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Xoom: the iPad’s first real rival

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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The tablet computer wars begin today.

In the 11 months since Apple Inc. unveiled its remarkable iPad, we’ve seen competing products, but they’re all scarcely worth a shrug. Samsung Corp.’s sawed-off Galaxy Tab? A nice little machine, but out of its league. The Streak 7 from Dell Inc.? Get serious.

But now comes the Xoom, the new tablet from Motorola Mobility Inc., and suddenly, Apple has an opponent with live ammo. With a bigger screen, beefier electronics, and a sleek, new version of Google Inc.’s Android operating system, the 10.1-inch Xoom measures up to the iPad in most every category, and flat out whips it in more than a few. Motorola has stumbled by bringing the Xoom to market with some of its features not yet functional. Even so, it has delivered the iPad’s first legitimate rival.

The Xoom is sold by the cellular carrier Verizon Wireless for $799.99, or $599.99 with a two-year service agreement that provides wireless 3G data service for as little as $20 a month. There’s a cheaper version of the Xoom that uses only Wi-Fi wireless networking to access the Internet. Motorola says it will offer this in Europe for $600, but hasn’t committed to an American version yet.

For now, Apple edges out the Xoom on price.

You’d pay just $729 for a 3G iPad with the Xoom’s 32-gigabyte solid-state hard drive. But the Xoom delivers more for the money. There’s a dual-core processor chip that serves up massive computing power.

While the iPad lacks a built-in camera, the Xoom has two of them — a two-megapixel one in front and a five-megapixel one on the back that will shoot both stills and 720p high-definition video. There’s a slot that allows users to add up to 32 gigabytes of extra flash memory, another option the iPad lacks.

And although the Xoom currently relies on Verizon Wireless’s relatively slow 3G network, the tablet can be upgraded to the company’s new, high-speed 4G service. Xoom owners can bring in their tablets for a 4G hardware upgrade, beginning this spring. Verizon will do it for free, though it’s not clear whether they will raise the monthly subscription rate.

The Xoom is the first tablet computer to run Honeycomb, an Android update tailored specifically for tablets. It’s a huge improvement, too. All controls are part of the touchscreen — gone are the usual Android control buttons permanently fixed to the lower edge of the device. Rotate the device, and the controls spin right along with it, so they’re always where they need to be.

Forget having to close your current app and hunt around for the “settings’’ button; it’s always close at hand. Tap an icon in the upper right corner for a full inventory of apps. And in the lower left, there’s a quick way to view all currently active apps.

With so much computing power, the Xoom is good at multitasking. I could launch a game, switch to a YouTube video, open a Web browser, then hop back into the game exactly where I’d left off.

But the most remarkable evidence of the Xoom’s brute power shows up in its version of Google Maps.

Open a map of Boston, then zoom into a close-up of downtown. Out pop 3-D images of the skyscrapers that reveal their relative sizes and shapes. You can twist the image with your fingers, rotating the buildings for a 360-degree view. Then you can tilt the image, so you appear to be soaring in a helicopter above Mass. Ave. or Storrow Drive.

The iPad still has more and better apps, of course. And although the Xoom claims a higher-resolution screen, I thought it had slightly washed-out look. I prefer the richer, warmer colors of the iPad screen.

I’m also troubled that Verizon and Motorola brought the Xoom to market a little too soon. Apart from the unfinished 4G feature, the tablet’s add-on memory slot doesn’t work yet, pending a free software update. The same goes for the ability to run videos that use the popular Flash technology from Adobe Systems Inc.

Why the rush? Probably because Apple is expected to announce an upgraded iPad next week.

The Xoom’s missing features and the coming of the iPad 2 are two good reasons for prudent shoppers to wait before buying.

Besides, Hewlett-Packard Co. should have its new TouchPad tablet ready for action in about a month, and Research in Motion Ltd. will soon release the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.

It’s no fun for Apple, which created the tablet computer market less than a year ago and will now have to fight for every future sale.

But technology wars are good for the rest of us, and judging by the Motorola Xoom, this one’s going to be very good indeed.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.