As of this Sunday I now own both an iPad 2 (32gb/wifi/black) and Motorola Xoom (32gb+/wifi). I won’t delve into the gadget addiction that leads me to own 2 tablet devices, but suffice to say that I got a nice discount on the Xoom and recently received a decent bonus and raise from work.
There are plenty of formal reviews of each device out there, so I’ll assume readers have already seen the formal specs for each. There are also plenty of comparisons (many seeming partisan to me), and I’m writing this comparison as someone who believes he is relatively agnostic when it comes to Android vs iOS. I tend to “lean Android” in general, but think each approach has advantages and disadvantages when compared to the other. This post will be a subjective “user experience” comparison between the two.
I’ve owned my iPad 2 since launch date, and have used it constantly since then. I’ve only had the Xoom two days. I used it almost all day Sunday, and showed both tablets off to several people at work today who expressed interest in one or both of them. After my experience with both has deepened I’ll have one or more follow-up posts on the current state of which I’m using most, but here is my initial assessment of each. I’ll touch on topics in the order I experienced them as I used the tablets.
Look and Feel
The iPad 2 is noticeably sleeker, both to look at and in terms of width and weight. The Xoom has a solid, clean albeit plain appearance. The iPad 2 (I’ll just refer to it as the ‘iPad’ from here on) more immediately felt like a cutting edge product, and the Xoom did not have as strong a “wow I really am living in the 21st century after all” feel to it, at least at first. Neither one would be comfortable to hold in one hand for long, and in most situations when you’ll have it propped on your lap, stomach, armrest, or whatever, the thickness and weight does not differ enough to be a critical advantage for either one.
Once again the iPad had more of an immediate “wow factor” to it. Its display is brighter, the colors are noticeably more vivid, and it retains that brightness better as you look at it from different angles. Seen alone the Xoom’s display is still very good, but when first put next to each other there’s no denying the iPad makes a more positive first impression.
However, with a bit of exploration that advantage is lessened by a couple things. First, the Xoom’s auto brightness level is set to be dimmer than the iPad’s. Going into its settings and adjusting the brightness shows that the Xoom’s display is more capable than you may initially have thought. Further, using apps or viewing web pages that have small text reveals that while the Xoom’s screen resolution is not much higher, that difference is noticeable and sometimes important.
I’ve found the Xoom’s display clearly shines (no pun intended) when it comes to reading ebooks. When using the Kindle app on each, especially with a small font selected, I (and everyone else I showed it to) had a clear preference for the Xoom’s display. Text was noticeably crisper and easier to read on the Kindle app for the Xoom. The clarity of small text on web pages seemed to vary more, with the iPad looking sharper in some cases, and the Xoom in others. However, overall, the Xoom’s display extra resolution is noticeable.
Unfortunately the Xoom’s display is undermined by how reflective it is. Yes, it has sturdy Gorilla Glass for peace of mind, but it is much more prone to having glare from light sources above or behind you interfering with a clear view of it.
Each tablet’s screen size (the Xoom’s takes a more “widescreen” approach) will also affect your impression of it. Certain web sites and apps fit more naturally into the Xoom’s wider form factor, and others seemed to work a better in the iPad’s. Videos, on the other hand, seemed more at home with the Xoom’s screen ratio.
Anyone planning to read lots of ebooks or watch lots of videos should take a closer look at the Xoom, but those concentrating on web browsing, e-mail, and/or running apps that are not e-book or video related would most likely prefer the iPad’s display.
Basic Tablet Operations
The conventional wisdom is that Android is a “harder”, “more confusing” operating system. It may not be quite as simplistically layed out as iOS, but unless you’re a technophobe unwilling to put 15 to 30 minutes into learning something, I can’t see how it could remotely be thought of as “confusing”. It has a few core concepts that once understood make it as easy to use and appreciate as iOS.
Yes, Android has more options than iOS, but after a few minutes of use these options make sense, and are generally well laid out. It is these extras that really make Android shine in comparison to iOS for me. iOS’ simplicity is a strength for the non-technical: it does tend to behave more consistently, and apps seem in general to be better behaved in adhering to UI standards that keep things flowing smoothly without lots of need for “figuring things out” on the part of the user.
But, Android’s advantages are significant: first of all there are widgets. On the iPad you live in a world of little squares. Each little square either represents an app, or a folder containing multiple apps. That’s it, end of story. You want something that stretches for all or part of a row, or a larger square showing more info? Forget it.
On the other hand many Android apps also come with one or more widgets that can be placed in any one of your home screens. CNN has a widget that scrolls through top stories, either at a fixed rate or flips through stories at your touch. Music players can have VCR-like controls right on your screen to control your music. A view of your mailbox will let you quickly review new messages, or a widget of your day’s calendar could show you the day’s agenda and let you quickly scroll through it to see what’s up next.
The power of widgets is that you can access this sort of fundamental information at a glance without entering and exiting a variety of apps. Instead of going into my calendar to see my day’s schedule, then going into my e-mail to see what messages have arrived, then going into my news app to see top stories, etc., I can see it all layed out on my home screen in whatever arrangement I’d like and review it all at a glance without app-hopping.
Widgets show that the iPad, in contrast to its sharp, forward thinking physical appearance and design, can feel positively dated and outmoded in this respect.
Another area the iPad seriously lags is with notifications. The iPad’s notifications consist of crude dialog boxes that always pop-up in the middle of your screen and you must immediately follow them to another app, or close and remember to follow-up on later. Android, on the other hand, has an elegant notification bar in the lower right (in the case of Honeycomb) that accumulates all your notifications as they come in, with a series of small icons showing what awaits you.
You can quickly touch the notification area to see a list of all these notifications and either dismiss them, ignore them, or touch to follow them whenever you choose. You aren’t left making a choice between immediately interrupting whatever it is you’re doing at the moment or risking forgetting about the notification later on.
Like the iPad, the Xoom & Honeycomb allow you to have multiple screens full of icons (and widgets in the case of the Xoom.) When placing icons, the Xoom has a much more sophisticated system that shows you all 5 screens in an overview, and lets you place multiple icons at once to one or more screens, or you can drop individual icons to your screen of choice. If you drag & hold an icon/widget over a screen it zooms in to let you precisely place it if you wish, and then brings you back to the overview to place more icons/widgets.
As with widgets, the greater number of options may be a touch confusing at first, but the whole system works very well, and a few minutes of practice will make it second nature in no time.
In terms of scrolling, touch responsiveness, etc., the iPad had a slight advantage. It was more common to see (slight) hitches and pauses while scrolling on the Xoom, while the iPad was usually buttery smooth. On the other hand the greater operating memory of the Xoom made it quicker to switch between tasks, and less likely that you’d see the equivalent to the “page loading checkberboard pattern” that you’d see on the iPad if you too-hastily scrolled through web pages.
Overall, much as the physical beauty of the iPad makes a strong first impression, the greater flexibility and sophistication of Android’s approach makes a strong later impression as you dive into the capabilities of each device’s basic operations. I strongly prefer Honeycomb to iOS in terms of the options it provides.
Both devices zip along quite nicely. I had no complaints about either one, with no clear advantage one way or the other.
In initial reviews the Xoom was knocked for being glitchy & unstable at times, something that was not apparent in my experience so far. Perhaps a month’s worth of bug fixes has ironed the most egregious of those problems out, because I was quite comfortable with the Xoom’s reliability. It wasn’t perfect, and some apps (e.g. Dolphin HD, an alternative browser) force-closed quite a bit, however that was the exception rather than the rule.
In my past month of using the iPad I regularly have apps suddenly close on me, and have to restart them. I wouldn’t say it happens frequently, but it also happens enough that I don’t feel particularly surprised when it does.
Overall the iPad is more stable, but the Xoom must have made some significant strides in the last few weeks because it’s working quite well in my experience so far, and the difference is negligible.
From reading most reviews I expected the Xoom to have good-but-not-great battery life. The iPad has superb battery life, and I was surprised that my first couple of days of heavy use of the Xoom has shown its battery life to be just as good as the iPad’s, when left on the (IMHO too dim) auto brightness. Bumping up its brightness to better levels has made it’s battery life nudge a little closer to the 8 hours or so most reviewers seem to be saying, but either device is fantastic when it comes to long lasting runtimes. The iPad does still seem to have an edge to me, but in my experience so far it’s less than I expected after reading initial reviews.
Everyone knows the App Store has many more apps than the Android Market. However, as Android’s share of the OS pie grows by leaps and bounds that gap is closing. In the world of cell phones the significance of this gap is not nearly as great as it used to be. It is now routine for most major apps to show up on both eventually, and it’s much less common to have something only come out for one or the other, it’s just a question of which it comes out first for, and when the next version will follow.
Android tablets on the other hand have a more significant gap. The iPad’s one year advantage has lead to a much greater selection of tablet-optimized apps that dwarfs the handful out for the Xoom. Anyone buying the Xoom has to make a leap of faith that Android tablets will gain enough of a foothold that developers will begin to release apps for it with greater frequency.
However, I’m disappointed that many reviews of the Xoom, and comparisons of Android tablets to the iPad overlook one significant fact: Android apps developed for cell phones are much more likely to scale well to a tablet than iOS apps. The iPad can run apps written for iPods and iPhones, but the manner it does it is quite crude: you either see the app taking up a small centered area of the screen, or it is inflated to fill the screen, but usually that also means text and graphics look fuzzy and unattractive.
On the other hand many Android apps seem to scale much more intelligently than their iOS kin. Perhaps this is one advantage of the much more greatly “fragmented” Android ecosphere: even basic apps have to be much more “device-aware”, and adjust accordingly to a wider-array of screen resolutions and so on. The Xoom and other Android tablets are just another resolution added to the mix.
For example, Verizon has an app that lets you view FiOS TV schedules and control your DVR from your Android phone. I installed and ran it on my Xoom, and it scaled up beautifully and worked well. There’s one little part of the guide that doesn’t refresh properly when you scroll, but other than that the app seems to work quite nicely for me. Other than that one minor glitch the designed-for-cell-phone Verizon app works as well on the Xoom as the iPad-specific version does for it.
So, while the Apple app store has an undeniable advantage when it comes to sheer volume of tablet-optimized apps, it’s not quite as dire as most comparisons would make you think. You’re still making a leap of faith with the Xoom, but even if you don’t see lots of tablet-optimized apps, you still have a good shot at having many Android phone-targeted apps work quite well on the Xoom.
Taking a step back and looking at app quality, I’d say most iPad apps have an advantage. In a purely anecdotal and subjective perusal of a few news, music, and entertainment apps, the iPad apps generally felt more polished to me. That’s not to say the Xoom’s apps were slouches, it’s just that the iPad apps tended to have smoother user experiences overall. Once again, potential Xoom owners would have to take a leap of faith that Android app developers will grow in sophistication as they learn to take advantage of all that Honeycomb & Android tablets have to offer.
Showing the tablets to people at work confirmed the general consensus that people who are less tech-oriented, and want to use their tablet for a few clear, simple tasks such as web browsing, e-mail, etc. gravitated towards the iPad and said they’d prefer to get it instead of the Xoom.
My more technical friends who saw both appreciated the widgets, notification system, multi-tasking, and greater flexibility of Android as I did. All of them said they would be hard pressed to choose between the two, as am I.
I think the iPad is a gorgeous device that deserves many of the superlatives Apple uses to describe it. I’ve been *very* happy with mine so far, it really is lovely. On the other hand I’ve found the Xoom, in its current state, does not deserve much of the criticism it has received. It provides stiff competition for the iPad 2.
If you find my write up skewing towards the Xoom, it’s because I feel I need to counter lots of the prevailing “wisdom” regarding it. My experience so far has been quite positive with it as well. The iPad 2 is much more commonly written about, and in all but the most tablet-phobic or Android-centric fan sites seems to be assessed reasonably accurately.
I’ve spent the last month heavily using the iPad 2, and enjoying every minute of it. I’m going to concentrate on using the Xoom extensively for the next month and see how it fares. Of course right now I’m consistently reaching for the Xoom more, but I’ve only had it for a couple days so that’s natural. It will be interesting to see if I start chafing to get back to my iPad 2 after a couple weeks, or if it increasingly remains neglected in a corner while I continue happily using the Xoom more. I’ll keep you posted!