Thursday, February 24, 2011

2011: The Year of the iPad Clones

By David Pogue

It’s an old pattern by now. Phase 1: Apple introduces some new gadget. The bloggers and the industry tell us why it’ll fail. Phase 2: It goes on sale. The public goes nuts for it. Phase 3: Every company and its brother gets to work on a copycat.

The Motorola Xoom tablet screen has a slightly higher resolution than the iPad screen, and a different shape.

It happened with the iMac and the iPhone. Now the iPad is entering Phase 3. Apple sold 15 million iPads in nine months, so you can bet that 2011 will be the Year of the iPad Clone.

Starting Thursday, you’ll be able to buy one of the most eagerly awaited iPad rivals: the Motorola Xoom. Like most iPad aspirants, this one runs Google’s Android software — but the Xoom is the first that runs Android 3.0 (code-named Honeycomb), which Google designed for tablets instead of phones.

The Xoom continues Motorola’s recent streak of attractive, compact and well-built gadgets. Unless you inspect the back panel (rubberized plastic instead of silver aluminum), you might not be able to tell this touch-screen slab from the iPad.

There are some differences, though. One is the price: the Xoom costs a stunning $800, $70 more than the equivalent 32-gigabyte iPad (WiFi and 3G cellular). You can get the Xoom for $600 if you’re willing to commit to a two-year Verizon contract. That means paying $20 a month to get online using Verizon’s cellular network (if you can get by on only 1 gigabyte of data), instead of just Wi-Fi hot spots.

The Xoom also has a dual-core processor, which, according to Motorola, means smoother game animation. And it has cameras. On the back, there’s a 5-megapixel still camera that can also record high-definition video. On the front, there’s a low-resolution video camera for video chatting. The new Android software includes a beefed-up Camera module, which gives weird prominence to gimmicky effects you’ll never use, like Solarize, Sepia and Polarize.

Clearly, a camera is useful on a tablet, and will remain a gigantic competitive advantage for the Xoom — at least until the iPad 2 comes out next month (if Apple sticks to its usual annual update pattern, that is). If the new iPad doesn’t have a camera or two, I’ll eat a tablet.

The Xoom’s screen has slightly higher resolution than the iPad’s, and it gives the tablet a slightly different shape — more like a business envelope than a greeting-card envelope. The screen shape is a better match for hi-definition videos, but worse for photos and maps.

The Xoom has stereo speakers instead of mono, a battery good for 10 hours of video playback and a power button on the back panel. Motorola says that later this year, a software upgrade will let the Xoom take advantage of Verizon’s 4G cellular networks, which means better downloading speed in a few lucky cities.

One very cool feature: The Xoom has an HDMI jack, meaning that a single cable can send both audio and hi-def video to a TV. That’s a perfect proposition for the peripatetic PowerPoint presenter.

Motorola’s dock doctor has been working overtime, too. You can buy either a speaker dock or a charging dock that automatically activates the Xoom’s slide show or alarm-clock mode. If the Xoom’s hardware were the whole story, it wouldn’t be much more than an anecdote. Those hardware improvements alone won’t knock the iPad —especially the iPad 2 — off its pedestal, especially considering the 25 percent price premium.

No, the more important story here is Honeycomb, the Google tablet software. This is the real iPad competitor; Honeycomb tablets in every size, shape and price range will soon be arriving in stores.

So how is Honeycomb? Four words: more powerful, more complicated.

Read the rest here.

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