So far, few Android tablets have caught fire; arguably, only the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 has made any impression with buyers. That sleek, iPad-looking tablet offers the basics for both personal and business users in a nice package, and it’s remained at the top of the Android tablet hill since it debuted six months ago. Motorola Mobility’s new Droid Xyboard — an awkward name meant to evoke the villainous cyborgs of “Battlestar Galactica” fame (a disturbing motif, frankly, carried through in its startup screen) — poses a serious challenge to the Galaxy Tab.
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Like the Galaxy Tab, the Xyboard (first released in the United Kingdom as the Xoom 2) runs Android 3.2 “Honeycomb,” the original tablet-optimized version of Android, but Motorola says it will be upgradable to the new Android 4 “Ice Cream Sandwich” later this year. Based on what Android 4 offers on a smartphone, I don’t expect it to make the Xyboard or any “Honeycomb” tablet work dramatically different. “Ice Cream Sandwich” is very much based on “Honeycomb.”
What makes the Xyboard stand out? On the hardware side, it has a 5-megapixel rear camera, which is a cut above most tablet cameras, though the images it produces are just average. Perhaps mindful of Apple’s litigiousness and success defending its design patents in the courts, the Xyboard has a unique, tapered bezel that looks nothing like an iPad, yet is comfortable to hold. The Xyboard also weighs about the same as an iPad 2. Plus, it comes with a nicely designed stylus for precise tapping.
Xyboard mixes business and pleasure
The Xyboard’s lone hardware flaw is the unfortunate positioning of the Sleep/Wake button right next to the volume rocker. I often put the Xyboard to sleep when I reached to increase the volume. The Xyboard also comes with a built-in 4G radio for the Verizon Wireless network, giving you access to very fast cellular connections in areas that have 4G networks installed. (It uses 3G elsewhere, along with connecting to Wi-Fi LANs.) Verizon sells a version of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 with a 4G radio as well, so this is not a Xyboard advantage.
But not everything that makes the Xyboard worth a look is hardware. It has some software innovations too; one will appeal to business users and another to personal users. That dual focus, likewise shown in its mix of apps, qualifies it as a tweener tablet.
For business users, the key extra is the Xyboard’s MotoPrint app, which can print wirelessly to network-connected printers — which Apple promised more than a year ago but has yet to deliver apart from a few printers using custom software. Motorola’s Droid Razr smartphone also comes with MotoPrint.
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Printing works well and easily on the Brother and Hewlett-Packard printers I tested. Setup is fairly easy, though as is common with “Honeycomb” apps, the option to save your configuration is hidden. The first few times I set up a printer, I didn’t realize I needed to save the setup to gain access again later. You also get the full (HD) version of the Quickoffice app for creating and editing Word, Excel, and PowerPointdocuments.
For personal use, MotoCast is the big draw. The software lets you stream or download music, photos, and videos from your Mac or PC to the Xyboard. You can play such content on the Xyboard or pass it onto a monitor via an HDMI cable. It takes a few minutes for the Xyboard to sync the list of available content, but playback worked fine over Wi-Fi and 4G. Of course, if your goal is to stream content to a TV, an Apple TV coupled with iTunes on your PC or Mac is a more direct approach, but then MotoCast isn’t limited to what’s in your iTunes library. Nor can you stream content from a Mac or PC to an iPad for playback — that’s a unique advantage of the Xyboard. There are work-arounds such as Air Video that let you stream from a PC or Mac to an iPad, but they’re partial hacks.
Motorola also preinstalls some apps from the Android Market for business use, including Citrix Receiver, Evernote, Fuze Meeting, GoToMeeting, and PolyCom Presence Mobile, all of which require you to have accounts with the service provider. In the case of Citrix, you’ll need a VDI setup at the office.
Likewise, it preinstalls some entertainment apps: Blockbuster and Netflix for video rental, and Dijit, a remote control app that uses the Xyboard’s IR port, an atypical feature in a tablet. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get Dijit to work with any of my home entertainment gear (composed of popular devices such as a Sony Bravia HDTV and Pioneer 1019 AV receiver — nothing exotic or ucommon). But these preinstalled apps are available to anyone from the Android Market, so they’re not standout capabilities.
Android tablet at an iPad price
Beyond these hardware and software differences, as well as Motorola’s custom icons, the Xyboard is a standard Android tablet, with the same decent support for business security and management needs as the rest, the same pros and cons in terms of the Android “Honeycomb” OS and its bundled apps, and the same more limited universe of third-party apps. You can get the details on these standard attributes in our comparative review of Android and iOS 5.
Where the Xyboard is a rough sell is in its price. Without a 3G/4G contract from Verizon, the 16GB model costs $700, the 32GB model $800, and the 64GB model $900 — the same price Verizon charges for comparable Galaxy Tab models and $70 more than Apple charges for the iPad 2 and its superior set of apps and better ecosystem. Thus, you’re paying a $70 premium for the 4G capability. If you sign up for a two-year commitment, the prices drop by $170. If you opt for no contract, you can buy 3G/4G access on a month-to-month basis. Plans start at $30 for up to 2GB, whether you commit to a two-year contract or pay as you go. There are also 8.2-inch models of the Xyboard, which cost $100 less and include no stylus; if you’re drawn to the Xyboard because of its video streaming, they will likely feel cramped.
Choosing between the Galaxy Tab and the Xyboard is not so easy, given how similar they are in most respects. Their aesthetics are different, with the Galaxy Tab having a friendlier, more iPad-like look, versus the Xyboard’s darker impression (regarding both the color and the bezel’s “cut”). The IR port on the Xyboard is intriguing, but as I could not get the Dijit software to work properly, that may be a paper-only advantage. For most users, the deciding factor will be the appeal of MotoPrint and/or MotoCast — the two truly unique advantages of the Xyboard.