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You may have noticed that I didn't unequivocally say the Xoom's screen beats the iPad for movies. That's because it doesn't. I found videos, photos and other graphics to be blockier, blurrier and/or duller than on the iPad and the Galaxy Tab. Video calls in Google Chat, which you can make over both 3G and wi-fi connections, also looked murky. The display looked better when I manually cranked up the brightness it may err on the dim side to conserve battery juice but it was still no knockout.
Speaking of battery life, I haven't had the tablet long enough to render any definitive verdicts about its endurance; Motorola claims 10 hours of video playback on a charge, which seems plausible based on my limited experience.
On the software side, the Xoom brings major benefits in the form of Honeycomb, an operating system which upsizes Android for bigger screens and also solves some long-standing flaws. It's slicker and less nerdy than earlier versions of the OS, as seen on phones such as Samsung's Nexus S and Motorola's Atrix, and no longer reliant on physical buttons and menus that tend to obscure features rather than reveal them.
Instead of using an excess of buttons, Honeycomb puts options like the ability to step backward through apps on a control strip that lives at the bottom of the screen no matter how you hold the tablet a much more elegant and approachable solution than previously used. There are still menus, but they're at the top of the screen where they're easier to spot, and they feel less like they've had a kitchen sink's worth of features jammed into them.
Honeycomb also smartly reworks the standard Android apps, including a browser, Google Maps, Google Talk, YouTube, a music player, a photo album, a calendar and more to take advantage of a spacious tablet display. YouTube, for instance, incorporates both a video viewer and thumbnail images of clips on a single screen. Like the iPad's Mail program, the Gmail and Email clients show folders on the left and the contents of your inbox on the right. (Yes, there are still separate e-mail apps for Gmail and for everything else, continuing a lingering Android mystery.)
Several more-powerful-than-the-iPad features that feel cramped or overcomplicated on Android phones realize their full potential on the Xoom. A status panel in the lower right-hand corner is a slicker version of Windows' System Tray, tracking incoming mail, downloads in progress and the like. Widgets itty-bitty applets that sit directly on the desktop benefit greatly from the roomier display.
All in all, the Honeycomb-powered Xoom feels like Motorola and Google took a powerful subnotebook computer, sheared off the keyboard and replaced it with a nicely designed touch interface. That's a very different experience than the ultra-streamlined, push-button world of the iPad, but it's a legitimate one in its own right.
As with other aspects of the Xoom, parts of Honeycomb do have a not-quite-finished quality. Both the browser and the photo viewer have crashed on me one time apiece and I've encountered a few odd freezes that were likely the result of glitchy software rather than underpowered hardware. Otherwise, the tablet's high-end innards delivered an experience at least as fluid as the iPad, even when I had a bunch of programs open.
The fact that the Xoom will be joined by Honeycomb devices from Dell, Lenovo, LG, Toshiba and other manufacturers should encourage third-party developers to build apps that take advantage of this Android upgrade. Honeycomb is compatible with existing apps in Google's Android market (most of them, anyhow I had trouble with Facebook and Twitter). But they tend to wind up with vast amounts of unused screen space, as if they were wearing an XXL user interface when they'd really fit into a small. Like iPhone apps on the iPad, phone-size Android programs are really just stopgaps until a critical mass of true tablet apps come along. (The iPad got over that hump quickly there are now 60,000-plus apps designed for it.)
At a recent Google press event, developers demoed some attractive upcoming Honeycomb programs, such as a version of TIME's sister mag Sports Illustrated. I was also able to try a few promising ones on the Xoom, including the Pulse news reader. Apps for streaming or downloading music and movies will be particularly essential: there are rumors of an imminent Google Music service, but the Xoom I tried doesn't incorporate anything that competes with Apple's iTunes Store.
So what's the best strategy for would-be tablet buyers now that the Xoom is here? That's easy: Wait! At the very least, you want to see what Apple has to say about the new iPad on March 2. Bide your time a bit longer and you'll have even more tablets to choose from. Chances are that the Xoom will remain a contender no matter what the next few months bring. And the Xoom of the near future with 4G wireless, Flash, a working SD slot, more tablet apps and, with any luck, a less-crash-prone version of Honeycomb will be that much better equipped to compete.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday.