I have been getting more deeply involved in Android development of late, and
these days that means developing for both phones and tablets. Unfortunately,
the emulator for Honeycomb is incredibly slow. Therefore, I decided to
purchase the Wi-Fi version of the Motorola Xoom shortly after
it was released.
Just a month later, I learnt about the Asus Eee Pad Transformer
and its well-integrated keyboard dock. Seeing the opportunity to have a device
that can be used as a netbook, I decided to get one of these as well.
Now that I have had the chance to use both of these devices, I thought I would
take the time to write about both of them primarily from the standpoint of a
The Motorola Xoom
The Motorola Xoom was the first Honeycomb tablet, and Google used it as their
development device. It was initially released as a 3G model for
Verizon, and later as a less expensive Wi-Fi only
model. Both versions have 32GB of built-in memory, and a
non-functioning microSDHC card slot. Overall, it is a well-built and solid
Developing with the Xoom
Developing applications with the Xoom is a fairly standard experience. Simply
connect the tablet to your computer via USB, just as you would with most any
other Android device.
However, if you want to work at a lower level, the Xoom’s bootloader can
easily be flashed just like a Nexus device. Unfortunately, it seems like the
full source code for Honeycomb will not be released, at least not until it’s
released as Ice Cream Sandwich.
On the cutting edge
One thing that makes the Xoom particularly interesting to developers is that it
appears to be the primary tablet used for development at Google. As a result,
it is the first to get operating system updates. Android 3.1 was announced at
Google I/O, and within days both versions of the tablet started getting OTA
updates to this latest Android release.
Not quite complete
Unfortunately, despite its expense, it is not quite complete. It has now been
three months since the initial release of the Xoom, and the software to make
the microSDHC card slot is still vapour-ware. This is particularly
embarrassing since other tablets have now shipped with working slots.
Similarly, for the 3G version, the upgrade to LTE will require mailing the
device to Motorola and waiting at least a week for it to be returned. For a
user, this is very annoying; for a developer, this is potentially downtime.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer
The Transformer was released in the US late last month. In many ways, it is a
typical Android tablet: 10.1 inch 1280×800 pixel display, 1GB RAM, and a 1.0GHz
dual core Tegra 2 processor. It is currently on Wi-Fi only, and available in
both 16GB and 32GB configurations. It also has
a working microSDHC card slot.
However, what really sets the Transformer apart is this keyboard
dock. Slipping your tablet into the dock transforms your
tablet into a nice Honeycomb netbook. In addition to the full keyboard, the
dock also adds a full size SDHC/MMC card reader, two full-size USB host mode
ports, and a battery that combines with the tablet’s battery to provide upwards
of 14 hours’ worth of power.
Developing with the Transformer
Like the Xoom, you can just plug the Transformer into your computer’s USB slot,
and you are ready to develop. However, the Transformer has a couple of
differences that make it less developer-friendly.
The tablet (and dock) use a proprietary socket that handles charging the
battery, connecting to the dock, and connecting to a computer. The most
important implication of this is that you cannot charge your tablet at the same
time you do development. To make matters worse, the cable included with the
tablet is quite short.
In practice, the battery life of the tablet is fairly good. Using the dock
should give enough battery life to handle any marathon coding session, but if
you forget to recharge your batteries you may end up having to disconnect from
the computer in order to charge the tablet. I have not investigated if the
dock’s USB ports can be used for an adb session.
Additionally, the Transformer does not have an unlocked bootloader. This makes
it much more difficult to root the device or to do any low-level development.
It is too bad Asus has chosen not to make the device more hackable.
Keeping up to date
According to Asus, Android 3.1 will not be released for the Transformer until
sometime in June. While this may not be as speedy as some may like, it is
roughly in line with other non-Xoom tablets.
One way in which I believe Asus has been better than Motorola is in releasing
updates to fix problems experienced by users. Some engineers from Asus
apparently hang out in the XDA developer forums, and have worked
with users to solve various software problems. The result has been a series of
updates since the product’s launch.
Beyond the tablet experience
The one thing that struck me while using the Xoom is that a tablet makes a
splendid consumption device. It is good for surfing the web, watching a video,
or playing a game. However, as a production device, such as writing e-mail or
taking notes, it could not replace my laptop. It is true that the large screen
makes typing on the tablet much better than trying to do the same on a phone,
but it still cannot match the productivity of having a full keyboard.
The Transformer promises to change all of that. The keyboard dock will allow
me to replace my laptop for many lighter tasks, such as checking e-mail,
writing, and even some system administration and programming. I am currently
working on modifying [ConnectBot][cbot], the popular Android SSH client, to
work with the Asus keyboard (and other full keyboards via USB and bluetooth).
This will help make the tablet not just a platform for development, but a
useful tool in its own right.
Choosing a tablet
The Xoom and the Transformer are not the only options for an Android tablet.
However, at the moment, I think these two tablets are the most compelling for
the Android developer. Which should you choose? That all depends on your needs.
Choose the Xoom, if you…
- Want to be running the latest Android release
- Need to easily root your device or modify the firmware
- Do not mind paying a premium. The Wi-Fi version retails at $600, $100 more
than the equivalent Transformer.
Choose the Transformer, if you…
- Want the best value in an Android tablet. At $400 for the 16GB version, it
is the least expensive Honeycomb tablet on the market.
- Would like to get more out of your tablet. You can spend the same amount of
money and get a better netbook. However, if you are going to get an Android
tablet for development anyway, spending the extra $150 for the dock may
change how you use your tablet.