Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Motorola Xoom Wifi (MZ604), Month One

I decided to wait a month before bothering to write anything about my Xoom.  I'm certainly not a professional blogger and there's certainly no worry about me scooping anything that others have written.  I picked up my Xoom Wifi on opening day last month.  All I can offer is the perspective of a long time power user who makes his living in the broadband internet industry, generally elbow deep in the systems engineering side of the house.  Although I'm very comfortable running on the bleeding edge with my operating systems (these days I run openSUSE Factory edition on my workstation), I chose not to root my Xoom right away.  No particular reason, other than giving Motorola a bit of patience while they work things out.  I'm also waiting for them to release the factory default images for the Xoom Wifi so that I can "unroot" should I so desire.  They already officially release the factory image for the Xoom 3g, just not the Wifi yet.

After a month of use, here's some of my impressions.


The UI.

Fast.  Obviously the user interface is everyone's first impression and the Xoom doesn't disappoint. Zippy and slick.  The stock wallpapers are very sexy and the live wallpaper Holo Spiral works well without lagging at all.  Some of the more intense live wallpapers (Solar Winds, Flux, Galaxy) definitely cause some lag, but not enough to affect usability much at all.  Mostly I'm limited by my own impatience there.  Less ooey-gui, more lickety split if you please.

Like others have also mentioned, the widget/shortcut/wallpaper picker carousel is goddawful.

The boot screen?  Yeah, meh.

Other than those few shortcomings, I like the UI quite a bit.  There's so much screen real estate it's ridiculous.  Having the five separate panes you can flip through to organize your widgets and shortcuts borders on overkill.  Needless to say, I've still loaded up all 5.

The weight.

Heft is what I expected.  I have no trouble holding it in either orientation, though if I had smaller hands, I might find this more difficult.  The stock Android keyboard is highly usable for me in portrait mode.  When you rotate your Xoom to landscape, the keyboard dutifully turns itself sideways and spans the entire screen becoming an unusable monstrosity.  Laying in bed, I can sort of use it by hanging my fingers on TOP of the Xoom and stretching my thumbs downward.  Even with my good digital range, the landscape keyboard is not possible to use with your thumbs while holding the unit from the bottom.  Too much thumb travel is required and you're definitely going to drop the thing while reaching for the number 6 or other distant key.

I don't find the Xoom heavy enough to be unweildy at all though.  If anything, I like the weight very much.  I can hold the unit and read very comfortably and it has just enough weight to make it easy to remain very steady without focusing on keeping still.

Heft and battery life pretty much go hand-in-hand, however.  The battery life is *excellent*.  No reservations about saying that at all.  Surpasses my wildest expectations.  On a full charge in the morning, I take my Xoom in the car with me, select a (large) video episode from TWiT, play the video all the way to work (70-75 minute commute), leave it connected to the office wifi all day (I set it not to disconnect the wifi ever), use it sparsely throughout the day, then another TWiT video on the way home.  At this point, I've only made a dent in the battery life.  I can then use it heavily throughout the evening, still continuously connected to wifi, and then I *might* have to plug it in so that I can do some regular epub reading after the TV goes off around 10.

The Wifi.

The wifi works very well and I had no trouble at all getting it working with my run-of-the-mill, low rent Belkin using wpa2 encryption.  And, even though it probably caused a youtube kitten somewhere on the internet to die, just to see if it could be done, I successfully tricked the Xoom into connecting to the internet by tethering my laptop to my blackberry, then running to tether my Xoom to my laptop.  (Android itself has an imposed limitation regarding ad-hoc networks, so it's not as simple as just turning my laptop into a wifi access point. is a free application that allows you to share your wireless without it being an ad-hoc thereby circumventing this imposition.)

The screen.

The highly reflective display is definitely an annoyance and is a bit of a chink in the Xoom armor.  But I find it easy to hold at an angle where it's not obtrusive and, in general, when you're using apps with primarily white backgrounds and you give the brightness a bump, it's hard to notice.  One of the features that tipped me in favor of the Xoom was the gorilla glass and I was expecting some reflection issues.  Laying in bed and using it, the reflection is completely unnoticeable to me.

And the Xoom was absolutely *made* for reading comics.  And I don't mean that comics look just "ok" on it.  I mean that I wonder if the Xoom engineers at Motorola are avid comic fans and decided to run with the prototype that gave them the best Frank Miller experience.  If you're a comic fan at all, you would drool over this thing.

I almost bought the Nook Color, but decided that a large, high resolution screen was worth the extra waiting and money.  The Xoom is that screen.  Even now, at the one month mark, I'm still happy that I waited for it.

The apps.

Gmail, Reader, Calendar, the whole suite looks and acts beautifully.  All of the stock apps included perform very well.

Expectedly, there are a lot of apps that behave in unfriendly and peculiar ways in Honeycomb.  Developers have had the luxury to not be all that concerned about heavy variations in screen resolutions from phone to phone.  I've run into a couple of apps which, when suddenly loosed upon a vast landscape of 1280x800, have absolutely no idea what to do.  One of them had a vertical tab bar of its own and, instead of sizing each tab to some ridiculously huge width, instead went the opposite direction and squished each tab into an unreadable little sliver, barely revealing a letter or two of the tab title.  Still others look fine, but you can tell the developer left aligned some visual elements and right aligned others, but didn't actually expect those elements to be several inches apart.  Generally speaking, all of the apps I've tried that work at all on Honeycomb, work just fine, even with the visual nits here and there.

And when I say "of all the apps I've tried that work on Honeycomb," I mean just that.  If they work.  This is probably the biggest chink in the Xoom/Honeycomb armor.  A lot of developers just aren't ready for Honeycomb.  More importantly and more accurately, however, Honeycomb isn't that ready for developers.  As there have been endless debates and discussion about Honeycomb and how open source it is or isn't, I won't go down that rabbit hole myself.  Suffice it to say, you're going to find a bit of hardship in playing with apps.  Just do your part and file the most useful bug reports you can.  Bonus points for detailing exactly how you can reproduce a crash every time step by step. 

On the plus side, I can say that every app I've tried with over 500,000 downloads has worked fine.  With two exceptions.  The exceptions are the *very* conspicuously absent two social heavyweights, Facebook and Twitter.  They are not installed by default on the stock Xoom.  When I installed them, I understood why.  The Facebook app is an absolute joke.  It doesn't even show up under your Android account settings at all, let alone giving you the option to do something like sync your facebook contacts like it does in Android 2.x releases.  And after the last update about a week ago, they made it far, far worse.  Doing almost everything outside of simply viewing your stream causes the app to crash and require an FC (Force Close).  The Twitter app, while not as unstable, is just a software engineering embarrassment.  It is beyond me how a team of developers employed by Twitter could honestly test this app, call it good, and release it for general consumption.  If my team released an abortion of this caliber to the world, I'd make sure the About page credited Alan Smithee and my name were in no way associated with it.  Having a bunch of programmers phoning in their code so they can knock off early also makes it difficult to discern whether a problem is a Twitter client issue or a Honeycomb issue.  I've been using Tweetdeck with moderate success.  It has one glaring bug.  When you're swiping through your stream and you get that little dead spot indicator that means if you click it, there's earlier tweets it can load, don't click it.  It doesn't crash sometimes, half the time, or even just often.  It crashes 100% of the time.  Meh.  It's nothing to write home about, but it's free and looks nice enough.

(On a separate rant, the people who refer to an app crashing saying "it force closed" really annoy me.  It's like getting into a car accident and saying, "yeah, I got airbagged the other day."  No.  The air bagged deployed as a result of you playing chicken with your neighbor's garage.  The app already crashed, Android is just helping you deal with the aftermath as gracefully as possible.)

So, in the month I've had the Xoom, I've tinkered with easily 300-400 apps.  I've tried all kinds of browsers, widgets, wallpapers, tools, and toys.  After I started getting a feel for what was going to work with Honeycomn and what wasn't, I started having a great success rate in the apps I tried.

Apps are a key reason I held out for an Android tablet.  As any iPad owner knows, in the Apple world, there's someone with their fist out demanding money from you at EVERY turn.  All I can picture in my mind is Ray Liotta, over, and over, and over...  "Fuck you.  Pay me."

Of the hundreds of Android apps I've tried, I have approximately 70-80 non-stock apps on my Xoom that I intend to keep there.  My total cash outlay so far?  $6.73.  Because they're awesome, I've bought Unified Remote, Thumb Keyboard, and the XDA forum app.  Free from the Amazon app store app-of-the-day, I got Trillian.  The fact is, there are far, far more free, yet high quality apps for Android.  Occasionally, you have to put up with an AdMob banner.  BFD.  Every iPad owner I've ever heard has handfuls of apps they bought and wish they hadn't.  Even if it's only 15 minutes, at least you can return an app hassle-free from the Android market.  On the Apple app store?  "Fuck you.  pay me."

Not only that, I actually have a CHOICE which app store I use.  Not that I'm all that worried about Google going Orwellian on the market like Apple does to their app store, but I can actually choose to use Amazon's app market and bypass the Android market entirely.  I can even (*gasp*) install an apk package without using a market at all!  Without rooting my device!  I'm sure Jobs could find a clever way of explaining how that wasn't good for me.

I'd also probably be remis if I didn't at least mention games.  I didn't buy my Xoom for games.  I bought it to be a tool first, a media consumption device second.  However, in a moment of weakness, I downloaded Angry Birds Rio.  An hour later, I still hadn't put it down.  I couldn't help it.  It's absolutely gorgeous on the Xoom.

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