Putting the Xoom through its paces

I love the Florida Keys. One of my favorite drives is from the mainland through the Keys via U.S. 1. At Christmas, my family and I got to make that drive, after flying into West Palm Beach. When we cross over at Key Largo, I instantly feel more relaxed, and the natural beauty of the drive – the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf on the other – always astonishes me.

The Motorola XoomStill, Christmas in the Keys – where temperatures were in the low 80s every day and the low 70s every night – is downright strange.

Why, when the ground in C-U got dusted with snow, I had to enjoy it vicariously, using a Motorola Xoom tablet and Verizon’s 4G service, to check in via Facebook on what was going on around here.

Various members of my family used the Xoom – a test unit sent by Verizon – for a number of other purposes, from watching videos to checking email to playing games. Our experience was uneven, some good and some less than ideal.

The coolest moment – and best proof of the 4G signal, to me – was a small thing: We had left the mainland and I was curious how easily the tablet would show me how far we had to go to our final destination – Marathon, a wonderful town at the eastern end of the Seven-Mile Bridge, about halfway to Key West. The multi-touch screen let me zoom out until the blue Google Navigation arrow and Marathon were both visible. It was like one of my old GPS units on steroids.

The Verizon 4G signal was, in the main, strong and reliable. The Xoom feels like a sturdy device. The one I tested downloaded apps lightning-fast. I found some things to like, and others that would steer me away from buying one. These are mostly little things, and individually they wouldn’t matter. But to me, together, they added up.

-- This is the first thing I noticed when I unpacked the tablet: The AC adapter ends in a small cylindrical input and it just seems to me to be inviting breakage.

-- The 4G service, while generally very reliable, wouldn’t work at all in the terminal of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport where we had a long layover. (My 3G Verizon phone worked just fine.)The Keys on Google Maps

-- I had difficulty copying video files over from my computer to the tablet. I saw a number of references in forums to similar problems, but I’m not sure whether mine wasn’t just a faulty USB cable.

-- When I did get the files copied, some of them wouldn’t play. These are .avi files, and if I had looked at Motorola’s Xoom site online, I’d have seen they aren’t included in the formats the device will play. There are plenty of video players available in the Android Market, so it took almost no time to find one that worked. So it was an annoyance more than a probem – and actually led to the discovery of Rock Player, which is a very cool free multimedia player.

-- I miss the overt “settings” menu on the home screen or a “hardware” settings button on the device. A context-sensitive menu appears when some apps are running, but to get to the general settings, you have to open the main app drawer. (It is easy to move the settings icon out to the main screen, so this too isn’t a big deal.)

--The power button is recessed on the back of the tablet so it’s flush. It was surprising to me how much this took getting used to.

The sun sets over the Keys in FloridaSome other observations:

I didn’t play any games that are resource-heavy, so I can’t speak to that in a general way, but once I got videos to play, they were great. The screen was terrific and movement forward or back within a video was smooth and fast – a testament to the processor in the tablet.

Books loaded very quickly in the Kindle app.

Battery life was good, both during use and in standby.

I didn’t test the 5 mp rear camera or the 2 mp webcam. I don’t have much use for those features, and I was using a new digital camera on this trip, too.

The tablet’s easy to carry around, but I found myself wishing I had a case for it.

We had decided to take only one laptop for the trip – remarkably restrained for me – and I wanted to see if the tablet could take the place of a second machine. The results were mixed for that. My wife had trouble with the onscreen keyboard seeming unresponsive, and had difficulty checking work email. I didn’t have either of those problems, and to me, the onscreen keyboard is one of the tablet’s real pluses; its tactile sense is good and the tiny sound produced on a keystroke is perfect for me.

This is the first time I’ve had any extended exposure to 4G with a variety of uses. Still not sure what happened at Atlanta, but otherwise, that was the most impressive thing about this tablet. My family’s contracts will be up this year and I’ll be taking a pretty close look at phones that take advantage of that speed.

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