Motorola Xoom: Discoveries, Disappointments, Delights

Preamble

photo of Xoom in typing position
Typing Position

Back in my happy Nokia N900-using days, I realised that the days of Maemo/Meego were numbered, and that I would need to migrate to another platform – most likely Android. To get a feel for Android, and see whether I would be able to get on with it, I acquired a cheap, Chinese, 7 inch tablet, called rather amusingly, a "Haipad."

All along, I had reservations about using a touch screen, as opposed to a physical keyboard. However, after finding decent keyboard software (Swiftkey X,) I was surprised to find how well I got on with it on a trip away. This, upon the demise of my N900, led to my acquisition of an Android phone.

As part of an ongoing experiment to see just how much I could use mobile devices in preference to laptops and larger computing platforms, I found that I was quite happy to use the phone for short e-mails (and I mean short,) looking things up on Google and Wikipedia, and other minor tasks. However, due to such a large number of web sites failing to accommodate the needs of mobile users, and the general awkwardness of typing on a tiny, on-screen keyboard, the tablet format still seemed preferable for more than quick and casual use.

Impressed with my Samsung phone, I was on the verge of purchasing a 10 inch GalaxyTab, until I discovered what I considered to be some highly undesirable characteristics, namely no standard USB connector, no facility for an SD card. That, coupled with the fact that the device is only 8mm thick – which I foresaw would be less than ideal for my large and clumsy hands, made me do a comparison with the Motorola Xoom, which I could obtain on a data contract from Singtel Optus for very slightly less.

After deliberating the matter overnight, I rang Optus in the morning to order the Xoom, hoping that I had made the right decision.

Fragile, handle with care

photo of Xoom in lectern position
"Lectern" Position

Whilst the Xoom weighs about three quarters of a kilo, as opposed to just over half a kilo of the GalaxyTab, it's still a fragile little beast, especially in the hands of the fragile, but not so little, beast that is yours truly. I have a nasty habit of Dropping Things, and Banging Things Against Other Things that would give any device insufficiently robust the sort of life expectancy generally associated with, say, mayflies.

Again, from the experience with my Samsung phone, I looked to Otter Box for a case. Although the polycarbonate and silicone rubber Defender Series case takes the weight of the tablet to over a kilo, and gives it a certain military look, the thoughtful design and features of this case far outweigh any downside that I can see.

The case comes in two sections, one in which the tablet is permanently embedded, the other forming a lid when used one way, and a stand that allows for flat, typing angle and what I would call lectern use. I find the typing angle very good indeed, whether used on a table, or on the lap.

I feel quite confident about chucking the whole thing in my small rucksack when I am out and about. If someone were to try to snatch it off me, the weight and robustness would allow a quick tap to the head to fell any attacker up to and including a medium-sized rhinoceros. OK, it's not that heavy and robust, but I am sure that you get my gist.

The Tablet

photo of Xoom, case closed
Case closed, looking distressingly like a speed camera.
Ruler shown for scale.

So what about the Xoom itself?

First impressions were of confusion, nothing to do with the hardware, but this being my first encounter with tablet-optimised Android (3.1), all previous experience being with the early phone versions, which just happen to have been deployed on tablets. There are actually less physical keys than I am used to (my phone doesn't have physical home/back keys, but it does have a dedicated area of the touch screen.)

After the culture-shock, and some oddities with getting the thing set up (reboot required,) I have had no real problems with the interface.

Bad Stuff

Those things that I do not like about the Xoom were very conveniently forgotten in the sales blurb – and didn't even crop up in any of the reviews that I read, although reviewers seem to be obsessed with games and watching movies, and possibly don't realise that people use them for work on-the-move, so maybe I should not be surprised.

I was put off the GalaxyTab by (amongst other things) the need to carry Yet Another Charger. It was thus with great annoyance that I discovered that the Xoom also requires Yet Another Charger and cannot be charged via USB. Whilst it's not a proprietary connector like the GalaxyTab (perhaps that's why Apple was trying to block sale of the product in Australia,) it does mean that I have to find space for, yes, Yet Another Charger. I appreciate that the current available through USB is limited, but a USB slow-charge option against the wall-wart fast-charge would have been desirable.

The second – and so far final – annoyance is the SD card slot, although this could possibly be broken down into two annoyances. Firstly, it is a combined SIM and SD slot, so you can't take out the SD card without taking out the SIM. My little Haipad gets it right, from my perspective – the SD card goes into one of those little pop-out slots, just like on a laptop. But far more annoying is the information in the quick-start guide that advises that the SD card slot does not work. What? Suspicious that this would be a firmware issue, rather than every device being sent out defective or with missing components, I did a little research and found that – like some of the annoyances with my phone – it can be cured by rooting the device. (The SD slot is enabled with a custom kernel – as far as I understand, there is a kernel module either missing or disabled.)

Good Stuff

photo of Xoom, showing this page in browser
Recursion. This page on the Xoom.

The thing that most excited me about the Xoom (and I am not normally one to get excited) was something else that I saw neither in the sales blurb, nor the reviews, but which I consider to be a very important feature indeed. Had I known about it, I would not have even looked at other products. The Xoom has device encryption. I can find very little technical detail on this – knowing the algorithm would be nice – other than the fact that is uses the regular Linux dm-crypt.

I have long held that, if a device is taken out of the secure (for a given value of secure) environment of office, house, etcetera, it should either be encrypted, or contain no sensitive data. (I consider the loss, by whatever means, of a laptop/tablet/phone containing unencrypted client or other commercial data to be culpable negligence.) This has reduced what I do with mobile devices, and certainly reduced convenience/ease of use as I would, for example, never let a web browser remember passwords on an unsecured device. Whilst I doubt that the Xoom has the same grade of security of Blackberry devices, I certainly feel comfortable using it in ways which I would never have considered on an unencrypted device.

It's got a nice, big, screen. Relatively speaking. Certainly a step up from my 7 inch tablet, and a quantum leap from my 4 inch phone. Which means I can use Better Terminal Emulator Pro to do what I consider an essential away-from-office task, which is ssh into and administer my servers. Note that I was able to do this on my Nokia N900, but the screen and keyboard size made it possible – but painful.

The Xoom has a notification light – something that I really miss on my Samsung phone.

There is little more I can say about the device itself as I have had it for less than a week, and most of the functionality that I enjoy is down to the applications, rather than the hardware. It certainly suits me well.

The Optus Experience

I am a great believer in redundancy. Whilst my phone contracts are with Vodafone, I carry a spare (Motorola RAZR V3i) GSM phone with a Telstra prepaid SIM. This means that if the Vodafone network is out of range – or goes down – I can still communicate through another carrier's network.

I have done likewise with my data. As I don't really like dealing with Telstra, I decided to get my data redundancy through Singtel Optus, the other of the three major carriers in Australia. (They generally drop the Singtel bit – I guess that being an obvious part of Singapore Telecom doesn't look too good on an Aussie brand. I will, therefore, just refer to them as Optus.)

My previous experience with Optus was when I was looking to move my main mobile account away from Telstra. I e-mailed the address given on the web site – and never received a reply. Since that time, Optus has raised its game oh, so much. Due to our local council being a bit, er, just "er", our street address cannot be validated against the national gazetteer. The upshot of this is that I am unable to place online orders with the larger companies like telcos, because my address is invalid. Another issue for me is that I want to use this tablet overseas, with a local SIM. That means I need it to have no carrier locks.

With these two points of enquiry, I contacted Optus via Twitter. The next day, I had a reply with a link to a social media contact form. I submitted my enquiry through the form and, the next day, had a message on my voicemail saying that it was being looked at. The day after, I received an e-mail saying that I could get online special pricing if I called their Sales Support line and that, after I had received the tablet (I was talking about the GalaxyTab, back at that stage,) I should contact them again through the form, to get it unlocked at no cost. Which was quite a surprise.

I phoned the number and, without the expected, interminable time on hold, had my order – complete with dodgy address – dealt with in a friendly and helpful manner. The tablet arrived two working days later and my subsequent experiences Sales Support, getting an ETA (only to find that it was sitting at the local Post Office), and activating the SIM, were to the same high standard.

So, all-in-all, a very positive, pleasant, customer service experience. But, to crown it all, I discovered that the Xoom had neither network lock (so it didn't need removing) nor ghastly Optus branding. It arrived as a stock standard machine. Which is good. (I had to root my Samsung phone before I could remove the Vodafone bloatware that was on it.)

Conclusion

From my experience so far, I would recommend the Xoom/Otter Box combination for anyone who wants a relatively secure, robust tablet – and doesn't mind a bit of weight. If you are comfortable with rooting (and thus voiding your warranty and running a small risk of trashing the device) the Xoom, you can also get a working SD slot – although I have yet to try this myself.

Also from experience so far – and we are only talking just over a week – I have been most pleased with my dealings with Optus.