Tablet deathmatch: Apple iPad 2 vs. Motorola Xoom

The Xoom gave the original iPad a strong challenge, but does the iPad 2 knock it back down?

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However, only a few tablet-specific Android apps take advantage of the Xoom's larger screen; the new USA Today tablet app does. (Two weeks ago, in my original comparison, the smartphone version of USA Today wouldn't load on the Xoom, though it did install.) More typically, "tablet" apps remain stretched renditions of the smartphone version. Amazon.com's Kindle app, for example, displays one too-wide-to-read page when in landscape orientation, rather than two facing pages as on the iPad 2. The Xoom doesn't display such legacy apps in a smartphone-sized window, as the iPad 2 does, to clue you in. Additionally, I haven't found Android apps that auto-adjust their display and capabilities depending on whether they're running on a smartphone or tablet -- a feature that has quickly become very common in the iOS world.

The Xoom and other Android tablets will need a better stable of apps to foster the addiction that iPad users exhibit with their tablets. The growing selection does show some of the promise of the tablet form factor, but none is exceptional.

App stores and app installation. There are tens of thousands of apps for the iPad 2's iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. Android doesn't have anywhere near the same library of apps as iOS, but its smartphone-oriented apps portfolio is now in the thousands and growing, with many relevant apps such as Quickoffice, for which the Xoom includes a basic version with limited creation and editing capabilities. I often find that iOS apps are more capable than their Android equivalents (such as the Kindle app) -- but not always (Angry Birds, for example).

Both the Apple App Store and Google Android Market separate iPad apps from smartphone apps, simplifying the search for appropriate titles. The Apple store also indicates which apps auto-adjust for the iPhone and iPad, so you know they can be run on both devices and appear native on each.

Unlike Apple's App Store, the Android Market is not curated; developers will have an easier time getting their apps listed, but the market also lets cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking programs or other apps and steal user information. Apple's App Store seems to be less at risk to such Trojans. The Android Market is also slower to load than the App Store and not as easy to navigate within the app details.

You don't have to use the Android Market to get apps onto the Xoom. If you want to get down and dirty, you can configure the Android OS's application settings to install software from other sources.

Installation of apps is similar on both platforms: After selecting an app, you confirm your store account information and wait for the app to download and install. Both mobile operating systems let you know if you have updates available. On the iPad 2, the App Store indicates the number of available updates. On the Xoom, available updates are displayed in the notifications pop-up at the bottom left of the screen.

The Xoom uses the Android Market to remember your paid apps (but not your free ones) and a separate sync utility for handling media files transferred from your PC, but in this regard it's no match for the iPad 2. Thanks to the iPad's reliance on iTunes as its command center for managing media, apps, and documents, the iPad makes it much easier to manage your device's content. If you get a new phone, it's a snap on iTunes to get the new one up and running with the same assets as before. There's no such easy way to transfer the assets to a Xoom from a previous device.

App management. The iPad 2 has a simpler app management process than the Xoom. For example, it's easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPad and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders. Just tap and hold any app to invoke the "shaking apps" status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or tap the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.

Like the Android smartphones, the Xoom lets you drag apps to any of its home screens, which appear in preview mode below the apps matrix. (Unlike with Android smartphones, you cannot long-tap an app to move it to the current home screen.) The full list of programs is available in the apps page, which you access by tapping the Apps button at the upper right of any home screen. But the Xoom has no groups capability for presenting apps, and you can't rearrange the roster in the apps page -- just in the home screens.

The Xoom supports the Android OS's widgets feature. Widgets are mini apps that you can place on the home screens and can be very helpful, showing the latest email message or Facebook update or the current time in a large clock. Thus, you can see at a glance the current status of whatever you want to easily track -- one of Android's superior UI capabilities. The iPad 2 has no equivalent capability. The Xoom, like other Android devices, also has pop-up notifications that make it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts, whatever you happen to be doing. Alerts appear in the lower right of your screen -- not at the top as in Android smartphones. Again, the iPad 2 has no equivalent.

Multitasking. The iPad 2's iOS 4.3 supports multitasking if enabled in the apps themselves; Apple has made specific background services available for multitasking, rather than let each app run full-on in parallel, as on a PC. As you switch iOS apps, they suspend, except for their multitasking-enabled services, which conserves memory and aids performance. By contrast, Android supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties. From a usage point of view, these differences aren't apparent; on both devices, apps appear to multitask the same.

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps. On the iPad 2, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of active apps, and it's easy to see what's running and switch among them. On the Xoom, a persistent menu icon provides access to all running apps at any time, and it even shows a preview window of what the apps are currently doing (like Mac OS X and Windows 7 do in their taskbars).

The winner: The iPad 2, mainly because there are so few tablet apps available for the Xoom. But the widgets and notifications capabilities of the Xoom's Android OS are very handy, and you feel their omission on an iPad 2 after you've used an Android device for a while. Plus, the Xoom's ability to show all running apps and what they're doing is a really nice feature the iPad 2 can't match.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet

Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that the iPad 2 and Xoom both offer capable Web browsers. Although neither is as HTML5-savvy as their desktop versions, the iPad 2 has nearly closed the gap with Mac OS X. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, the iPad 2's mobile Safari scored 206 versus 208 for desktop Safari (Version 5.03), versus the iPad 1's score of 196. (If you upgrade the iPad 1 to iOS 4.3, its score also rises to 206.) The Xoom's mobile Chrome racked up 195 out of 300 (better than Android smartphones' 176) points, versus 242 for desktop Chrome (Version 9.05). Tests by mobile IDE developer Sencha suggest that the Xoom browser is inferior even in HTML4 display compared to the iPad's; I didn't notice a qualitative difference other than greater font support on the iPad 2 in my admittedly subjective browsing.

A key promise Apple made for the iPad 2 was much faster browsing, thanks to improvements in iOS 4.3, the Safari browser, and the iPad 2's faster processor. The iPad 2 delivers, running 1.5 times (53 percent) faster than an iOS 4.3-equipped iPad 1 and 1.8 times (80 percent) as quick as an iOS 4.2-equipped iPad 1, based on the Futuremark Peacekeeper benchmarks. The scores were 776 for the iPad 2, 508 for the iOS 4.3 iPad 1, and 430 for the iOS 4.2 iPad 1. By contrast, the Xoom scored 897, desktop Safari on my 2011-edition MacBook Pro scored 2,812, while the Firefox browser in Motorola Atrix scored just 360 in Lapdock and Multimedia Dock use. Peacekeeper stresses media and JavaScript processing, so the indicated speed differences aren't apparent in more text-and-graphics-heavy sites.

I also found in subjective usage that the iPad 2's browser felt much snappier than that of both the first-gen iPad and the Xoom. In the case of the Xoom, even though the Peacekeeper benchmarks show it to be 16 percent faster than the iPad 2, the iPad 2 felt faster. I suspect that is due to the iPad 2's faster page downloads, which on most sites compensate for the Xoom's faster page rendering.

Otherwise, the main differences between the iPad and Xoom browsers are cosmetic. Both browsers have persistent buttons or fields for Back, Forward, Bookmarks, Refresh, and navigating tabbed panes. The Xoom's browser shows a row of tabs at the top for each open browser window, whereas the iPad 2 displays a button showing how many windows are open -- tapping it opens a screen that previews all open windows. The Xoom automatically opens a Google search page when you bring up a new tab, wasting time and bytes (which matters if you're on a 3G data plan). The iPad 2 opens a blank window instead.

Both browsers can share pages via email, but the operation is faster on the iPad 2, which also lets you print the page to a wireless printer, either to an AirPrint-compatible printer or to a local wireless printer connected via one of the many printing apps available for the iPad. But the iPad 2's separate Search and URL boxes are less convenient than the Xoom's unified URL and Search box; you have to be sure to tap the right box on the iPad. The Xoom also has a separate search control, if you prefer.

Unlike Android smartphones, the Xoom's touch keyboard offers a .com button -- like the iPad and iPhone -- when entering URLs, which is a significant timesaver.

Both browsers let you select text and graphics on Web pages, but only the iPad 2 lets you copy graphics. The Xoom can save graphics to the tablet's local storage. The iPad 2 can save images to its Photos app.

Both browsers offer settings to control pop-up windows, search engines, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging. Where the Xoom falls short is in its browser identifier. It uses the same ID string as the Android smartphone browser, so you can't see the full-sized sites such as InfoWorld.com that redirect smartphone users to a mobile-oriented site. (To best see InfoWorld on an Android device or any smartphone, go to our enhanced mobile site, iphone.infoworld.com.) The iPad 2 has a unique browser ID, so most sites treat it like a desktop, which is appropriate for its 9.7-inch screen.

Using the cloud-based Google Docs on either device is not a pleasant experience. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can edit a text document -- awkwardly. Partly, that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the Safari and Chrome browsers are simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through a mobile-friendly front end. It's also because the mobile Safari and Chrome browsers don't support all the same capabilities as their desktop counterparts. But things are improving on the Google Docs front. For example, you can create, edit, and navigate appointments in Google Calendar in all four of its views (day, week, month, and agenda) pretty much as you can on a desktop browser.

The winner: A tie, despite the iPad 2's slight advantage in being able to copy Web images and print Web pages.

Deathmatch: Location support

Both the iPad 2 and the Xoom support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. As noted earlier, the Xoom's beta Navigation app is better than the iPad 2's Maps app when it comes to directions while driving.

Although both the iPad 2 and the Xoom ask for permission to work with your location information, the Xoom does not provide controllable settings for location use by the device or individual applications, as the iPad 2 does.

The winner: The Xoom, for its better navigation app.

Deathmatch: User interface

It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, though it's not always true, as evidenced by the MobileMe service. But the iPad 2's iOS 4 is in fact a better-designed UI in many respects, allowing easier and faster access to the device's capabilities and information. Where the Xoom's Android 3.0 OS outshines the iPad 2 in terms of UI is through its widgets and notification capabilities, as previously mentioned.

Android users will find the Xoom's UI both familiar and strange. Gone are two standard buttons at the bottom of all Android smartphones: Search and Menu. These buttons now appear at the discretion of each application in the upper right of the screen. The standard Home and Back buttons remain at the bottom of the Xoom screen, though they use entirely different -- and ugly -- icons. These two on-screen buttons and the notification widget take up the entire bottom of the screen, shrinking the available viewing area. (On Android smartphones, these buttons are in the device rather than on-screen, and the notification widgets appear only on the home screens.) This loss of screen especially matters on the Xoom in landscape orientation, where the widescreen layout already shortens its display area uncomfortably compared to the iPad 2.

Operational UI. The Xoom doesn't suffer the excessive reliance on the Menu button as Android smartphones do. The Xoom instead uses its larger display area to make relevant controls easily accessible on-screen, as the iPad and iPhone always have.

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