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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The Android OS's Settings app can be disorienting, and the white-on-black text makes it nearly impossible to view in bright daylight. For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. (Bluetooth is handled in the same awkward manner.) The iPad 2's iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on the Xoom's Android OS and iPad 2's iOS. For text entry, I find the iPad 2's on-screen keyboard to be easier to work with than the Xoom's, with clearer keys and better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application. Although I appreciate the intent behind the Xoom's use of Tab and other keys not found on the iPad 2, the result is that the keyboard is not full size in landscape orientation (the iPad 2's is) and thus difficult for touch-typing. I'm sure I'll eventually get used to it, but it remains an annoying UI decision.

Text selection and copying. The Xoom's Android OS falls short of the iPad 2's iOS in its text selection. If you're tapping away and realize you've made a mistake not caught by the autocorrect feature, such as when typing a URL, it can be difficult to move the cursor to that error's location in the text. If you tap too long, the screen is filled with the Edit Text contextual menu; it took me a while to figure out how to tap long enough to move the text-insertion cursor to a new location without opening that menu. It is true that Xoom is not as bad in this regard as the various Android smartphones I've tested.

On the iPad 2, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move precisely to where you want to go. You then add and delete text at that location. Plus, the controls for text selection appear, so you can use those if you'd like and not worry about a screen-filling menu getting in the way.

The winner: A tie -- although iPad fans may find the Android OS too loosey-goosey and its ever-present alerts annoying, Android fans may find the iPad a bit too rigid and disconnected from what's going on. To each his own; both work.

Deathmatch: Security and management

A long-standing strike against the Android OS is its poor security. The standard Android OS doesn't support on-device encryption, and it supports only the most basic of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies. By contrast, with the enhancements made in iOS 4, the iPad has become one of the most securable mobile devices available, second only to the RIM BlackBerry.

Motorola Mobility recognized that deficiency and has added on-device encryption. My only beef is that it takes an hour to encrypt the Xoom when you enable that capability (by contrast, the Motorola Atrix smartphone requires no time at all to enable encryption). Fortunately, it's a one-time activity. The Xoom doesn't go much further than standard Android in its support of EAS policies; if your business requires complicated passwords with timeouts and history restrictions, you'll face the same issues as with other Android smartphones.

Both the Xoom and the iPad 2 offer remote wipe, SSL message encryption, and timeout locks. If your Xoom is lost or stolen, you can lock or wipe it via your Google account or via Exchange. (Strangely, the Xoom doesn't come with the handy service Motorola Mobility provides its Atrix users to track a lost or stolen device and lock it or wipe its contents remotely.) Apple also supports remote lock and wipe; you even get the free Find My iPad service to track your iPad 2's location from a Web browser, iPhone, iPod Touch, or other iPad, and disable or wipe the device if you want.

The Xoom's Android OS can back up contact, calendar, and email data wirelessly to Gmail, as well as system settings and application data to Google's servers. The iPad too can back up such data to the cloud if you subscribe to Apple's $99-per-year MobileMe service. Syncing the iPad 2 to your computer's iTunes also backs up -- and encrypts, if you desire -- the data without requiring MobileMe. iTunes backs up everything: your media, your apps, their settings, their data, and most of your preferences. (iTunes can be configured for use in the enterprise, though most companies don't know that.)

The winner: The iPad 2, without question. The Xoom has brought in a key business security capability (encryption) but hasn't gone as far as needed by most businesses in its EAS support -- a surprise, given that the Motorola Mobility Atrix released around the same time has those capabilities.

Deathmatch: Hardware

Although the real value of a tablet comes from its OS and apps, you can't get to them without the hardware they run on. And hardware is the area where the iPad 2 has the most improvements over its predecessor. The iPad 2 sports a dual-core 1GHz A5 CPU chip, matching at the spec level the Xoom's dual-core Nvidia Tegra processor; both are based on the ARM chip architecture. The iPad 2 also adds front and rear cameras (supporting FaceTime videoconferencing and motion video capture), and it's capable of display mirroring through a $39 HDMI-out connector. It supports 3G tethering as well, another feature present in Xoom but lacking in the original iPad.

Performance. The iPad 2's new processor makes a noticeable difference in apps' load times and responsiveness, such as when panning in Google Earth or parsing documents in iWork Pages, compared to the iPad 1. The Xoom is no slouch, either, with similarly snappy responsiveness. I had significantly fewer Android apps with which to test the Xoom's speed, however, so I can't fully assess app performance across the two tablets.

The iPad 2 and Xoom performed similarly in their network usage, both on Wi-Fi and over 3G. The iPad 2 Wi-Fi + 3G models come in both AT&T and Verizon Wireless versions, whereas the Xoom uses Verizon Wireless only. The AT&T network is usually faster but less available, whereas the Verizon network is less speedy but more broadly available. I did find that the Xoom usually received emails and updated its calendar slightly after the iPad 2, even though both were connected to the same Wi-Fi network and pulling from the same IMAP, Google, and Exchange servers.

For battery performance, I found that the iPad 2 lasted nearly twice as long as the Xoom -- 9 or 10 hours versus the Xoom's 5 or 6 -- in regular use with Wi-Fi enabled. In light use, the Xoom stretched to 8 hours, while the iPad 2 ran 11 hours. That matches the iPad 1's battery performance.

Device hardware. The iPad 2's enclosure design featuring glass and aluminum is much classier than the Xoom's black blockiness. The iPad 2's aluminum, though, can feel dangerously slippery, whereas the textured plastic of the Xoom is more grippable. The thinner iPad 2 has shaved off two ounces to weigh in at 1.3 pounds, compared to the iPad 1's 1.5 pounds, making it that much lighter than the 1.5-pound Xoom. Two ounces doesn't sound like a lot, but it makes a difference: The iPad 2 is more comfortable to hold longer, especially with one hand, due to the lower weight and thinner enclosure.

Some reviews of prerelease iPad 2s said the thinner design can make it a bit harder to connect cables to the iPad 2's dock connector, whose surrounding bezel is now slightly angled, and that the angle would prevent it from working with some iPad 1 docks. But I didn't find it a problem; I had no trouble connecting a variety of cables to the dock or using the iPad 2 with a couple of docks I own. Still, it is possible some docks may have a fit issue. And I did have difficulty attaching cables to the dock port when the Smart Cover wrapped over to the back of the iPad 2 because it obscures the edge enough to make finding the port harder. The same is true with the Sleep/Wake switch at top.

The Xoom has no physical switch to turn off its ringer as the iPad 2 does (note that the switch on the iPad 2 is configurable to either turn off the ringer or to lock screen rotation). The Xoom's low-profile volume switches are hard to find, given they are black like the case, and don't give much tactile feedback when pressed. Neither device has an LED indicator to show whether it's powered on.

The Xoom's power button is on the back of the case -- not a great spot. It's easy to lose track of which side is up on the Xoom, so good luck finding the power button; of course, it's not visible while you're using the tablet. The iPad 2's power button (at top) is easier to locate, and the iPad 2 wakes itself automatically if its (optional) Smart Cover is opened -- nice.

The magnetic Smart Cover is indeed smartly designed. It snaps into place easily, folds out of the way easily, helps clean fingerprints on the screen, and remained snuggly attached in my backpack tests. The cover ($40 for polyurethane and $80 for leather) does not protect the iPad 2's aluminum back, which may concern some users fearful of scratches. No doubt there'll be plenty of cases and portfolios for such folks. But I was disappointed that the Smart Cover doesn't affix magnetically to the back of the iPad 2 when turned back; it only does so to the front. There are also a variety of cases, skins, and portfolios for the Xoom should you be concerned about damaging its screen or plastic case, but none have the imagination of Apple's Smart Cover.

The iPad 2's aluminum back -- which Apple's Smart Cover was designed to expose, not hide as other covers do -- is flatter than the first-gen iPad's, so the iPad 2 doesn't wobble as you type on it when it rests uncovered on a table or desk. The Xoom's back is also mainly flat, and wobbling is not an issue.

The Xoom offers more hardware features than the iPad 1 -- but not more than the iPad 2. Those who favored the Xoom over the iPad based on hardware specs will need a new reason.

The Xoom does have a MicroUSB port and a Mini HDMI port. The Mini HDMI port lets you connect to a monitor or TV to mirror the Xoom's display through an optional (about $10 online) cable. The iPad 2 uses a pricey ($39) dock-to-HDMI cable to do the same mirroring -- support for HDMI comes from iOS 4.3, which means you can also use the HDMI cable with a first-gen iPad, 2010-era iPod Touch, or iPhone 4. On the iPad 2, you can also mirror to a VGA monitor or projector using the optional $29 VGA connector that other iOS devices also support. But those other devices can't mirror via HDMI or VGA; they merely output video from apps that explicitly support video-out.

The utility of the Xoom's MicroUSB port is limited: It can't be used to charge the Xoom, as it can on most smartphones. The Xoom has a proprietary power connector. The only use for a MicroUSB port, at least today, is to connect a USB keyboard, assuming you have a MicroUSB-to-USB adapter. There is no MicroUSB port on the iPad 2, but the $35 Apple Camera Connection kit adds a USB connector and SD card dongle for use with digital cameras (not other USB devices). The iPad 2 also comes with a proprietary power adapter that serves as its sync cable as well, but tens of millions of iPods, iPhones, and first-gen iPads use it (so you can share cables and adapters), whereas only the Xoom seems to take its particular power connector.

The basic, 3G-capable $630 iPad 2 comes with 16GB of nonremovable flash storage, whereas the $800 Xoom comes with 32GB. (For $730, you can get a 32GB iPad 2 model, and for $830 a 64GB one). Even with the higher cost of an Apple HDMI cable, the Xoom remains $50 more expensive for an equivalently capable but less sophisticated device. The difference narrows to just $20 if you add the Camera Connection kit to the iPad 2's price. That's not a huge margin -- nor a justifiable one.

I found the iPad 2's screen easier to read -- both in sunlight and in office lighting -- than the Xoom's screen, which suffers from excessive reflectivity. I disliked the Xoom's widescreen (16:9) display, because Web pages and other content appear too squished in landscape mode. The iPad 2's old-fashioned 4:3 ratio is more comfortable for most apps; only when I'm watching HD movies do I wish the iPad 2 were widescreen.

Although the iPad 2 now offers a front-facing camera for videoconferencing and a rear one for taking pictures and capturing video, the quality of still photos and movies taken from the iPad 2 are not that good -- the camera seems to be the same, poorly regarded model used in the latest iPod Touch. The iPad 2's camera also lacks a flash and support for high-definition range, both of which the iPhone 4's camera does support but the iPod Touch's does not. Apple hasn't released the camera's megapixel (MP) rating, but my photo-editing software pinned it as a measly 0.7MP; by contrast, the iPhone 4's camera is 5MP. The iPad 2's camera does perform better for motion video, taking decent 720p, 0.9MP video -- fine for casual videos but no more.

The Xoom's camera quality is no better than the iPad 2's, despite its 5MP camera. In fact, it had a lower dynamic color range, resulting in flat, soft still images compared to the iPad 2's sharper and more vibrant shots. The Xoom does have a flash, a wider-angle lens, and adjustment controls lacking in the iPad 2 to help improve image quality through manual overrides. For motion video, the Xoom's 720p, 0.9MP video capture results in much better video quality than the iPad 2, especially in low-light conditions, where you get lots of pixelation. (The iPad 2's video quality is about the same as the iPhone 4's, despite the higher resolution of the iPhone 4's video file.)

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