The Motorola Xoom: Connection and Confusion

Xoom thumb reach

Apple vs Android. A Droid expert I know summed up the distinction thusly: android is for smart, nerdy people who want a smart, nerdy experience with their devices. Apple is for everyone else. So, as a smart, nerdy IT department, we were naturally excited to receive a Motorola Xoom tablet last month on loan from Verizon Wireless. It boasted the newest version of Android for tablets called “Honeycomb”.  I expected it to be awesome. It wasn’t.

Read on, gentle blog subscriber, and hear our tale of woe.

General Usability

Pro’s:

  • Um, we got to use it for free?

Cons:

  • How do you turn this thing on? The IT Director was stymied. I managed to turn it on but couldn’t unlock it. A PhD was perplexed as to how to close programs. Two of us thought the “home” button was an up arrow. Did I mention we all work with computers for a living?
  • Physically, the tablet felt fairly heavy to most of us. You couldn’t easily hold it in one hand. It’s about 4 oz heavier than the iPad 2, I guess in the tablet-world that’s a lot.
  • The glossy screen was a fingerprint magnet and had a lot of glare.

This thing has major usability issues. It isn’t us, it can’t be. This device was near-diabolical in its basic design. For most of us, this initial frustration colored the rest of the Xoom experience, and left us exasperated and annoyed. Two co-workers kept it all of 20 minutes before throwing it back at me. Another co-worker sagely stated “I would never buy a Motorola brand computer, so this is about what I expected”.

If the Xoom can so handily defeat and alienate a tech-friendly group of people, what hope does it have for the consumer market?!

Android 3.0: Honeycomb

Once we managed to turn the Xoom on, we took a walk around the Android interface. Andoid is a more complex interface than Apple’s iPod and iPad OS. There are multiple screens, various buttons and menus, it’s not always clear what each of them do. It’s multi-layered. Complex. Basically the opposite of an Apple interface. Could it be more versatile? Yes, but I think it would take a month of constant use to get used to the interface and fully figure how it would work for you.

What I did like was the easy integration of my existing Google account. Once I entered my account info I had my email, docs, bookmarks, books, etc all accessible. Kate mentioned, however, that getting your account UN-linked from it is not quite so easy, and there is no system for handling multiple accounts and multiple log-ins, so this is essentially not a share-able device.

The App Store, while basically easy to use, had a confusing aspect in that when click “download” on an app, nothing happens. There are tiny letters that say “waiting for download”, and if you click “My Apps” you can then see the download progress, but it’s not obvious at all.

Doing Work

Decent Features:

  • The Gmail app was clean and easy to use, the keyboard was OK for typing on.
  • You can view and edit google docs, but it’s cumbersome and you can’t change formatting easily. It would be fine for taking quick notes.
  • Office Suite Pro is a $15 app that gives you a little more productivity, as well as access to the Xoom’s file system. I could download a google doc and work on it in Office Suite Pro, but then wasn’t sure how to get it back to the cloud. Again, if I had a month to play with this thing I would have figured out a system, but should it really take that long?
  • Google’s CloudPrint service looks really promising and will allow people to print a Google doc from a tablet. But for now, you have to have a constantly networked PC to run the printing so that’s out for me until they improve the system.
  • The Google maps and GPS were probably my favorite thing to use, it’s a great screen size for looking, scrolling, zooming and rotating maps. The directions it gave were clear and good, other than wanting me to leave campus via the dirt road shortcut we’re not supposed to take.
  • It would probably be useful as a scheduler and organizer, though no more so than a regular laptop.

Indecent and/or annoying:

  • You’d think that if a tablet does anything well, it should be web surfing. Well, think again. Where’s the address bar? Oh, swipe your finger in form the upper right corner, or press and hold the bottom left. Um, yeah. Also, the simple act of clicking links was a little clunky and not nearly as sensitive and accurate as even an iPod touch. I had to zoom in the view to get some links to open.
  • Alternate input methods left much to be desired. Voice recognition wasn’t good for anything other than short, simple sentences. A pen reader app was clunky but perhaps would have been workable with more practice.
  • The Xoom has some accessibility features allowing you to turn on sounds describing your actions on the device, but there’s no screen reader or text-to-speech function built in, so I’m not sure why the visually impaired would be using it in the first place.

Reading

I was able to get my Kindle books on the Xoom easily via the Kindle app, but really didn’t like the reading experience. The brightness of the screen in your face was distracting, the text looked pixel-y, you had to hold the screen exactly straight-on to be able to see clearly. And again, no text-to-speech function! You can read PDFs on it as well, though if you want to annotate them it takes a $5 app. To plug in the Xoom and transfer files directly required installing a separate program so I just gave up.

Play

  • No Hulu.
  • No Netflix.
  • No Flash.
  • You have got to be kidding me.
  • Youtube interface is really weird.
  • Angry Birds was awesome, but what else would you expect.

Pictures & Video

The Xoom has front and rear cameras. The images and video were on a par with a low-end digital camera. It had a very bright flash for photos and fill light for videos. It was very easy to upload pictures to Picasa, Facebook, YouTube, etc. and it even has a primitive built-in video editor. Picture editing and organizing was almost non-existent, so this would not cut it for me as a primary means of dealing with photos.

Bottom Line

None of us had any desire to bring this Xoom into our lives, whether for work or play. Some thought it would be mildly useful as something to have on hand for casual web-browsing, but we all emphatically thought it was not worth $600.

The Tangent

So why are tablets in general flying off the shelves? What are other people seeing in them that we’re not? What are these devices doing for people, really? What’s the big attraction?

My biggest clue was the fact that the only time I could see really using and liking this tablet was when I was traveling. I imagined I would feel safer and happier having this on hand. Why? It’s not about productivity. It’s not even really about entertainment. It’s about connection. A tablet gives you a constant, uninterrupted sense of connectedness with the cloud, the web, the world. It’s a lifeline, and an anchor. When I am unanchored from the usual connections in my life, as when traveling, this is when I see the attraction of this connective device.

So what does this say about everyone buying these tablets? Smartphones? Other mobile devices? What does it mean that so many millions of people need these virtual anchors and lifelines? What’s missing from our everyday, real-life connections?

A common theme these days is that technology is driving us away from each other and is diluting our interactions and connections. I would argue, though, that we are adapting technology to bridge already-existing distances in our lives. The gadgets simply make apparent deeper problems that, I think, go back to the fact that as a species we are supposed to live in tribes and villages with large extended families around us. Very few of us have even a close approximation of that kind of truly connected existence. And the only technology you can really blame for this state of affairs is the wheel, really.

So these tablets fill a need for many people. Who am I to judge? On a recent trip it was an absolute gift to be able to Skype with my son from across the country. It was a connection when there otherwise would have been none. Upon returning home, however, I was all too happy to unplug and re-connect with my real-world family in a real-world way.

These tablets are seen as a luxury item. I think the real luxury is having enough true connection in your life to not need them.

- Asha Kinney with help from Jeff Schmittlein, Kate MacGregor, John Bruner, Doug Cotton, Jeff Butera, Bob Crowley, and Andrew Hart

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18. March 2011 by Asha Kinney
Categories: Gadgets | Leave a comment

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