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Motorola’s Xoom tab represents first viable iPad alternative

by Phil Hornshaw

Despite a few checks against it in the run-up to its launch, Motorola’s (MMI) Xoom hit store shelves today, signalling the first major retaliation from the Google (GOOG) Android camp against Apple’s (AAPL) tablet dominance.

Reviews coming in from tech pundits around the web suggest the Xoom is a solid offering and pretty much the first tablet that can stand toe-to-toe with the iPad and not get completely steamrolled. The general consensus suggests that while the Xoom has its issues -- on-board software for things such as email isn’t as strong as the iPad’s, for example, and its price tag makes the iPad the cheaper choice -- it excels in other areas.

Principally, the Xoom is a faster machine and a hardware upgrade over the existing iPad, although we’re probably less than a week out from hearing about Apple’s next tablet offering. Reviews, in general, are praising Honeycomb for its steps forward and the apps native to it, as well as the smart features like its widget system. Android 3.0 Honeycomb is Google’s operating system specifically designed for tablets, and it seems the company has gotten a lot of things right with this first outing -- though there’s more work that can be done.

But Xoom also has some tricks up its sleeve: namely, a free upgrade to Verizon’s (VZ) 4G LTE network that’ll be available for Xoom owners in about 90 days. According to a report from Droid Life, Verizon’s official upgrade site, which can be accessed here, details how to sign-up for, and send in a Xoom, to be upgraded, which will take about six days. Shipping to Verizon and back again is covered by the company.

If there’s one thing to get excited about when it comes to the Xoom over the iPad, it’s the possibilities of 4G LTE compatibility. Verizon made a whole keynote presentation at CES 2011 about the capabilities of Android devices on the upgraded network, including the Xoom. If the network is as cool, fast and functional as Verizon makes it sound, Xoom owners could soon be playing cross-platform games with PC users from anywhere with 4G coverage, or making Skype video calls from coffee shops and parks.

And while Apple has inked an iOS deal with Verizon to share the iPhone (and probably the next iPad), if another iPad is announced on March 2, it seems somewhat doubtful the new device will support the LTE network. That could happen in a year or so, but Apple is notoriously slow about grabbing on to new carrier technologies -- the same thing happened with the change from EDGE networks to 3G.

We’ll know more on March 2, but that could mean that if customers want access to Verizon’s much-hyped new network -- and if it is as good as the company claims, which is 10 times faster than 3G, by the way -- then those customers need a Xoom. That’s a pretty compelling selling point.

All in all, it seems Android fans finally have a viable alternative to the iPad in the Motorola Xoom. It costs around $75 more for the Xoom than to get a comparable current-generation iPad, but at least for the time being, that extra money buys a stronger tablet and access to 4G service in just a few months.

It’s likely that a lot of tablet customers are still holding out to see what Apple has to say on March 2, and that’s fair. But the Xoom does prove that the iPad isn’t the only game in town -- not by a long shot -- and it seems Google knows how to make a great tablet experience, too. Expect the company to only improve now that Honeycomb is out in the wild, waiting to be played with.