Apple has been dominating the market for tablet computers. But now, with Motorola's Xoom and other tablet PCs rolling out, alternatives to the iPad are coming to stores, many using the new Google operating system Android Honeycomb.
The idea of tablet computers has been around for more than 10 years. But the ones presented by Microsoft founder Bill Gates back then didn't draw consumers, mainly because the technology was not yet ready.
Thus, the honour of presenting the first tablet computer to appeal to the masses fell to Apple chief Steve Jobs and his iPad in January 2010. Apple had the market to itself for almost a year.
But now, companies like Motorola, Samsung and LG are bringing out tablets with Google's Android 3.0 operating system, also known as Honeycomb. In some ways, these new versions outscore the market leader.
One of the forerunners is Motorola's Xoom. The U.S. company kept close tabs on the development of Honeycomb and was the first to be able to come out with an Android 3.0-ready tablet. Recently, a German Press Agency dpa team got to try out the device.
At 730 grams, the Xoom is a little heavier than the 600-gram iPad and a bit wider. But it has a higher resolution in its 10.1-inch screen (1,280x800 pixels versus 1,024x768). Just like the iPad, the Xoom has a solid aluminium housing.
Motorola took more pains with its built-in cameras than Apple. The camera on the back offers 5 megapixels, while the one on the front for video chat features has 2 megapixels, significantly more than the iPad 2. That means the Xoom can record videos in quality of up to 720 pixels, even though its recordings tend to have a slightly bluish tint.
Honeycomb tablets don't have mechanical buttons for functions like menu, home, back and search, meaning the Xoom is completely controlled via its touch-sensitive screen.
A full-screen mode allows the icons at the bottom of the display to fade out of sight. And anyone who needs to write multiple messages but has a hard time with the touchscreen keyboard can buy an external keyboard with a Bluetooth link.
Xoom runs with a dual-core processor (a set of 1 gigahertz processors) to allow speedy work and smooth video playback. Just like with the iPad, the Xoom's battery has a charge of about eight hours, or the equivalent of a full workday or a long-range flight.
Thus, the Xoom is in the iPad's league in terms of hardware and actually ranks better when it comes to the video camera.
But if you compare the software and the range of media available for Honeycomb tablets, the balance tips back in favor of the iPad.
While there are more than 200,000 programs available for Android, all of which should theoretically work on the Xoom, very few of those programs were designed with the tablet exclusively in mind. Meanwhile, there are 10,000 programs just for the iPad.
Thus, looking for a subscription to Flipboard, a virtual magazine with content pulled from networks like Facebook and Twitter, would be a waste of time in the European Android market. Indeed, many of the more successful publishing apps out there are not yet available for Honeycomb.
It doesn't help that Google has yet to set up separate categories for tablet-ready programs and games like Pool Break, Cordy or Dungeon in its European marketplace, meaning customers have to look hard to find appropriate items. In the U.S., Google tablet apps are highlighted in a Featured Section for downloads.
A similar problem exists with Xoom's music service. While North American customers can try out the "Music beta by Google service," no similar launch is foreseen in Europe. That leaves Amazon's music service, and it really can't keep up with the selection offered by Apple's iTunes, especially since Amazon doesn't offer movies or TV shows for sale or rent.
Working with a Windows PC, it is possible to use a USB connection to get music and videos onto the Xoom without special software like iTunes. Windows Explorer shows the tablet's data directory and the appropriate folders. With a Mac, it's necessary to use Android File Transfer, which can be downloaded for free from Google.
Unlike the iPad, Xoom supports Adobe's Flash Player, which has to be separately installed. The player only plays a small role in video playback, since leading portals like YouTube have started distributing most of their online videos in the iPad-compatible format H.264. But Flash often crops up in interactive graphics, live tickers and online games.
Android Honeycomb also gives users more freedom in setting up the look of their homepage. While the iPad only allows the display of program icons, links and notices, Honeycomb allows the display of up to five so-called widgets, small preview programs for things like weather forecasts, email and stock market reports.
But these advantages don't quite go far enough toward making up for the disadvantages the Google tablet suffers in its marketplace for apps and media services.
The Motorola Xoom, with UMTS, Wi-Fi and 32 gigabytes of storage is available in stores, starting at $899.
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