Honeycomb tablet comparison: Acer Iconia vs. Motorola Xoom

Having lived with a Motorola Xoom for a while now I can say it's not a bad device, but there are a few things that have been bothering me. These issues along with it recently starting to act up (there appears to be a developing hardware issue with my particular device) have had me debating whether to exchange it or to just return it and get a different Honeycomb based tablet. I purchased a second Android tablet to help make the decision: the Acer Iconia.

These are my initial thoughts on how the two compare. While my primary interest is in using the tablet for software development, I also want it for personal use so my notes are going present differences from both perspectives. Where the devices are essentially identical feature-wise, I'm not going to list those capabilities. These are both stock, unrooted wifi models running the latest version of Android from the manufacturers. The only significant difference spec-wise between the devices is that the Xoom has 32GB of built in storage and the Iconia has 16GB.

Overall look and feel of the hardware

The Motorola Xoom feels like a very solid, well engineered device. It's also a fairly sleek looking tablet (aside from the decision to put the logo on the front.) However, something has always felt off about it while holding it. The balance just doesn't feel right when attempting to hold it in one hand and forget about using it in portrait mode. Overall, it feels unwieldy for casual use.

The Acer Iconia Tab A500 doesn't feel as solid, isn't nearly as sleek, and is a bit heavier than the Xoom. However, it actually feels lighter and doesn't have that 'something just isn't right' sensation the Xoom does. My best guess as to the different feel is in how the weight is distributed within the devices as well as the contour and the slightly wider bezel of the Iconia.

The cameras (front and back) on the Iconia are pushed over to the left almost as an afterthought while the Xoom has them more centrally located at the top of the device. The Xoom has a dual LED flash with a significant green tint, the Iconia has a single LED flash without the tint issue. The image quality of pictures and video taken with the Xoom camera is higher than those taken with the Iconia.

The Xoom has a led indicator in the upper right corner of the bezel that blinks to indicate you have unread mail when the screen is off which is a handy feature. This is more than offset by the poor placement and feel of the buttons on the device. Sure, you get used to the power button on the back but it never feels right and the volume buttons are annoying to say the least. In contrast, the buttons on the Iconia are better positioned and feel better ergonomically. Also, the Iconia has an orientation lock slider on the top which I like since I occasionally want to use the tablet (the Iconia, not the Xoom) in portrait mode and it's nice to have a quick physical switch to do that rather than going into the device settings.

Hardware differences

While both devices appear to be using rather average laptop grade screens, the Xoom has a grainier look and a fairly limited viewing angle before it starts to appear washed out. The Iconia screen is also not perfect as it appears to display a more limited range of colors (I've seen reports that it only supports 262k colors which would not surprise me given the banding and dithering that can be seen when looking closely) and it is much easier to identify individual pixels on the Iconia display. Neither display is stellar, however I find the Iconia display to be superior to the Xoom's for general use.

The Xoom has an additional sensor that most other Android devices do not: a barometer. The Iconia counters with a capability the Xoom doesn't have: haptic feedback. Haptic feedback seems the more useful feature.

Both devices have external micro SD slots but Acer beats Motorola on this front since their micro SD slot actually works. I understand that Acer's solution is a hack until Google provides a longer term solution but the lack of communication from both Motorola and Google give me no confidence as to when this is going to happen. An additional external hardware feature on the Iconia is a full size USB port though I haven't yet figured out how to get it to work with an external mass storage device. Otherwise, the connectors are essentially identical on both devices (including proprietary dock connectors though the Iconia's is far more noticeable.)

One area of disappointment with the Iconia is the GPS. It seems to take a long time (i.e. a minute or two) to lock on and provide location information while the Xoom is nearly instantaneous. The Iconia performance with GPS is barely adequate.

Both devices use an external charger vs. charging via the USB port. While the ability for a fast recharge is useful, not needing to carry a charger when you take the device somewhere for an extended period of time would be more useful. Related to charging, I find the longer power cord bundled with the Xoom to be more convenient than the one that came with the Iconia.

The Xoom has a rather strange setup in which the charging indicator (on the front of the device, vs the back with the power button) only displays when the device is powered off while it is charging so I've rarely seen it. The Iconia put the charging indicator in the power button that lights up even when the device is powered on which makes much more sense. The Xoom seems to charge more quickly though both are more than adequate in how fast they can top off the battery.

The Xoom has the edge in battery life lasting approximately 2 hours longer on a single charge. Though it may be possible to improve the Iconia battery life via a software fix... see the note about Cell standby.

Software differences

Right now, a huge obvious difference is that the Xoom runs 3.1 and the Iconia is still on 3.0.1. It sounds like that should be addressed soon and I can live with 3.0 again for a little while. Motorola has taken a very hands off approach re: customization which I prefer. Acer appears to have made a few minor changes from a look and feel standpoint and mainly customized the UI via preloaded apps which can always be ignored (though there do appear to be some very minor differences in the stock Android apps and settings.) The downside to the preloaded apps on both devices, and I imagine this is an issue with any other Android tablet, is that they can't be uninstalled without rooting and/or flashing the device with a new image.

This brings me to the biggest negative of the Iconia by far: it has a locked bootloader. The Xoom is unlockable. It's not a big issue at the moment since there is very little benefit of installing a custom image until there is a 3.x code drop from Google which sounds like it should happen around the end of the year when Ice Cream Sandwich ships. From what I've been able to dig up, it sounds like Acer is reconsidering it's position re: locked bootloaders. I really hope they provide an option to unlock. To some developers and power users, including myself, this is an important option.

One interesting thing I noticed is there appears to be a difference in the amount of available memory on the devices: the Xoom shows 526 meg of memory available to applications, the Iconia 596 meg. Right now I'm not clear if this is just a difference between 3.0 and 3.1, the applications loaded and running on the devices, or if there are optimizations that Acer has made in their implementation of Honeycomb. I will check this again after the 3.1 update is available.

Iconia issue: not correctly setting the time

Both devices are set to automatically set the time via network and set to GMT-04. For whatever reason, the Iconia is exactly 12 hours off while the Xoom sets the time correctly. This issue can easily be worked around but that shouldn't be necessary.

Iconia issue: Cell Standby

When you look at battery use in settings, 'Cell standby' is listed as a significant battery user (9-15% the times I've checked) even when the tablet is idle. Putting the Iconia in airplane mode does not help with this so hopefully Acer will fix the issue in a future software update. The issue here is that the Iconia model I have has no cell radio, so why is this process even running? If it exists to allow for connecting a USB cellular modem (just a guess), it should still be possible to disable it. Assuming the battery usage report is correct, this would help with battery life.


I develop primarily running Linux and one minor issue I had to deal with was the Iconia not being recognized by DDMS (the Xoom was). Following these steps quickly fixed this. The short version is that I had to create /etc/udev/rules.d/51-android.rules, add in the line:
SUBSYSTEM=="usb", SYSFS{idVendor}=="0502", MODE="0666"
and then stop and restart the adb server if necessary.

Wrapping up

The highlights to me, after using both devices side by side, are that the Xoom is superior from a fit and finish standpoint, provides a more responsive GPS capability, and has an unlockable bootloader. In just about every other respect that mattered to me, I preferred the Iconia (which surprisingly includes the overall feel of the device in your hands) and is also the less expensive device. This conclusion surprised me as I expected to like the Xoom more, and the Iconia less, than I did. It came down to the realization that while the Xoom is a fine development device, probably even the better of the two when looked at only for that purpose, it's not a device I want to use casually. For my needs, I've decided to take a small risk from the standpoint of future OS updates and getting the bootloader unlocked, and stick with the Iconia.

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