24… 72… Since Thursday with a Motorola Xoom

I have an apology to make.  My Xoom arrived on Thursday, at which point I tweeted I would post a review of it after 24 hours.  Well, I’ve been a little busy getting to grips with it and making it fit in to my daily workflow that… ah, who am I kidding.  I’ve had days of e-books and Angry Birds.  This thing rocks!

Overall Impressions

I pre-ordered the European 3G Xoom from the Carphone Warehouse.  This edition comes with a silver, metal back which makes it look faintly similar to it’s chief competitor.  The tablet comes with a dual-core Tegra, clocked at 1GHz, some RAM (does it matter?  See below), a decent camera on the back and a respectable web cam on the front.  It’s also packing 32GB of onboard storage, and whilst there *is* a Micro-SD card slot, it’s not working yet pending a firmware update.  Not overly clever, but I think there’s genuine reasons for that.  On top of all that is Honeycomb – Google’s latest iteration of the Android OS designed specifically for tablets.

Size and weight wise, especially with the silver back, reminds me of an iPad 1.  It feels good in the hand, if I could be persuaded to take it out the case once in a while (yes – I’m mildly paranoid).  It’s a good form factor for a variety of jobs and so far in the past week this thing has been out to a picnic (where it took a few very good shots), managed chunks of my business (e-mail and documents primarily, and in general been a very nice bridge device between my phone and my laptop.  I am impressed.  The general approach by both Motorola and Google has been to aim for this bridge approach, and does make me wonder if Chrome OS is possibly a little redundant.  Details such as the e-mail client’s pane approach and the new notification system are clear indications of a real re-think as to how Android should work on a tablet, and even the way native 2.x applications work on the tablet has subtle differences which make for an enhanced experience.

Honeycomb

Honeycomb has had a complete UI redesign to target the tablet market and it shows.  There’s no point of me posting my own images here, 30 seconds googling and you can find your own.  The home interface is still based on the same widget based interface you know and love, but have taken some of the features on board from third party home screen replacements.  Scrolling widgets are now native (although not *yet* resizable – shame), and with extra collections of smart folders, feels more like a desktop.  Normal third party widgets work fine – I don’t think I could really live without the Pure widget collection.

Navigation and notifications are distinctively different between 2.x and Honeycomb.  Notifications are not displayed across the top of the screen, but pop up in the bottom right of the screen, before fading away and leaving an icon.  Tapping on the bottom right will display a list of notifications, just like pulling down the top bar.  Navigation is handled by soft buttons in the bottom left for back, home, application-switching and (for 2.x applications), menu.  Applications with a Honeycomb specific UI do not require the menu button, since they now use a slightly different model.

Since the dawn of Android, Google has encouraged people to use layouts for their applications which are designed to scale well to different sized screens, and made this pretty straightforward with their layout engine.  This has been positively reinforced (despite the moans) by manufacturers, who stubbornly refuse to use just one screen size and insist on producing a multitude of different devices.  A such, if you wanted your application to gain a wide-reach in the market, then it must have already been robust enough to work on these differing handsets.  This sets Honeycomb in good stead, since most 2.x applications simply treat it as a bigger screen and scale appropriately.  I’m currently writing this blog post in AndroNoter, which has correctly placed it’s main three buttons across the bottom of the screen and given me a huge writing area to work within.  So far, there are very few applications I have found which don’t scale in a similar way (ironically – the WordPress application being one of them).

As for Honeycomb targeted applications, Google has added a few more niceties into the mix.  Applications now have access to an application bar which is displayed across the top of their application.  The application bar contains the title of the application, an icon (which in some cases acts as a home icon for the application), the toolbar for the current activity (copy, paste, zoom, forward, archive, etc) and an icon which when clicked, gives a drop down menu.  There is also an enhanced menu interface for options and dialogs and a few other goodies to boot.  Here again, we’re looking at a halfway house between a mobile and desktop experience.  There are flavours of both, whilst making them work very well on a large touch-screen device.  These motifs will not scale down to smaller screens, which appears to be one of the reasons why Google is hesitant about releasing the source for Honeycomb before Ice Cream is ready.

Google’s own applications and third party applications are already adopting the extra Honeycomb goodness – Gmail, Talk, Picsay Pro, QuickOffice HD and Due Today are apps I use daily which have already had Honeycomb face-lifts.  Could we do with more?  Hell yes, but it’s currently a young eco-system, and I’m happy with the way 2.x applications work for now until most of them get a Honeycomb facelift.  It would be nice if Google added a filter to the market for tablet specific applications – (and I think the US may have it), but that’s just a small nicety.

Applications

An Android device wouldn’t be an Android device without shipping with a few Google Apps.  The usual stack is here, GMail, Calendar, Maps, Talk, etc, and most have enhancements specific to Honeycomb.

The Browser

Most of my workflow now exists in the cloud.  My business is managed via FreeAgent, my documents are managed via GDocs, diagrams are done via Gliffy, etc.  In general I now look for a cloud app before I look for a native app.  So now I’m going to make a pretty bold statement:

The browser in Honeycomb is the best browser I have used from mobile to the desktop.

There – I’ve said it.  Let the hordes of angry people tear me limb from limb, I don’t care.  Google brought a tabbed browser to what was already a pretty strong Chrome on mobile browser, added in a few bells and whistles and turned out what I think is the best browser to far.  This thing is faster than Chrome on my desktop, handles every web app I throw at it (even Gliffy – which is flash based), syncs bookmarks with Chrome desktop and comes with an Incognito mode (which has more uses than porn – stop your giggling at the back).  The UI is Honeycomb based goodness and the whole thing just gels.  It’s a genuinely glorious experience.

Specs – Does It Matter

It’s quite exciting that we are starting to move in to a strange, post PC world where raw crunching power is taking a back seat to overall user experience.  It’s a game Apple and Google have been playing for a while, and the rest of the world is just about starting to catch-up with them.  The Xoom packs quite a meaty punch under the hood, but the raw specs of the machine itself are almost irrelevant.  What is relevant is that it takes about 20 seconds to power up, about one second to unlock, zero seconds to switch between applications, applications start in a second, and the whole experience is buttery-smooth.  It multi-tasks *very* well, and is absolutely silent in it’s operation.  90% of people could quite happily throw their PC away and just settle for a tablet and a keyboard.  Apart from coding – I think *I* could.

Accessories

And now, we come to the shameful part.  For Google and Motorola have released a genuinely superb tablet, which makes good use of the Android Market system and is very well polished.  But Motorola managed to score a few own goals with the accessories.  I’m currently writing this post using an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard – since I already had it hanging around.  My tablet came shipped with a “standard dock” (promotional pre-order freebie from Carphone Warehouse) and I purchased a “folio case” from Mobile Fun.

Standard Dock

I have had many smartphones over the years.  For most of them, I’ve purchased a dock.  When consumers purchase a dock, they usually expect it to do two things:

1) Charge their device.

2) Provide a means of file transfer to that device (usually via USB of some sorts).

The Motorola Xoom standard dock fails in 50% of the required objectives.  When you’ve eventually faffed around with getting your Xoom on to the dock (it’s not an easy fit), your device will indeed charge (although despite what the manual says, will front light on the dock does not light up).  The dock itself also contains a micro-usb male connector which fits in to your Xoom.  But there is no USB leading away from the dock.  Whilst your device is in the dock, you can not transfer files, nor debug, over USB.

Epic fail.

Luckily, you can use windows shares quite happily using ES FileExplorer.  Which admittedly is no different to how I transfer files on my phone anyhoos, but I’d like the option of using USB if not for file transfer, then for file debugging.

Folio Case

When it rains – it pours at Motorola’s Fail department.  Whilst the standard dock is an annoyance, albeit a bearable one, the folio case comes down on the heavy side of fail.  The premise is simple – a light case your Xoom clips into which allows you to use your Xoom in a variety of positions: help for reading, tilted on the desk for typing, higher for viewing, and flat on the desk – for whatever flatness you require.  Motorola have been advertising this accessory as the primary accessory since announcement.  Oh, and it comes in leather.

Which it doesn’t.  The original plan was for two versions – one in leather, one in “durable”.  When it came to shipping, they only shipped the “durable” version which meant anyone who ordered a leather one got one of these plastic things.  I raised this with MobileFun, who were as confused as everyone else, and they did offer a full refund for shipping the wrong product.  I decided to keep it when I found out that Motorola aren’t going to ship the leather version, at least not yet.

There has also been complaints about the case scratching Xooms.  My European version has a metal back, so this doesn’t appear to be a problem on my unit.  But the two lugs at the bottom of the case designed to hold the Xoom in are quite aggressive – and I can understand the worry some users may have.

When in the stand up position, the giant plastic clasp protrudes from the front of the case, sitting anywhere up to six inches from the device.  This means that if using a bluetooth keyboard with the case, your bluetooth keyboard has to in front of the clasp – which does not make it ideal if working in tight environments.  Total footprint when using the case with an Apple bluetooth keyboard – longer than a 12″ ruler.  That’s a bigger footprint (in depth) than my 15″ Macbook Pro.

The final fail of this case is in charging.  You can not charge the device while closed in the case.  The charging port presses up against the side of the case when closed, which means to charge, you need to open the case and lay it flat out.  The same problem occurs when using the case in the stand position – the charging is on the bottom of the device.  One observant person pointed out that since most apps will re-orientate themselves just fine, simply flip the tablet and use it upside down.  This is perfectly acceptable for desktop use, since you’re not likely to want to use the rear camera at that time, but is still an epic fail on the part of the tablet, and Motorolla accessories.

Charger

The charger I’m in two minds about.  One of the nice conveniences with the iOS portfolio of devices is they all charge from the same cable, which in turn powers from USB.  I had become used to, at least with phones, MicroUSB being the standard for charging devices of this type.  The Xoom comes with a brick.  Admittedly, a small brick, but a brick nonetheless.  Not even an integrated plug/transformer, but a separate, honest to God, brick.

I was just a little gobsmacked.  Welcome to 1999.  But then I charged it.  And it took a couple of hours to charge from completely flat to full.  That raised an eyebrow – I’m used to devices taking a little longer to get their juice.  One decent length bath is a pretty respectable amount of time.  The device does not charge at all over MicroUSB, not even a trickle, which means while travelling for longer than a day I will have to carry the brick with me.  But oddly, I think I’ll be happy to put up with that.

Delivery and Management

If Motorola are the king of accessory fail – Carphone Warehouse are the kings of communication fail.  On pre-order of the Xoom, they put a hold on the amount in your bank account.  I’ve no problem with this – it’s the only way of ensuring that the cash is there when the device arrives.  Plenty of other people were caught out by this and were expecting to pay a deposit and balance on arrival.  -1 point for clarity.

Carphone Warehouse then managed to fail in specifying a delivery date.  We knew the device was “supposed” to arrive mid-April.  It said so on CPW’s website.  But any communication with CPW led to a response of “we don’t know” and “it’ll be in stock when it’s in stock”.  Not even an estimate.  Distinctly unhelpful when they’ve taken 600 GBP of your hard earned cash.

On top of this, panic ensued when CPW changed the date of the website from “mid April” to “late April” with no notification, and removed the free standard dock from the listing.  This led to me wondering if there was any intention of shipping the standard dock, so I phoned CPW customer services for clarification.  At that point I was told that the Xoom has shipped already, would be with me that day, and no they weren’t sending out the standard dock despite it being part of the order.  I was told the manager was unavailable, could I leave a number for callback and the assistant said they would “try” to add the dock to ship later, as an apology (apology – I paid for the damn thing).

So I waited.. and waited.. and waited…  And it failed to arrive that day.  Funnily enough, there was no callback from CPW either.

Overnight I received tracking notification saying that the product was *now* shipping to me and would be with me the following day.  Which it did.  And lo-and-behold contained the standard dock I’d ordered as part of the package originally.  We then spent a good part of the afternoon having fun with the device.

Summary

When you buy a device like this, you’re buying in to a post-PC experience (there’s a painful term to coin).  Your accessories should “just work”, they should perform the function they’re designed to fulfil and your customer support should be second to none.  The whole thing should *gel*, making getting you up and going as comfortable as possible and then keeping you going as comfortable as possible.

Motorola and Google have pulled together a *fantastic* device in the Motorola Xoom.  The device itself is excellent, the operating system is superb and the app support is excellent.  But the overall experience is let down by poorly thought and executed accessories which hinder rather than help and a support system in CPW which sees the consumer as something in the way, who should be kept in the dark at all times.

I do not wish to incur the wrath of the dark lord, but this is something Apple got, get and do very well.  You buy a iPad, it does exactly what’s said on the box.  You buy an Apple case for it, it does it exactly and demonstrated and advertised.  No problems with charging and using your Pad at the same time.  No brick to carry around.  You also don’t get the product announced for pre-order four months before it ships.  The buzz machine dies down in that time.  This stuff is hard, but important for the acceptance of these devices with the general public.

These devices live and fail on providing an integrated experience.  I *want* to see the Xoom succeed, I want to see *other* Android tablets succeed.  I think they have a huge amount to offer the general public, but these teething problems with the whole ecosystem need kicking in to shape *now*, not six months down the line.

There are other accessories by third parties turning up.  Some of the cases look good, _come in leather_, and answer the problems I’ve raised above.  This is what I expect a good third-party eco-system to do.  But I also expect the manufacturer to get it right, since they make the thing in the first place.  If you’re thinking of getting a Xoom – it truly is an awesome device, but bear in mind some of the caveats above.