(Pocket-lint) - It's interesting timing that, having been the first out of the blocks with the original Honeycomb tablet, and having been the Google approved launch tablet, the original Motorola Xoom is now nearly a year old.
The hardware has aged, the software has updated and Android tablets have evolved, slightly. It is in that little band of "slightly" that the Xoom 2 lies. Are there enough changes to make the Xoom 2 more appealing than the original? Certainly. But is there enough of a change to make this tablet more appealing than it's rivals from the likes of Asus or Samsung?
The look and feel of the tablet is one of the biggest changes. Clipped corners, tactile edging and a slimmer design set the Xoom 2 up for the future. We weren't sure that this would be enough of a change when the tablet was launched, but having lived with and used the tablet in place of the original, it's a welcome relief.
That said, the Xoom was rather chunky when put alongside the Eee Pad or the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Where the Samsung exhibits sleek, if perhaps copycat lines, the Xoom 2 does look different. It's futuristic to a degree, an aggressive design where the iPad 2 is softer, sleek and slimline. It's masculine, with it's two-tone black and grey finish and looks rather more like a rugged tablet, albeit without the additional bulk.
But it succeeds in feeling good in the hands. The slimmer profile is easy to grip and that extra dab of rubberised finish makes it nice and secure when you do. The weight of 599g makes it the same weight as the iPad 2, the thickness matches at 8.8mm. To an extent, this has been designed to compete on the spec sheet and the results are rather good.
Motorola has kept the buttons on the rear, with both the standby and the volume accessed by the right fingers. There is just about enough of a difference between the adjacent controls to press the right button without looking, but it does take a while to make it second nature.
The top of the device sees a 3.5mm headphone jack along with the IR port. The bottom sees the Micro-USB and micro HDMI ports. The separate DC input has now gone, so you can charge the Xoom 2 using a regular charger - one less thing to put in your travel bag.
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On the bottom edge of the Xoom 2 there is still a flap which opens to reveal where you could have expansion slots. On the preproduction model we spotted SIM and microSD ports here. The microSD slot is physically blocked now; the SIM card slot appears to be covered with a foam barrier, but we'll bet that 3G versions will appear in some territories.
Under the hood
The first run of Android tablets leapt on the Nvidia Tegra 2 platform, but the next generation sees differentiation. While the recently announced Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime takes the quad-core Tegra 3, Motorola has opted for a Texas Instruments OMAP4430, clocked at 1.2GHz. You'll find 1GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, although only about 12GB is available to use.
It's a specification that makes for a capable tablet: it's noticeably snappier in day-to-day operation that it's predecessor. The start-up time has been much reduced - should you ever turn the thing off - and generally apps open and run quickly with little sign of lag.
The new 1280 x 800 pixel resolution display is brighter and more vibrant than the previous version and offers better viewing angles too, thanks to it being an IPS display. The result is that you get a slightly warmer rendering of colours, but they maintain their fidelity from angles where some tablets start to fade or change colour.
There is a problem though, which perhaps can't be directed solely at Motorola. First of all, we found that not all apps were available, for example the current Pocket-lint game du jour Tiny Tower. The app runs perfectly well if you manually install it, but Android Market refuses to accept that it is compatible. This is just one example, but could prove to be something of a problem if you can't access all the apps you expect.
We also had some initial problems with Flash, with no video displaying. This was solved by a complete wipe and restart - something to watch out for.
Software and MotoCast
With the Motorola Xoom being the launch device for Honeycomb, it was very much unfettered, using plain, stock Android. Honeycomb tablets haven't shown the degree of customisation that Gingerbread handsets did, but the Xoom 2 now has a few tweaks to bring Motorola to the fore.
In some ways, this is Motorola's first chance to put its stamp on the software in same way as rivals have. As such, you'll find a number of Moto apps that offer additional services. As we've seen with Honeycomb, differentiation comes very much in bundled software or services, rather than huge differences in power, performance or specs.
Motorola has, elsewhere, tweaked things visually. The icons are slightly altered, but otherwise the Xoom 2 is much like stock Honeycomb. Some bundled apps add interest, but things like Skitch are free anyway, but you also get Citrix and Fuze Meeting ready to connect you with your business.
Note taking has also made it on to the agenda, with Evernote and Floating Notes finding their way onto the system bar at the bottom. This plays to the stylus accessory that Motorola offers and it all seemed to work well enough, even if the inclusion here is a little over the top: a simple desktop shortcut would suffice.
Before you panic, there is no sign of Motoblur, something that Motorola is moving away from. You'll find obscure references to Motoblur - in device versions and support pages, for example, but nothing like on previous Motorola handsets. What you will find, however, is MotoCast, a remote access client that will let you access the content of your PC from a remote location via the Internet.
You need to install the MotoCast software on your PC or Mac first, then set-up what you want to access. You'll then get remote access both from compatible Motorola devices and through the website at mymotocast.com. Content is principally divided into media categories, but you do get a straight file/folder tree to navigate to locate things like documents.
Of course, to make this work your PC will have to remain on, and remember that this service is operating via the Internet, so if you have a cap on your home broadband, then you might want to consider other methods when it comes to streaming media around the home. But we found it worked well, and we like the fact you can download anything you want to your tablet, so if you forget a document, or want that album or movie for a flight, it isn't a problem.
MotoCast is also the name applied to Motorola's new syncing software - MotoCast USB, derived from Mark/Space which some Android users may be familiar with. This is also fairly clever, as syncing is something that Android can often neglect. Plug your Xoom 2 in (in our case to a Mac) and rather than the normal Android file transfer app, it will fire up MotoCast USB.
This will allow you to set syncing for different types of media. It automatically selected default Mac folders for us, but you can select any folder you want. For example, we pointed it to a network folder for video syncing, which couldn't have been simpler.
It also contains conversion software, so if you select a file to sync that the Xoom 2 doesn't support, it will convert it. We found our DivX HD, AVI and MOV test files all converted. It's a somewhat slow process, but it does mean that you can stick with the default media player, rather than having to download another from Android Market.
However this is a double-edged sword, as nowhere in MotoCast USB is the option to manually add an individual file. Want to add a single video? You can't, you have to go through the same route of nominating a folder to sync. At the same time, Android file transfer is disabled, it won't detect the Xoom 2 so that avenue is closed. For individual files, downloading via MotoCast (the non USB part) might be the simpler option.
Mighty Moto media?
There are two versions of the Motorola Xoom 2. This larger, 10.1-inch model and the smaller 8.2-inch version dubbed the "Media Edition". Motorola made it clear to us that they see this version very much as the home tablet, so likely to be your sofa companion.
With that in mind, Motorola has added an IR transmitter, like the Sony Tablet S. This works in cahoots with the pre-installed Dijit app. Dijit was originally designed for use with the Griffin Beacon, but worked without fault on the Xoom 2.
You can program in your controllers for various devices, but the interface and the process isn't as advanced as Sony's solution, which has a dab more polish and is easier to set-up.
There is also no integrated provision for media streaming, other than using MotoCast. We turned to our perennial favourite Skifta which worked well enough, although we found that it wouldn't play in the correct aspect ratio through the Gallery video player, either streaming or from the internal memory. Video does look fantastic on that screen however.
There is also a micro HDMI on the bottom of the Xoom 2 that will mirror the display when connected to a larger screen, so you can play back your movies on your TV.
The speakers are rear mounted near the top of the device. They are a little tinny but that's not unusual in a tablet. Their location makes them perform better when placed flat down on a surface, but they will get muffled when propped up on your knees in bed, for example. You also get audio controls, so you can change the sound profile to better suit your preference and there is an impressive range of options. They only really work with headphones, but you can widen the sound stage and opt to have the bass really fierce, or under control, to better suit what you're listening to.
The camera interface is standard Honeycomb, and there is little in here to get too excited about. We're not so bothered about camera performance or tweaks on tablets because we think you're much more likely to use your phone than hold up a 10-inch tablet to snap a shot.
Like most tablets, there's nothing to get too excited about when it comes to the performance either. There is little grasp on colour or definition, but as we said, we're not too worried about that. Video offers two resolutions, "high" is 1280 x 720, but again, it's not the best HD video we've seen coming out of a mobile device.
On the battery front we found that it lasted well and have nothing to complain about when it comes to longevity. Motorola's cited 10+ hours, plus respectable standby time rings true, and with daily use during the past week, battery hasn't been a worry.
We like the design and the feel of the Motorola Xoom 2 and it's a tablet we've enjoyed using. The weight makes a noticeable difference over the previous Xoom, as it's competitively light. But Ice Cream Sandwich and quad-core processors may steal the headlines for Android tablets and the Xoom 2 misses out on both.
We find ourselves frustrated by the lack of microSD. When the previous tablet and rival models offer the option of easily expanding the memory we can't quite grasp why it isn't included here. Having MotoCast isn't a substitute for easy local content, although it is a nice addition, and syncing through MotoCast USB is nice too. A little more freedom, and we'd be fully behind it.
As with other Android devices, a few quirks around the Android Market and compatibility might leave some frustrated, but it's a good quality Android tablet. We're just not sure it will shine so bright come the next slew of updated devices.