Thoughts on the Xoom and Playbook

About a month or so I bit the bullet and bought my first tablet, the Motorola Xoom. I was going to review it right away but decided to hold off until I got the Blackberry Playbook. Now that I’ve got them both, I thought I’d share my thoughts with my readers. For those of you who have either of these devices, please chime in and let me know your thoughts as well. This will be a very random, stream of consciousness type review, so pardon the erratic nature of this blog post. (Then again, if you’ve read any of my reviews, you’re probably used to it. ;) The Xoom

I fell in love with the Xoom at Best Buy. I picked it up - played with it - and immediately decided to purchase it. A month or so later I don’t regret this decision at all despite some odd design decisions. As an Android device, it’s pretty easy to use. The same swipe to switch screens technique you use on your phone works here as well. Oddly the “unlock” routine (drag your finger around a circle) seems to be a source of initial confusion for folks. Probably the most difficult thing to do with the Xoom is turn it on. It took me about half a minute to figure it out (it’s kind of a small circle shaped button on the back) and when I “tested” my friends I saw similar results. Then again - I intentionally didn’t bother reading any instructions but I do think they could have designed that better. On the Playbook it’s in an easier to reach place (on top) and is marked more obviously.

The default theme is a high tech Tron-inspired theme. I didn’t care for it myself so I replaced the background, moved some widgets around, and basically personalized it. I really like the fact that I can do that and it’s one of the reasons why I think I wouldn’t care for the iPad as much. (But of course, if someone is willing to send me a unit to review I’ll gladly do so. ;)

Performance is excellent. I haven’t played many games on it - but the one 3D game I played (Cordy) rendered extremely well. I’d call it at least XBox 1 level if not somewhere between that and the 360. Graphics were smooth and fast. Video plays perfectly well - but I did have to spend some time figuring out the best way to encode video for the device. Once I configured everything though the output was incredible. I watched “Pitch Black” on a recent trip and it was like having my own little HD TV for the flight.

Battery life seems fine to me. I haven’t tested this heavily, but I used it at the last conference I attended to tweet/check email/etc during the day and I only drained about half the battery after a full day of use.

So what about apps? This seems to be the big thing people complain about, especially in comparison to the iPad. Right now there are not a lot of tablet optimized applications. I notice this mostly with TweetDeck. TweetDeck works great when reading your tweets. When posting though you can quickly see how it’s not been optimized. 90% of my Xoom’s screen is taken up with a textarea that will only hold 145 characters. But I spend more time reading than writing so it isn’t a big deal. I do hope that TweetDeck, and others, address this, but it certainly doesn’t make the application unusable. Personally I view this as a non-issue. I’ve found apps for what I want to do - and even when not optimized they work great on the Xoom. I understand though why this may be more of an issue with a casual user expecting more. With more and more apps being released and reports that the Android market will surpass Apple soon, I don’t see this as much of a problem.

Speaking of apps - video chat on the device is pretty darn cool. I tried it once with Joshua Cyr and it worked great.

Web browsing is perfect on it - except for Flash support of course. Especially when compared to the Playbook, I found the size of the Xoom much better suited for looking at web pages. It bugs me though that some sites mark the Xoom as a mobile device and force me into a simpler interface when the Xoom can render desktop sites just fine. I’m looking at you Gawker. Let me decide what I want to see please.

Xoom allows you to install any apps you want - including unsigned apps. Thank you Motorola for trusting me to do what I want to with the hardware I purchased. Hey ATT, maybe you could decide to trust me too? I love my Inspire and your insipid decision to block me from installing any apps I want just makes me use a command line instead.

What I do see as an issue - and what concerns me about the Xoom - are two decisions that seem so incredibly bad that I worry about the future of the device. Shipping without Flash support was truly odd. But the question is - why haven’t they fixed that yet? Secondly - the device ships with a Micro SD card that is still not supported. Now I don’t pretend to know much about writing hardware device drivers, but I’d have to imagine that there is a driver for this already. Shipping hardware with a - essentially - broken feature is concerning. I don’t doubt it will be corrected. What concerns me is how a company could make the decision to launch like this and not correct it sooner. It makes me think there is something possibly wrong at the hardware level. The Xoom has plenty of storage already (32 gig) but I’d like to actually use the hardware completely!

Random comment: Motorola’s first commercial for the Xoom was horrible. I don’t mean the excellent Superbowl ad (see it here). But the spaceship one (see it here) that I saw everywhere for weeks on end. It was the first post-Superbowl commercial I saw and while I could see the appeal for gamers and nerds like me, it was exactly the wrong tact to take if you want to pick up casual users. I don’t pretend to be in marketing so maybe it’s just me. I couldn’t find a link for the last commercial I saw bought it seemed a lot better targetted.

Random comment: Android in general is a great OS in terms of setup. I love that for both my Inspire and my Xoom I signed in with my Google Apps account and things just worked. Now I know I’ve complained a lot about Google Apps and their lag behind the core Google accounts - but in general - the synchronization/setup of this is darn sweet. When I first signed into my Xoom it immediately began to get the apps I had chosen for my Xoom.

The Playbook

So after many months of waiting, Blackberry finally announced an actual release date for their hardware. I know I wasn’t the only one wondering if the thing would actually ship. I got mine about a week or so ago. One of the first things I noticed was the packaging. It reminded me of opening an Apple product. It looked sexy as hell. The Playbook also ships with a soft case and a cleaning cloth. Now - I know these things probably cost Blackberry about 5 cents each, but the fact that my 600 dollar Xoom didn’t ship with one now makes Motorola seem kind of cheap. I tend to be very nervous about devices with screens. When I got my Inspire, I worried for weeks before I got a case for it. Opening up the box and finding one there was awesome and I really think Blackberry deserves praise for that.

The physical feel of the Playbook is great. There’s something about the back of it I can’t describe. It almost feels like felt, but my wife say it’s a rubber. I don’t know. All I know is that the back of it has a soft feel to it that makes it great to hold. I don’t mean to imply that the Xoom has spikes on the back or anything, but this was the first thing I noticed when I held the Playbook.

The operating system is unique. Probably the biggest thing that surprises me - and probably explains why they force you to go through a tutorial - is that some swipe events have to start outside the screen area. So for example, to do app switching, you swipe from the black frame up into the visual area. I’ve already tested one application where that confused me. I had to be careful to ensure my swipe was only inside the frame in order for the application to pick up on it. I think I’ll get used to it - but it’s definitely different.

The look and feel of the OS is very nice. When compared to the Xoom, the Playbook is much more friendly and I think appealing to the iPad crowd. I’m kinda reminded of how my Nexus compared to my Inspire. My old Nexus is kind of like the Xoom. Not ugly - but kind of bare. My Inspire looks like it was designed by - well - designers - and it’s the same with the Playbook. If I had to guess which device would work better with consumers I’d have to give the edge to the Playbook. To be honest, I hate the look of Blackberry phones. It’s surprising how well RIM did with the Playbook.

Like the Xoom, performance is great. I tried the Need for Speed game that ships with the device and it works well. I’d call it XBox 1 level. I’m a big fan of the Need for Speed series anyway so this works well for me.

Surfing the web is fine but I really feel like the smaller Playbook is not quite as nice for web pages. Don’t get me wrong - I can surf the web on this thing. But for reading, browsing, I’d much rather have the additional real estate that the Xoom offers. Maybe it’s just my old eyes - but for the web - I think the 10 inch form factor is superior. Oddly - GMail works very poorly for me on the Playbook. I only mention this because there isn’t a native mail app yet. I told a buddy of mine this wasn’t a big deal since GMail scales down to a mobile device very nicely, but I have constant issues with GMail recognizing my clicks. I go to other sites that aren’t optimized and don’t have an issue at all. It’s as if something is making the touch events just for GMail not work as well. I wonder if anyone else has encountered that? I can go to a site with small links (non-mobile optimized links) and click just fine. Yet I try to just delete a simple message in GMail and it takes 5-6 clicks if it works at all!

So let’s talk apps. One of the things I’ve noticed so far is that almost every app I’ve used is freaking beautiful as heck. While there isn’t a great selection yet, I’ve been very happy with what I’ve used so far. The Facebook application is especially nice as well. There is not a good Twitter client yet, but if one ships then I’d basically be “done” app wise. Of course, the exception to this is my own app (Hangman) but that’s my poor design skills. Compare my ugly app to Gallery, made by fellow community member Andy Mathews and you can see what can be done by someone with a bit of design skill.

So one can’t talk about apps without talking about making applications. This was the “big deal” when the Playbook was announced back at MAX. I found the process of writing the application to be simple enough. Flex is Flex - it’s easy. (Not always of course, but in general, I enjoy writing it.) What was painful - and very evident in the Twitter-sphere/Blog-sphere was just how darn difficult the process was to get your app to Blackberry. I was lucky. I complained on Twitter and got personal help from RIM. I appreciate that. But not everyone is going to be as lucky. RIM really needs to work on getting the post-code writing aspect simpler. I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing when it comes to managing my application on their vendor portal. And don’t get me started on their web sites. You use multiple logins and passwords which means multiple things to forget. It’s frustrating and I hope RIM addresses this soon.

I have not had a chance yet to test the battery. Seems reasonable so far.

Random Comment: The camera on the Playbook is horrible. Maybe I just take bad pictures, but I’ve not been happy with the pictures I’ve taken with it. Then again - I don’t plan on ever using a tablet for pictures I truly care about so it’s not that big of a deal. If folks want, I can take a picture with my Xoom and Playbook of the same subject and post them for comparison.

Wrap Up

So which to buy? To be honest, I wouldn’t buy either until you actually try them. As I said in the beginning it was going to Best Buy and holding the device itself that convinced me. If you can’t get your hands on a device to feel how it works yourself than I’d hold off. My gut says the Xoom has more potential and that while having rough spots - is the better device for me. The Playbook feels a heck of a lot more polished on it’s initial shipping so I think casual consumers are going to prefer it. As a mobile developer (am I allowed to say that yet?), I think I’d give preference to the Xoom too since the process to get it into the market is far simpler.

Links:

Xoom tech specs: http://www.motorola.com/staticfiles/Consumers/xoom-android-tablet/us-en/techspecs.html

Playbook overview: http://us.blackberry.com/playbook-tablet/#!tabletFeatures and tech specs (PDF): http://us.blackberry.com/playbook-tablet/BlackBerry_PlayBook_Specs_ENv3.pdf

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About Raymond Camden

Raymond is a developer advocate. He focuses on JavaScript, serverless and enterprise cat demos. If you like this article, please consider visiting my Amazon Wishlist or donating via PayPal to show your support. You can even buy me a coffee!

Lafayette, LA https://www.raymondcamden.com

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