Apple iPad 2 vs. Motorola Xoom: Which is 2011's must-have tablet?

Apple iPad 2 vs. Motorola Xoom: Which is 2011's must-have tablet?

The flagship Google Android tablet and Apple's new iPad are poised to battle throughout 2011 ? which one should you buy?

by Samuel Axon on March 10, 2011


The iPad 2 is here, and competing Google Android tablets have a standard-bearer to challenge it: the Motorola Xoom. Both of these new-generation tablets are astonishingly fine pieces of engineering, both in terms of hardware and software. They're sleek, they're cool, and they're useful ? but which one should you buy in 2011?

We'll compare all the features of the Xoom and the iPad 2, starting with the core differences between Google's software for Android devices and the iPad's iOS software designed by Apple itself.

Do you have your own thoughts about which tablet is the better investment? Let us know in the comments!

Android vs. iOS
The most fundamental difference between the iPad 2 and the Motorola Xoom isn't in the hardware ? it's in the software.

The iPad 2 operates on Apple's iOS software, which is also used for the iPhone and the iPod touch, albeit in a very different configuration. Motorola's tablet uses a new version of Google's Android operating system; this version's designed especially for tablets, though Android is more commonly seen on mobile phones. There are some major design differences between Android and iOS gadgets; you could almost call them philosophical in nature.

Apple's iOS design is driven by an absolute focus on quality control standards and a unified aesthetic and user experience. The advantage here is that iOS is extremely intuitive and easy-to-use, and very, very stable. The design is beautiful, and there's something almost zen about its consistency. Apple's strictly enforced standards also ensure a certain level of quality from most third-party apps, too. The downside: If you don't like Apple's way of implementing a certain feature, you'd better hit the highway.

Android is all about user choice and customization. Google gives you many more configuration options at the expense of stability and ease of use. Android crashes more, and apps ? particularly those not provided by Google or the manufacturer ? vary widely in their execution, quality, and interface. This can be confusing and frustrating for many users, but it means they can have the kind of experience they want to have, not just the one the original designer intended.

These distinctions are not all that unlike the differences between Mac and Windows computers. Picking between Android and iOS is the most important part of your decision, so make sure you make some time to experience devices running both operating systems at your local retail store.

Winner: Personal preference

Motorola Xoom

Interface
As we said, personal preference and values will likely dictate your choice between Android and iOS, but we believe iOS's interface is superior to the competition's, at least. Android enthusiasts shouldn't be too offended by this choice, though; the Xoom has a gorgeous interface. We're really comparing two of the finest user interfaces ever designed, here. But iOS has so much more polish and consistency to it, even though it lacks the customization and variance that Xoom owners can enjoy.

Here are two sides of a coin: Both devices' multitasking features are frustrating, but the iPad 2's is more powerful, even though it's not quite as elegantly realized. The Android home screens on the Xoom offer a lot of options, but managing them is unnecessarily complex as compared to what iOS offers.

We actually believe the Xoom wins as far as visual flair goes, but despite its multitasking limitations and inflexible home screen, the iPad is less confusing and more efficient in the majority of cases. The abundance of confusing virtual buttons and the lack of a coherent vision for interfaces between apps (except for the visually attractive 3D slider for various media types) really hurts the Xoom's presentation, especially for people who aren't tech-savvy to begin with.

Winner: iPad 2

Speed
Side by side, the iPad 2 and Xoom show very similar technical specifications. Both have dual-core 1GHz processors and use very fast flash storage. The Xoom has more RAM (1GB to the iPad 2's 512MB, as reported in the first wave of reviews), and the iPad 2 has a killer graphics processor, though the Xoom is no slouch.

Given that Apple's operating system handles multitasking in such a way that desktop-style RAM in the gigabytes is not an absolute necessity (though it would be nice in some applications), you shouldn't ding Apple too hard for having less memory. The Xoom's graphics processor is quite brisk, as well. Regardless, an Engadget review of the iPad 2 reveals that the two tablets perform almost identically at loading web pages quickly.

We don't believe most users will notice the shortage of RAM in the iPad 2, but hardcore hardware enthusiasts will definitely scoff at it. On the other hand, Apple promises 9 times the first iPad's graphics performance on the iPad 2. If that promise is true (we won't know until third-party app developers start exploring the capabilities with their apps), then we're positive the iPad 2's graphics performance is dramatically better than that of the Xoom.

Memory or video ? which is more important? It's up to you, but the hardware in the two devices is so similar overall that we're calling this one a draw.

Winner: Tie

iPad2 Facetime

Cameras, screens, and other hardware
There's no competition at all in this category. Yes, Apple finally added a camera to the iPad ? 2, in fact ? but the Xoom's camera takes photos at 5 megapixels while the iPad 2 only takes photos at 0.7 megapixels. That's downright shameful.

Of course, the iPad 2's cameras are both intended for video, not stills, but the Xoom wins with other features too. For example, the Xoom and the iPad 2 can both connect to 3G wireless data networks, but Xoom owners will get a free 4G upgrade in the near future. The Xoom's slightly larger screen (10.1" to the iPad 2's 9.7") has a resolution of 1280 x 800 and is closer to the widescreen aspect ratios used by movies and contemporary television shows. Granted, the iPad 2 has "IPS" technology for wider viewing angles and the like, but the Xoom screen is just plain better by most criteria for judgment.

Winner: Xoom, by quite a lot

Apps
All that hardware seems empty without apps to make use of it, and the iPad 2 blows the Xoom completely out of the water here ? actually, it blows it right out of the atmosphere.

Steve Jobs noted in his iPad 2 keynote this year that the iPad has 65,000 apps, while current-generation Android tablets have only 100. Both devices have access to the complete app markets for the cell phones that use their respective platforms, but the Xoom's support for those older apps is reportedly funky at best.

It's not all about quantity, either. The quality of most iPad apps is vastly greater than that of most Android apps. We could go into the details, but there's hardly a point; Android has very little tablet app support, while the iPad is associated with one of the most exciting and innovative markets for software we've seen in years.

There are some popular functions available for Android tablets that Apple won't approve for its software for legal or security reasons. Most notably, Adobe's Flash technology is used by thousands of websites to serve up video or interactive content, and it's not ever going to be supported by the iPad. Flash support didn't arrive with the Xoom at launch, but it's been promised in the very near future.

Still, the stunning array of ultra-high quality apps for the iPad 2 crushes the Xoom's limited supply. This will be a deciding factor for many an iPad 2 buyer, but the Android hopeful can probably count on improved app support sometime in the future; we just don't know exactly when.

Winner: iPad 2, in a landslide

Battery life and portability
Tablets need to be thin and light because they're meant to be used on the go and held in your hands all throughout the day. Apple and Motorola both did a good job here, but the iPad 2 is definitely more portable. It also gets slightly better battery life.

The Xoom is rated for 9 to 10 hours of use on one battery charge, and the iPad 2 is rated for 10 hours. Reviewers' tests have shown moderate usage on the iPad 2 pushing almost 11 hours, though, and the Xoom's battery life can suffer when certain poorly optimized applications are used.

It's not all about quantity, either. The quality of most iPad apps is vastly greater than that of most Android apps. We could go into the details, but there's hardly a point; Android has very little tablet app support, while the iPad is associated with one of the most exciting and innovative markets for software we've seen in years.

The Xoom weighs 730g, but the iPad 2 weighs only 601g (or up to 613g for the 3G model). Most strikingly, the iPad 2 is only 8.8mm thick, while the Xoom is 12.9mm. That's a dramatic difference.

Winner: iPad 2

Price
It's a little difficult to compare the prices of the iPad 2 and the Xoom because the iPad 2 comes in a wide variety of configurations ranging from $499 to $829, while the Xoom comes in only two configurations, both with 32GB of storage. One can connect to a 3G mobile data network; that configuration is priced at $799. The other one only does wifi, and it costs $599. The 32GB iPad 2 with identical specifications to the 3G Xoom costs slightly less ($729), while the 32 GB iPad 2 with only wifi costs exactly the same as its Xoom counterpart.

If you want to save money by opting for less built-in storage at just 16GB, then the iPad 2 can be $100 cheaper than the Xoom. More options are always welcome, but these two products are very competitive with one another price-wise.

Winner: It's a tie if you go wifi, but the iPad 2 wins if you get 3G or or okay with less storage

Tecca

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