and has a nice heft to it. It’s nowhere near as thin or light as the iPad 2, but it doesn’t need to be. It by no means is as lightweight as the iPad 2, but I don’t find it inconvenient to transport with me in my bag. The device also has an SD card slot so you can expand to more than just the 32GB of onboard storage the device has. Well, except for the fact that it doesn’t presently work. Motorola claims it will be enabled in a future software update.

The one overarching difference in the Xoom hardware to the iPad 2 is the form factor. While both are sporting 10” screens, the Xoom is a much more narrow experience with its 16:9 aspect ratio as compared to the iPad’s 4:3. This narrowness makes it obvious that the tablet is designed to be used primarily in landscape mode whereas the iPad feels comfortable in either portrait or landscape. It’s possible to use the Xoom in portrait mode, but I wouldn’t describe it as a comfortable experience given the shape. When carrying the device in my hand, it feels somewhat awkward holding it from the left side as if you are holding a shoe box from one side. When sitting on the couch and using my stomach and knees to rest the device, it’s not as convenient to type on as the iPad. Neither of these tasks are impossible, but they are less convenient than the iPad 2.

My biggest frustration with the hardware was powering it on. My first few seconds with the device were spent trying to figure out where the power button was. Once I found it on the back of the device, and tapped it all I was greeted with was a flashing red light on the front. My initial inclination was that the device had no juice, so I began to charge it. After waiting a bit, I returned and tried to tap the power button again only to get no response. It turns out that pressing and holding on the power button starts the device up. I felt silly for missing something like that, but I doubt I am the only one who has fallen victim.

Somewhat related, I agree with Philip Greenspun: the custom charger that you are required to use to charge the Xoom is ridiculous. Every other device I have is capable of charging via USB. This one should be no different.

Android 3.0

Compared to the iPad, the Android tablet experience is pretty different. If you have used an Android phone before, the changes in Honeycomb will still be foreign, but not as much so. When you first power the device on, it shows a gratuitous animation of what I can only describe as pulsating purple honeycombs.

Once the animation completes, the standard Android first launch experience begins where you’re prompted to enter your Google credentials and asked what data you want to sync. As someone who has railed against iOS’s dependencies on iTunes, this is certainly a welcomed difference. Not only does entering my Google credentials automatically sync my personal information and email data, it also imports my apps and data from Google’s servers as I was syncing them from the Nexus One I also have lying around. I can only hope the mythical North Carolina data center can solve this problem for iOS as well.

Once the setup process completes, you’re greeted with the lock screen.

Lock Screen

The lock screen is nothing special, though unlike the iPad it gives you a general idea of what notifications are awaiting you once you unlock it. To unlock the tablet, you don’t use a swipe across the screen like you do on iOS or Android phones. Instead you have to drag a circle around another circle and release it once it hovers over a white lock. I had no trouble figuring out the unlocking pattern, but a few people I let use the device at our local CocoaHeads meetup were confused for a few moments. Again, it’s one of those things you stumble with once and then become accustomed to.

Android 3.0 Home Screen

The home screen of Android 3.0 is not much different from that you’ve seen in previous releases of Android. In addition to apps, you can also add widgets, shortcuts to folders, contact cards, Gmail labels and more to your desktop for quick access. You have five screens you can fill with as many apps, widgets and shortcuts as you desire. On my iPad, I tend to keep a single home screen and use folders to organize similar apps. With Honeycomb, I still maintain the single screen for my most frequently used apps, but also put a few widgets to use.

  • It’s not an Android experience without a giant clock. Seriously, why do Android people love clocks so much?
  • Bookmarks, which is a listing of my bookmarks from the Browser app. These are also synced with Chrome which I sometimes use in lieu of Safari.
  • TapTu: TapTu is like Pulse, but I think it has better experience. I have a widget that has five technology news feeds and shows the most recent article posted.

Previously Android users would tout the superior experience of having physical buttons on the device for more than just going back to the home screen. My Nexus One has buttons for going back to the previous screen, showing menu options, returning home and search. If you were a fan of those physical buttons, you will be sad to know that they are no longer a part of Android as part of version 3.0. In their place are three software buttons in the lower-left corner.1

Android 3.0 Soft Buttons

My first experience with the three buttons was not positive. Aside from the back button I wouldn’t consider the imagery they convey to be intuitive, they aren’t memorable in use. I first tried using a Xoom at a local Best Buy when it was released. After ten minutes of casually poking around the demo unit, I had a general idea of their purpose. Fast forward two months later and I don’t remember a thing about what the buttons do as I am using the device at my desk.

The left button performs a similar function as it does on Android handsets and goes back to the previous screen in an app or to previous apps in the stack. The middle button is your home button and instantly takes you back to your home screen. Looking at the button I cannot tell if it is meant to be a house or an arrow pointing up. The right button is the most powerful one. It exposes the multitasking switcher.

Multitasking is something new to iOS as of version 4.0. When you close an app in iOS, it is given the Han Solo treatment and frozen in carbonite. When you re-open the app it should maintain its exact state as it was before. There is a hidden piece of UI in iOS 4 that frustrates me but exposes an app switcher so you can re-open your most recently used apps by tapping their icon. To get to this functionality you need to double-tap the home button.

Multitasking Switcher

Android takes a different approach with its multitasking switcher. When you tap the multitasking button, it puts an overlay on the left side of the screen with a listing of your five most recently used apps. Besides just a name and app icon, Honeycomb also shows you a visual buffer of what the app looked like when you closed it before. I prefer this to the iOS implementation for three reasons:

  1. The visual cues of a screen buffer make it a lot easier to find what I’m looking for and tap it.
  2. Though not as intuitive as I’d like, the multitasking switcher is not as hidden as it is on iOS as there is always a button on screen for you to tap and expose it. No hidden gestures or double-tap actions.
  3. The tap areas are much larger along the side of the Xoom tablet as compared to the small icons along the bottom of the iPad display.

Though improved visually, the switcher is limited in functionality compared to iOS in that it only shows the five most recent apps and doesn’t allow you to force quit an app or scroll through dozens of previously used apps like you can on iOS. I’m willing to give take the five app restriction, but Android still needs a better way to quit an app outside of going into the Settings app.

Earlier I mentioned the device seems designed to be used in landscape mode primarily given the 16:9 aspect ratio. Honeycomb as an OS supports rotating the device into both portrait and landscape, but rotation is not nearly as fluid and instantaneous as on iOS. In fact, it is so slow I often wonder if the device has registered that I changed the device’s orientation. After several days, I ended up just setting a preference to disable rotation on the device and have it stay in landscape permanently.

Notifications

Notifications are a sore subject for many iOS users. The modal nature of the alerts that pop up are distracting and in your face. Worse, stacked notifications are often lost. I keep push notifications disabled so I don’t have the overload many power user experience, but I wouldn’t object if Apple improved notifications in iOS 5.

Android smart phone notifications queues up your notifications in a pull-down tray so you can go through them when its convenient for you. It’s an improved experience in that you don’t lose the notifications, but it is no less overwhelming than having ten notifications in iOS.

Android publishes notifications whenever an app is installed via the Android market, an email is received, a new direct message comes in from Facebook and in some cases a new advertisement is available for you to see.

Honeycomb doesn’t have the traditional Android notification tray. Instead, notifications are along the bottom right side of the screen next to the clock. As you get more notifications, more icons are added to the left of the clock. More often than not, I spend a few moments a day just going through the notifications and clearing them one-by-one as I’ve already dealt with the email or Facebook update on my Mac or iPhone. Android for phones lets you clear all notifications with a single tap. I have been unable to find similar functionality on the Xoom.

Gmail

Android devices are more than just the base OS as far as I am concerned. I am not interested in Android powered phones or tablets that don’t offer the full Google experience with the Marketplace and Google’s bundled apps. Google has built tablet designed experiences for Maps, Gmail, Navigation, Calendar, Contacts and the Marketplace. Each of these apps makes excellent use of the extended space. Honeycomb takes a page from Apple with the split-view style layout of a source list on the left side and selected content on the right.

It’s not a one-for-one copy between iOS and Android, however. The source list is more narrow and visible both in portrait and landscape modes. Tapping on a message in Gmail will then select it and slide the folder list off screen until you tap the back button once more. If I were a heavy Gmail user I would be jealous of anyone who got to use the native Gmail client bundled with Android. It is far and away superior to the Gmail web client I use on my iPhone and iPad. It is also more attractive than the pale blue style that the web app uses.

Transferring Data

As a core platform of the Honeycomb OS and the bundled Google Experience apps, the Xoom is in the same ballpark as the iPad. When you start adding external variables such media playback, transferring data and the third-party ecosystem is when things start to get fuzzy.

Transferring music and movies from my Nexus One was straightforward, though somewhat technical. You plug the device into your Mac using the MicroUSB connector and drag files from the Finder onto the device. The Xoom requires a third-party piece of software called Android Transfer to copy files onto the device.

Android Transfer App

I copied several movies I had ripped & encoded from my DVD collection onto the Xoom to test playback. In every case, I use Handbrake to rip and encode the DVDs using the “Apple TV” setting. I’ve found that it is a nice mesh of small file size, good video quality and capable of being played on the devices I care about.

There’s no dedicated video app for Honeycomb like there is for the iPad. Instead the Gallery app houses both your photos and videos. When you tap on a movie, it pops up the video player and allows you to start playing. I am unsure about the video playback. The video and audio played in-sync, but it felt like it was playing either a touch faster than it does on my iPad or any other device I have or it was skipping frames which made the playback seem “off”. I couldn’t place my finger on exactly what the cause of the visual difference was, but it was noticeable.

Audio playback was without issue. I copied several albums of music from my iTunes library onto the Xoom using the Android transfer app and the bundled Music app read the ID3 tags and sorted them into albums.

As much as I dislike what iTunes has become with its support for every type of media Apple offers, having an app to manage the media content that goes onto my device is a much more enjoyable experience than manually copying files via the Finder.

The Honeycomb Marketplace

The core hardware and software that ships in the box is only part of the mobile experience. No platform can truly succeed without a successful third-party app ecosystem. There are thousands of Android apps on the market, but still very few that are designed exclusively for the tablet.

Android’s Marketplace does not make it easy to find apps designed for Honeycomb tablets. In fact the best resource I found was my own list of Honeycomb apps I assembled in late March.

Out of the list of apps, the four I have found myself using regularly are TweetComb, Newsr, Kindle and Flixster.

TweetComb

TweetComb is the first Twitter app designed to take advantage of the expanded screen real estate of tablets and has a TweetDeck inspired user interface. I wouldn’t describe it as an enjoyable experience as it is missing features, buggy and not the most attractive app but it is serviceable for scanning my timeline on the couch and posting the occasional quip about the sporting event I am watching. It also borrows Twitterrific’s new tweet chirping sound.

Seesmic is working on a tablet update to their Twitter client and I’ll likely switch to it when it is available, but I can’t imagine it being as enjoyable of an experience as Twitter for iPad or even Twitterrific.

Newsr

Newsr is a Google Reader client for Honeycomb developed by the same guy who did TweetComb.2 It uses the same three column layout that you find in the Google’s bundled Gmail app.

It is a much better done app that the Twitter client and feels much more close to what Google has in mind for user experiences in Android 3.0 and beyond. It is a much more utilitarian RSS experience along the lines of NetNewsWire for the Mac than a multitouch-enabled experience like Reeder for the iPad. That doesn’t bother me as all I want to accomplish when I am going through my RSS feeds is to scan articles, save ones I’m interested in to Instapaper and then get out. Newsr does that.

Flixster

Along the same user interface parallels is Flixster. If you look at their Android marketplace screenshots you’ll notice nothing about it being updated to offer a tablet exclusive experience. Don’t let it deter you as the app makes great use of the expanded real estate. Android apps are moving towards this trend of having a bar along the top called the Action Bar. I believe it is their replacement for the tab control they were using and I find it not only looks better, but also works better. It’s a clean look and makes it easy to look at various bits of movie information on my tablet.

Of note, Flixster is also one of the few apps I have seen that uses gratuitous animations. I haven’t seen this many slide-in and fade transitions since Keynote was released.

Kindle

During thee past few weeks, the Kindle app was updated to offer a more enjoyable tablet experience. The book reading portion of the app just offers a larger column to render text, but the library and Kindle Store truly shine. I purchased a few books from the Kindle Store on my Xoom and found the experience to be far more enjoyable than on my iPhone or iPad because Google doesn’t prevent Amazon from performing their own commerce transactions on the device.

Whereas on iOS I have to launch MobileSafari, find my book, purchase it and then relaunch the Kindle app to download it from my Archived Items everything is in-app on Android. I find the book in the Kindle Store, tap “Buy Now” it downloads and then shows up immediately in my Library. No dancing between apps. This is the way it should be. Apple’s demand for 30% of the pie on everything going through iOS has always made me uncomfortable and in the case of this I think it harms the user experience. I don’t want to be forced into using iBooks to have a seamless experience, especially since those are only accessible from two devices rather than every platform I have a device for.

Other than those four apps and the TapTu app I mentioned earlier, I haven’t found many third-party apps designed for the tablet experience that do a good job. There are plenty of upconversions though!

The Case Against Upconversions

When I initially compiled my Honeycomb app list, every Android apologist out there emailed me to tell me how wrong I was about the number of apps because there were thousands of Android apps that run on Honeycomb. Moreover, they look and run better than an iPhone app does on an iPhone.

I followed up all that feedback with this response:

If [a blown up phone app] is all it takes to build a successful tablet platform, we may as well concede that the iPad is nothing more than a giant iPod touch. There is little purpose in buying into a tablet platform if the only thing it offers is a bigger view of your phone apps.

Now that I actually have an Android tablet and have been using it daily, I can say with confidence that running upconverted Android apps is a horrible experience more often than not. In the case of apps like Pulse and TapTu it works great, but when you start looking at data-driven apps like Dropbox or Facebook, it’s atrocious.

Here is what the Android Facebook app looks like on the Xoom:

Multitasking Switcher

Here it is in portrait:

Multitasking Switcher

There is so much wasted space. If you tap on one of the items to show a news feed, you get a long string of text that stretches across the screen. Usable? I suppose. Enjoyable? Not by a long shot. Reading long strings of tiny text like this hurts my eyes. Other than checking notifications I’ve opted to use use Facebook.com on the Xoom much like I do the iPad.

Other apps handle the upconversion even less gracefully. When I first started scouring the Marketplace looking for apps I knew that Sports Illustrated offered free access to their digital versions for print subscribers so I downloaded the app that was featured on the front of the Market.

Upon first launch I was greeted with a blank screen with a portion of a privacy notice sticking out of a corner. After rotating the device as few times to see if I could see any UI, I closed the app confused. It turns out that I had downloaded the Phone edition rather than the Tablet edition. Certainly user error, but I can’t believe that I am the only person who has committed the same error. For an app that looks and behaves so poorly on a tablet, both Google and Time Warner should find a way to not even offer to download the app on devices it can’t be used gracefully on.

TapTu and Pulse both handle the upconversion gracefully and even go a bit further to add a few Honeycomb enhancements. In general the experience isn’t much different between my Nexus One and Xoom with these apps, but it doesn’t bother me because they take advantage of the screen space in a natural way.

Multitasking Switcher

The Weather Channel’s app is still up for debate. This is the first screen I saw when I launched:

Multitasking Switcher

Lots of wasted space. The main UI is usable, but has some odd clipping issues I am sure they could fix in a maintenance release.

Multitasking Switcher

I still prefer WeatherBug’s tablet specific app.

Verdict

I was trying to explain my thoughts on the Xoom versus the iPad at dinner last night to my non-technical wife. She asked if I hated it, which I responded “No, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone over an iPad.” That was a puzzling statement for her and probably for you fine readers too. As a Google Experience device unconnected to the Android Marketplace, Android 3.0 is a good first effort. If you’re deeply integrated into the Google ecosystem with Gmail, Calendar, Picassa and all the other services Google offers, I doubt you will find a better integrated experience.

If the iPad never existed, Android 3.0 and the Xoom would seem like monumental achievements in pushing the tablet industry forward. Unfortunately for Google and every other platform vendor, that isn’t the world we live in. Android 3.0 is not as polished as iOS 4, but it’s completely usable and even offers some features that I prefer. I’ll take Honeycomb’s multitasking switcher over iOS’s any day. I still like Android’s ability to add widgets to the screen in addition to apps and folders.

If, however you want a tablet that has a rich app ecosystem and a great media experience, the iPad is the only choice. The past two releases of Android, Gingerbread and Honeycomb, have improved the user experience of Android’s core OS and Google Experience apps to a point where I think they range from good to great. I would have no problem using them on a daily basis if I had to.

The offerings in the Android Marketplace however are abysmal. iOS is not without its fair share of crummy apps, but there are dozens of gems in there that make the iPad experience about more than just what is bundled with iOS. That is why Apple so frequently focuses on the third-party apps in their advertising. The core OS and bundled apps are only the start of your tablet experience. It’s the third-party offerings that round it out.

Google’s developer ecosystem lets them down in this aspect. Despite having thousands of apps in the Marketplace, very few of them are good and none of them are great. I have been using Android devices for over a year now the only app I can say I prefer on Android over iOS is Kindle because Amazon is not behest to Apple’s commerce policies.

My hope is that eventually Android developers will begin to hire those guys with fancy glasses and Photoshop skills to apply a coat of polish to their apps. The best money any mobile developer can invest in their product is into the design of it. iOS developers have long known this. It’s now time for Android’s developer ecosystem to wake up and start looking outside of white list views, blue text and gray title bars. Google’s improvements to Android in the coming years part of the equation, but Android won’t truly be a legitimate competitor until you start seeing Android apps that make the millions of iPhone and iPad users envious.

Change like that comes from the top however. Apple’s user interface design shapes the direction third-parties go with their apps. As a company and culture, I am not sure Google can or will ever do that.

  1. The search button has been replaced with a search box and voice activator in the upper-left corner.

  2. He is obviously doing a land grab in hopes that the platform takes off. I can’t decide if that is brilliant or insane.

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear, makers of Glassboard. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.