We’ve been anxiously awaiting the Motorola Xoom’s arrival ever since we groped it at CES. The first dual-core tablet! The first tablet to use Android’s tablet-only Honeycomb OS! The first Android tablet that doesn’t immediately make us think “look at that giant phone”! And, yeah, the first legitimate iPad competitor, period. What we found was a great tablet–not a “promising” product, but a tablet that is seriously fast, fun to use, well-designed, and very pretty (when was the last time you heard “pretty” applied to an Android device?).

What’s New

The 10-inch Xoom is both the first tablet to hit stores that runs the Honeycomb version of Android, which Google has designed specifically for larger screens, and the first boasting a dual-core processor (Nvidia’s Tegra 2) to handle heaps of tasks at once. (This will become the standard soon; BlackBerry’s Playbook and likely the next iPad will also have dual-core processors.) Google has shown off the Xoom as the flagship of this new generation of Android devices: the first true Android tablet, running the first true Android tablet OS.

What’s Good

Google Apps: We already knew that Google was pushing panel-based app formatting for Honeycomb, so their suite has to set a strong example (sometimes to its own detriment, but more on that when we talk YouTube later on). When you first open Gmail, for instance, it may look just like it does in iOS, but the experience is much more seamless. In message view, the left-most column of the screen houses a list of items in a folder (say, your inbox), while the right two-thirds displays an expanded, threaded conversation view; if you ask me, the Honeycomb format trounces even web-based Gmail. In both Mail and Gmail accounts, the main folder-view allows you to drag-and-drop messages in and out of folders. The Maps app has a similar layout; instead of imposing a search pane and results over the entire screen (as in cellphone Android), it keeps a list of place entries to the leftmost third of the screen, so you can see a snapshot of the location and its, well, location, side-by-side, just as you would on the web.

Notifications and Settings: Honeycomb has taken the notifications bar from the tippity top of the screen and moved it down to the lower righthand corner. From here, no matter what app you’re in, you can see when there’s any activity anywhere else on the device. A new Google Talk message, for example, pops up in its own small box alongside a thumbnail image of whoever sent it. The same goes for emails and tweets, though they’re accompanied by the app logo, instead of a face, and it’s a nice use of the larger screen real estate compared to a smartphone.

Tapping the digital clock opens a full list of notifications, and lets you delete them one by one or as a group. From this window, you can also access all the system settings, something which you (annoyingly) could only do from the homescreen before.

Recent Apps and Multitasking: Beside the virtual Home and Back buttons, which persistently appear at the bottom-left corner of the screen, is the Recent Apps list, which expands into a stack of the last five apps used alongside a thumbnail of the last screen you were on. This column made toggling between apps almost instantaneous; I, for example, hopped quickly between Maps (where I was hunting for a nearby restaurant) and an email–a task which would have taken a healthy amount of double-clicking the home button on an iPad to accomplish.

Widgets: I’ve always found widgets on smartphone Android to be too overwhelming for the small screen. To get any useful at-a-glance information from, say, your Twitter feed, the widget itself must bogart an entire homescreen. Not so in Honeycomb, which Google has positioned as a champion of widgetry. YouTube thumbnails, my Twitter feed, tiled Web bookmarks, and the native music player all fit comfortably on one pane, saving the time of toggling through apps for recent updates and instead presenting them all at one quick glance.

Keyboard: The on-screen keyboard is as close to a match for the iPad as I’ve ever used. The keys are well spaced and plenty large. My only complaint would be that the Alt options are only available on a handful of punctuation keys; rather than a long-press on the Q to pull up the numeral 1, you have to switch back and forth between views–a trick Honeycomb should have borrowed from its immediate Android predecessor FroYo, for sure.

Camera: The camera refresh in Honeycomb is long overdue. When using the rear-facing camera, the captured image takes up about two-thirds of the screen, with the image controls remaining handy on the right, letting you adjust white balance, flash, color palate and scene modes without bouncing in and out of pop-up menus. One click (or tap, or whatever) also swaps between the rear-facing five-megapixel sensor and the front-facing two-megapixel sensor.

Tabbed Browsing: Waiting for a Chrome tablet? Here’s a worthy substitute. If you know the Chrome browser, you know what’s going on here. Honeycomb’s web browser is delightfully powerful, a supercharged version of the Android browser that has much more in common with the desktop Chrome browser than Google’s previous mobile efforts. You can keep several tabs open simultaneously, including “incognito” tabs that keep your history private. I was sure when I opened the New York Times, CNN, ESPN and others all at once that there would be substantial lag when toggling from window to window, but that was happily not the case. It also syncs with your Chrome bookmarks and automatically logs into the primary Google account on the Xoom, so you can hop right into any Web apps.

Button-less-ness: Google has touted Honeycomb as a button-free experience, which made me skeptical at first (I like the one-click-to-home on the iPad and other iOS devices), but I was quickly proven wrong. In video playback, for one, there’s nothing to see but screen; and it only takes a quick tap on the lower or upper edges to pop the navigation and menus back up. The same goes for reading ebooks: ain’t nuthin’ but the page in front of you. There is one physical key, though, it’s just not on the face; in fact, the placement of the power/lock button on the upper-left corner of the device’s back is unusual but near-perfectly placed, right where your pointer finger falls when gripping the slab.

Xoom Hardware: Honeycomb aside, the Xoom is the most well-thought-out tablet I’ve ever tinkered with. Aside from the placement of the lock key (’cause you already know how I feel about that), Motorola has paid plenty of attention to usability and lifespan. While it ships as a 3G and Wifi device, a SIM card slot on the top will allow it to connect to ultra-fast 4G once the Verizon LTE network rolls out later this year. Its memory is also expandable up to 64GB via microSD card (it ships with a hefty 32GB). Its dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor is also well up to the challenges presented by multitasking media; I never noticed as much as a blip in any of my playback or load times, and everyday use was buttery smooth.

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What’s Bad

Too Much Clicking: Honeycomb relies more on the user to do the navigating than iOS does. I found myself endlessly back-clicking in and out of screens (if I left the Gmail app while changing its preferences, hopping back to Gmail from the homescreen or another app would drop me off at the preferences screen, not the inbox), and Honeycomb leaves all the decisions about what to see completely up to the user–something that’s especially a drag when trying to play back video.

The most prominent example is the YouTube app: At first glance the Honeycomb YouTube channel blows the iPad out of the water, presenting a circular gallery of the most popular and top-rated clips. Click though into any of those videos, though, and the shine starts to come off the apple; rather than taking advantage of its screen size (and processing oomph) and launching a fullscreen video, Honeycomb’s pages instead feel more like YouTube’s website; the video is tiled in a three-inch box in the upper-lefthand corner, with metadata below and related links to the right. It takes an extra click to explode into fullscreen, even though that’s what most users would want to happen. (It’s worth noting that clicking an embedded YouTube video while browsing the web does not show this behavior–the video immediately starts playing in fullscreen.)

I also sometimes found it tricky to figure out how to adjust various settings within apps. There are multiple places where you might find the buttons to let you do things–there’s the taskbar at the top of the screen, which changes not only app to app but also within apps depending on what you’re doing, but there’s also a menu button that pops up on the bottom every once in awhile, and then there’s the ability to long-press sometimes but not other times. It never confused me for too long, but there are definitely times when you think, “Now how do I do this…?”

Desktop Sync: There’s still a lot about Honeycomb that feels manual next to iOS, with desktop syncing being a perfect example. Despite the refresh to the tablet music interface, the desktop client experience is still clunky, though admittedly easier than previous Android versions. A quick download of the Mac-only Android File Transfer software led to nothing more than a directory of folders living on our Xoom. Syncing libraries then became a long game of drag-and-drop in 4GB chunks. The control of putting files only where you want them is nice, but babysitting it, not as much. We’ll admit, we’re spoiled by the autonomy iTunes takes on, syncing files on its own in the background. It’s likely that third-party solutions, like the media software DoubleTwist, could make this a less manual experience.

Apps: Android tablets need Android tablet apps. Hopefully, that’ll come in time, but at the moment, there are precious few apps (and the continued absence of a Netflix app) in the redesigned Honeycomb Android Market that are expressly designed for Honeycomb. Not even major apps like Facebook, Kindle, and Twitter are ready, which makes the platform as a whole feel slightly half-baked. Regular Android apps work on the Xoom, but as any iPad owner who’s tried to run an iPhone app will tell you, it’s not a particularly fun experience. Smartphone Android apps look zoomed-in and blurry on the Xoom, and require the use of the Menu button that’s mandatory on Android phones but has been eliminated from the Xoom. (Luckily, Honeycomb can just add a virtual menu button next to Home and Back, but it’s still awkward and inconsistent with the rest of Honeycomb.) It’s unfair to brand the Honeycomb app situation “bad,” since the thing hadn’t even hit the market at time of testing, but it’s something about which customers need to be aware.

The Price

$600 with a two-year contract with Verizon ($800 without), which bests the $730 unsubsidized price of a 32GB iPad. Monthly data access starts at $20 for one gigabyte.

The Bottom Line

It’s only logical to think that Android converts will feel at home in Honeycomb (rhyme scheme not intentional), but all told, it may do enough to tempt iPad lovers, too. What makes Honeycomb, and thus the Xoom, stand apart from its daunting competitor is its potential to stand on its own. iOS is inherently dependent on having a desktop companion, while Android 3.0 pulls nearly all its info from the cloud. In the one evening I had to spend with the Xoom before posting these impressions, I didn’t open my laptop once, nor did I need to. I sat, perched comfortably on the couch, replying to email, coordinating dinner plans, watching videos and reading blogs—all without connecting to a computer. Plus, the microSD expansion slot and easy access to the filesystem, along with the cloud capabilities and multitasking abilities, help make the Xoom feel much more like a possible laptop competitor than the iPad. Whether it can replace a laptop entirely is a question that will take much more time to answer than we had with the Xoom, but it feels more up to the task than the iPad, at least.