Motorola Xoom 2 £390
7th Dec 2011 | 09:30
Can the new Xoom keep up with the pace of Android tablets?
Overview and design
Though the original Motorola Xoom stood out as the first big tablet push with backing from Google, it didn't turn out quite to be pinnacle of Android tablets.
It was soon surpassed by the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 as a straight-up iPad 2 competitor, while the Asus Eee Pad Slider and Asus Eee Pad Transformer showed that Android tablets could really excel when they did something different.
Still, there's no doubt the Xoom was a good device in its own right, so Motorola's been tweaking and trimming, and has now released the Xoom 2.
Though there have been some internal changes, it's the outside where the difference is most notable. Motorola seems determined to take the iPad 2 head-on here, because the Xoom 2 has the same thin profile as the iPad 2 (both measure just 8.8mm thick), and at 599g is actually lighter a whole 2g lighter than Apple's tablet.
Inside, the 1GHz dual-core processor of the original has been bumped up to 1.2GHz, all the better to smoothly run Android 3.2. Sadly, there's no Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich here at launch, which inevitably means any Xoom 2 owners will always be looking over the horizon at the rosy unified future.
The screen is the same size and resolution as the original Xoom: 1280 x 800 pixels in a 10.1-inch display. It's an IPS panel, and so offers excellent viewing angles, which is what we expect from a good tablet.
There's 1GB of RAM on offer, to ensure that multitasking runs as smoothly as possible, and there's 16GB of on-board storage.
Surprisingly, this can't be increased with a microSD card, despite there being a flap on the side of the Xoom 2 that you would think would cover a microSD card slot. Instead, it covers… some plastic.
Motorola seems to think that its included MotoCast software will cover the need for more media storage, enabling you to access the media on your computer from your device, anywhere. Well, nearly anywhere – there's no 3G in the Xoom 2, though there is a GPS chip.
There's a rear-facing camera on the Xoom 2 that can take five-megapixel snaps and record video at 720p, while the front-facing camera has a 1.3-megapixel sensor.
Despite the thickness and weight similarities between the Xoom 2 and the iPad 2, they end up feeling quite different in the hand because of their different shapes. The Xoom 2 has a 16:10 widescreen display, while the iPad is 4:3.
This means that, in portrait, the Xoom 2 actually feels slightly more comfortable to hold in one hand, because it isn't as wide. Conversely, the iPad 2 is slightly more comfortable in landscape, because the Xoom 2 stretches further.
Like the iPad 2, the Xoom 2 has edges that curve and taper back from the screen, hiding the buttons when viewed straight on. Held in landscape, with the camera at the top, on the right-hand side you've got a Sleep/Wake button and volume controls, and on top is the 3.5mm headphone jack.
On the bottom is a micro-USB port and micro-HDMI port, along with the mystery flap that goes nowhere.
The back of the Xoom 2 features matte plastic around the edge, with a shinier, more metallic plastic in the middle. The matte plastic is superbly grippy, and really helps you keep a firm hold on the slender frame, while the metallic look lend a bit of class to proceedings. It's a great balance of looks and ergonomics.
The only problem is that build quality is a little disappointing. We're not saying it feels like the Xoom 2 is going to fall apart or anything, but there's give in the middle of the back in particular that really grated on us. You can feel it shifting whenever pressure is applied, including most times you pick it up.
It's not something that affects operation, and you may not notice it as much depending on how you hold it (it's far less noticeable in landscape), but it feels unpleasant beneath your fingers.
The screen is also suspect, not for it's quality, but for being a dirt and grease magnet – even more so than most tablets. It very quickly starts to feel different, and nasty, under your fingers, and it doesn't have any kind of easy-clean oleophobic coating, so you'll want to make sure it gets a proper polish regularly.
Despite those criticisms, the Xoom 2 is a fairly handsome and mostly well-made tablet. Though it clearly took a few design cues from the iPad, the different shape and materials give it a look that's different to Apple's tablet, and most of the other Android tablets out there.
But we did find the design somewhat familiar, as will many Nokia fans. With the curving, cut corners and big widescreen, we have to say the Nokia N8came strongly to mind.
The Xoom 2 looks set to go on sale for just less than £400, with Clove selling it for £390.
Though some Android manufacturers have tweaked the tablet formula with success – notably Asus' Eee Pad Sliderand Eee Pad Transformer – Motorola is sticking with the classics when it comes to the Xoom 2.
This is just a slim, light slate when it comes to hardware, without even a microSD port, so it's down to the software to make it stand out.
Well, almost. There is one unusual hardware feature worth mentioning – Motorola says the tablet has a "splash-guard coating" both outside the Xoom 2 and inside, on the circuit boards. It's designed to offer a bit of protection against accidental spills and getting surprised by rain when you're using the Xoom outside.
We're not talking about any serious waterproofing here, but it's clear that Motorola sees the Xoom 2 as a kind of roaming companion device, and giving it an extra layer of protection will no doubt help people to feel more comfortable using somewhere like the kitchen.
The two big software additions to Android 3.2 reinforce this idea of a handy portable screen: the Floating Notes app and MotoCast.
The Floating Notes app sits permanently in the bottom bar, where notifications come up. You can tap it at any time to bring up the options to create a new Floating Note, view your notes in a window where you can sort them by date create, title, and so on, or you can open the built-in Evernote app.
The Floating Notes app itself is a fairly simple drawing and typing app – you can scrawl things down in the main part, adjust the brush size and colour, add some typed text at the top, and even send a note to the Tasks app so you can action something on it later. You can also share notes by Bluetooth, email, Dropbox and, probably most usefully, Evernote syncing.
There's a couple of Floating notes widgets to make it easy to get straight into a note, while a notes carousel lets you browse through your notes as a widget, much like the Android Honeycomb YouTube app.
MotoCast is the other big software feature for the Xoom 2. It's a media streaming app, essentially, but a custom one designed to make the process as easy as possible.
You install the MotoCast software on your computer, decide which folders to allow it to see, and then open the app on your Xoom to connect to those folders and stream music, videos and movies.
The reason for having a dedicated server app, and not just using DLNA streaming over a local network, is that it provides a simple way to get remote access to your media wherever you are – in another room in the house, or hundreds of miles away.
Moto is so convinced that this is the way forward, as it explained to us, that it's part of the reason why there's no SD card slot, and only 16GB of storage.
We'l give our verdict on MotoCast on the next page, but it's definitely a big part of Motorola's plans for the mobile market.
One of the Xoom 2's other party tricks, and yet more evidence of Motorola's designs on the living room, is the built-in infrared receiver and bundled Dijit app. Essentially, the Xoom 2 can become a universal remote control for your TV setup. We had no problems getting it to work with our kit just by searching the database for the right models, though it has to be said that the on-screen remotes are a little light on features compared to the real thing.
Don't assume that it's all play and no work when it comes to the Xoom 2, though. There's a Citrix app included, for you enterprisey types, and Quickoffice HD is also bundled, with cloud integration for Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, SugarSync and more.
The Motorola Xoom 2's most noticeable upgrade might be in the chassis, but it's also had an upgrade to a 1.2GHz CPU, along with Android 3.2.
This has produced a tablet that's quite snappy overall, though it does still suffer from the odd moment where swipes take a moment to register. The only real disappointment when it comes to performance in the operating system is switching orientation.
It almost always takes a couple of seconds to switch, no matter if you're just on the Home screen or if you're in a resource-intensive app. It doesn't spoil the tablet or anything, but it's an annoyance that most its competitors don't have (save for the HP TouchPad, which was much, much worse).
We found the keyboard on the Xoom 2 to be one of its weaker points, with lots of taps going astray. It just doesn't sit as comfortably under the fingers as the iPad 2's or the HP TouchPad's (and obviously the physical keyboard option for the Asus Eee Pad Slider and Transformer are better), possibly due to the difference in screen shape.
The screen itself is nice and clear, with natural colours that look great for video. The 1280 x 800 resolution means that text is nice and clear, too. The brightness is our only small concern – it just isn't that bright, and the auto-brightness doesn't help by being really quite aggressive.
We had to keep the brightness up at maximum pretty much always, even just in regular household lighting (as opposed to harsh tungsten office lights, for example). Certainly, the screen is bright enough for almost any use, but there's really no margin for boosting it further in really bright artificial light, or sunlight.
Alas, there's another small problem with the screen: the backlight. There are a few spots where it bleeds through quite noticeably, particularly when on a screen with a dark background, including the Settings screen. You won't notice it all the time, but it's disappointing.
Despite that, we do think the screen on the Xoom 2 is pretty good overall, and it needs to be, because there's no doubt this is a media-focussed tablet. Instead of dragging and dropping media to it when plugged in over USB, you use MotoCast USB to bring over things like iTunes playlists, or select media from folders.
Like Windows Phone Connector, it'll automatically convert videos if they're in a format the Xoom 2 can't play natively (though Motorola's software is better than Microsoft's, because it doesn't insist on also converting the stuff that was fine to begin with).
The MotoCast USB software was a bit hit-and-miss, though; it crashed on us a lot, making it impossible to get anything on the device. But when it worked, it worked fine.
Everything's easy to access on the device, with music in the Music app and photos and videos in the Gallery app. The Music is a bit slow in landscape when you've got a decent collection, but is faster to flick through in portrait.
1080p video plays back smoothly, except not over the HDMI port – everything mirrors smoothly when you connect to an HDTV, except for all video that plays back in the main Android player. You just get the controls with a black screen behind them. Not ideal.
The wireless MotoCast app works quite well on a local network, except for one significant flaw. Though it connects seamlessly to the folders you set it up with, it often misreported the contents of video folders for us. It listed everything fine, but when we tapped on what we wanted, it sometimes opened something else. It was like a shuffle function for our videos that we couldn't turn off. Superb.
Actually streaming something is the part that works. We had occasional stutters, but it was mostly fine. Go outside your local network and you'll encounter more struggles, though.
Because it's not actually coming from the cloud, but from your PC, you'll need a really good upload speed to get anything out of it. More than that, though, your computer must be up and running for it to work. If it goes on standby, you'll find that you'll get an 'offline' message when you try to access it.
MotoCast is a nice idea, and could be a great addition to make Motorola's tablet stand out, but it needs more work.
The loudspeakers on the Xoom 2 can go loud enough for most situations, but they make the whole back of the tablet vibrate when they're loud, and the sound gets much more distorted at high volumes than it does on, say, the iPad.
The browser on the Xoom 2 proved to be fairly snappy, though Opera Mobile is also included, should you want to go that route. Adobe Flash is preinstalled, so consider that box ticked.
As we said, the browser is fairly fast, with pages loading quickly for the most part, but loading Flash content does hold many pages back compared those without Flash.
And the old spectre of Flash causing the responsiveness of the browser to slow is also present, but even with a video on the page, zooming and panning is pretty good. And you can pinch to zoom and pan around the page at the same time! (It's something a surprising number of Android devices lack the ability to do.)
In real life, we're not looking at the fastest tablet browser around in the Xoom 2, but it's fast enough that it won't make much difference day to day.
For battery life, the Xoom 2 made a good account of itself, though it was slightly up and down. Whereas some Android tablets have problems keeping power use to a minimum on standby, the Xoom 2 was very good, and we're sure it'd be able to last you for days on end (rather than misplacing a fifth of its battery overnight, as some do).
That said, it's surprising just how much power certain aspects of the Xoom 2 use. At one point, we managed to use 20% of the battery during about an hour of internet testing.
Granted, we were loading sites over and over, and testing Flash performance a lot, but it seemed a little much. We did have the screen's brightness turned all the way up, but it has to be in a well-lit room, or it's a little hard to see what you're doing.
But, there have been plenty of other times we've been using the Xoom 2 more sporadically, and the battery use hasn't gone down far at all.
Ultimately, the iPad 2 is still the tablet battery life king, but the Xoom 2 does quite well for itself. Just mind the Flash content.
The built-in GPS chip worked quite well for us, narrowing us down quickly. With no 3G to stream maps, it's a slightly odd addition, but we can't knock it for functionality.
The camera on the Xoom 2 is decent enough, capturing accurate colours and crisp lines, and letting in a good amount of light even in low light. The detail can be a little soft, but overall they're good snaps.
Similarly, the 720p HD video is passable, if not spectacular. It's not up to par with better dedicated cameras, or the best phones, but you can make out what's happening easily, though fast motion can become quite blurred.
The Motorola Xoom 2 is an interesting change from the original Motorola Xoom.
Being thinner and lighter - more like an iPad 2 - but with extra processing power and some media-focussed features are all good things, but cutting back on things like a microSD card slot makes it feel like two steps forward and one step back.
The Xoom 2 has a nice design, and we definitely like how thin and light it is. And though the screen isn't quite as bright as we'd like, it's got vibrant colours and excellent viewing angles.
Performance is good on the Xoom 2, for the most part, and Android 3.2 works fairly smoothly. We were also quite happy with the battery life, even if it possible to eat up quicker than you'd think with some intensive web browsing.
Some of the media features are great ideas – the Dijit app may have some basic controls, but it's easy as you like to set up, and worked perfectly for us, and MotoCast could grow to be a very useful service. We really like the splashproofing, too.
The way the Xoom 2 rattles when the loudspeaker is high and the bit of give in the back are both unfortunate, as is the fact that screen is a horrendous fingerprint/grease magnet.
They all conspire to make the unit feel slightly less well-made than it actually is, on balance.
The keyboard is a weak spot, and the slow response to changing the orientation serves to make the operating system feel as though it needs a little more polish on this device.
And we said, the MotoCast could grow to be a useful service, but at the moment it's fundamentally flawed. It requires your computer to be on all the time, your internet connection to have vast upload speeds if you're using it remotely, and it frequently opened the wrong video when we tried to select something.
And the lack of microSD card is perplexing given the flakiness of the MotoCast service, and the lack of any larger storage option. Yes, 16GB will be enough for many people, but those who need simply won't be able to buy the Xoom 2.
The price is a sticking point, too. It's close enough to the iPad 2 as makes no odds, and it doesn't come off well in that comparison, let alone against other Android tablets that are cheaper. You can get the Asus Eee Pad Transformerfor a good chunk less. In fact, for only £100 more, you'll be able to get the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime, with double the storage, a keyboard dock, a quad-core processor and it's actually thinner and lighter than the Xoom 2.
Taken in isolation, the Xoom 2 isn't a bad tablet by any means. It's thin and light, it runs fairly smoothly and has decent battery life. But it's really hampered by the lack of storage options, and that inflexibility is its downfall when you consider the price.
It doesn't quite match the best Android tablets or the iPad for quality, and many good Android tablets have it beaten for price. The Xoom 2 is an improvement over the original Xoom, but not over the competition.