Tablets

Xoom/Honeycomb launch impressions (spoilers: it’s not all goodness and light)

February 26, 2011 | by Michael Heller

Motorola Tablets

Xoom display model

Like many tech geeks out there who has yet to climb the ranks of tech journalism enough to get to go fancy places, I walked over to my local Verizon store on Xoom launch day to check out the Xoom tablet. It was my first experience with the tablet, and my first experience with Honeycomb.

My first impression was the placement of the Xoom in the downtown Boston Verizon store: all the way against the back wall between 2 Galaxy Tabs, and across from a bank of 4 iPads. There was one Xoom on display. ?There was a dummy display unit at the front of the store, but there were about 8 iPhones on display, 4 iPads, 2 Galaxy Tabs, and one demo Xoom.

Can you spot the Xoom?

And, the only thing labeling it as a Xoom was a small white card, none of the giant signs like Apple has throughout the store. I asked the store manager, and he said it was Verizon’s choice to not have any identifying display for the Xoom. As if the price weren’t going to be enough of a deterrent, getting people to even look at the nondescript tablet, which was next to 2 other nondescript tablets, and 2 nondescript netbooks, might be an issue. Needless to say, I had to wait in line behind 2 other guys to get my chance to play with the Xoom. While I was waiting, I played a bit of Fruit Ninja on an iPad.

First touch

When I first picked up the Xoom, my first thought was “this is a bit heavy”, which was an odd thought to have since I’d just been using the iPad which is the same weight. The Xoom is slightly more compact than the iPad, so I chalked it up to an odd thing with density. I found myself resting my hand on the shelf in the store quite a bit while using the Xoom, so I can’t imagine holding it one-handed for extended periods of time.

Overall, the Xoom is a nice piece of hardware. It feels solid, buttons are placed well for the most part. I was thrown a bit by the placement of the power button on the back of the tablet next to the camera, but I understand that buttons on the sides of the device would be more susceptible to accidental presses while in a bag. I loved seeing that when I installed Phone Tester, the Xoom could detect at least 10 multi-touch points (I considered using my nose to go for 11, but that seemed excessive.) As nice as the hardware was, there’s nothing interesting about it. Like I said, it’s a nondescript black rectangle, just like the majority of first-gen Android tablets. It’s nice, but nothing groundbreaking.

Use

The Honeycomb UI is great. The new notification tray works wonderfully. Most of the UI is incredibly intuitive (though somehow it took me a minute to notice that the trash can for deleting things on the homescreen was in the top right.) But, overall I love how Honeycomb feels like a tablet OS. Some may say that it feels more “desktop-like”, but that’s not quite right. The Galaxy Tab is running a phone OS, the iPad is running an app launcher OS, but Honeycomb feels like it really was built for tablets. The extra screen real estate, the multitouch keyboard, the full tabbed browser, the app switcher, the robust notification tray all made for an essentially different experience, and I can do nothing but applaud Matias Duarte for his work, and look forward to what he brings to future Android iterations. That said, it’s not all good news.

I found myself missing the dedicated search button. The search button is something I use constantly on my Nexus One, so having it removed from the row of soft buttons was disconcerting. It might not have been such an issue, but it really highlighted the inconsistency in UI. For example, on the homescreen, the default has the search box in the top left, the Android Market app has the search box in the middle, and many other apps have the search button in the top right. I don’t want to have to search for the search box, I want it in the dedicated row.

I can only guess that it’s because Honeycomb is brand new, but it seemed buggy to me. Even in my limited time using it, the screens would hitch when moving between homescreens. The biggest problem was in the Market. On 3 of the 5 apps I tried to download, the installation didn’t initiate properly on the first try, and I had to try it a second time. This also highlighted a problem in the notification system. As a righty, my arm is often covering the notification tray, so when I was getting errors on certain apps saying they weren’t compatible with the device, I never saw them because the notification was a little too unobtrusive. Of course, at the same time, why would these apps even show up in the Market if they aren’t compatible?

Conclusion

The trouble is that Honeycomb is really nice, but a bit hollow right now. By that, I mean Google has built a great framework, but there are no apps yet. There were about 16 tablet-specific apps for the Xoom launch, compared to about 2000 at the iPad launch. Obviously, the built-in Google apps are nice, but there are very few third-party apps designed for tablets. All the phone apps still work, though the formatting is off. I can’t help but wonder if Google should have released the full SDK longer in advance of the Xoom launch, rather than putting out the full thing out the day before the Xoom launch. Sure, they have some big names already with tablet apps like CNN, USA Today, The Economist, Sports Illustrated, and Pulse (seeing a trend here?), but there are very few apps aside from publications. It should be games, social networking, rich media (Hulu, Netflix, etc) and productivity apps pushing the hardware, not apps from companies in a dying business. There are no compelling widgets yet and few compelling apps.

Combine that with the fact that Netflix will never come to the Xoom, and it really doesn’t seem like the hardware for me. I’m looking for a tablet that will be good for both content consumption and content creation. With custom keyboards and voice input, the Xoom looks great for creation, but thin on consumption, while the opposite is true for the iPad. In a dream world, I’d love a transflective screen for a better book reading experience, but I’m not holding my breath for that.

All that said, the Xoom and Honeycomb are one of the best combinations of first gen hardware/software I’ve seen. The longer I used it, the more and more I liked it. Honeycomb is well thought out, the menus are clear, and in general the OS is easy to navigate. The Xoom hardware is nice. I can’t wait to see apps that take advantage of the power inside, but the aesthetics outside are nothing to write home about.