Life is a series of choices, and the latest, if you're a technophile, is the Apple iPad vs. the Motorola Xoom. Since the Xoom is the first Android OS 3.0 Honeycomb tablet, and OS optimized for tablets, we've got a much fairer comparison than with Froyo tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
When comparing Android phones with the iPhone, we noted that Apple went for brain-dead ease of use while Android focused on customizability. That UI design philosophy continues with the Xoom vs. iPad: the iPad has a very directed user interface and you can hardly make a misstep. Honeycomb on the other hand, has a more open design that's great for those who like to learn their tech and customize, but not so turnkey for those who are technophobic or neophytes.
That's not to say that Honeycomb is hard to use; in fact it's not and we can thank the gifted UI designer Matias Duarte (the mastermind behind the sublime webOS) at least in part for that. As with pre-tablet Android, you've got a swipe-able home screen with several panels and you can add widgets, shortcuts and more. It looks elegant and techno, and is extremely responsive. Menus have been simplified and made more attractive, something newbies and veterans can appreciate. Google has gone one step beyond Apple and gone completely buttonless, and everything is accomplished on-screen via bottom task bar icons and an app drawer icon. In comparison, the iOS home screen lacks any software buttons; instead you tap on app icons to run an app, and press the single button to return home. The Apple approach is perfect for your non-technically savvy grandma and those with limited use or desire for more computer-like controls. The Honeycomb way provides more power to the user via the software back button, home button, multi-tasking app switcher button and app drawer.
In terms of hardware, the Motorola Xoom wins since it has the most powerful hardware we've seen yet on a tablet. Granted there will be other Honeycomb tablets with similar specs, but the Moto's large 1280 x 800 display, 2 megapixel front camera, dual band 802.11n Wi-Fi and 4G LTE (via free upgrade) should keep it at the head of the pack. The iPad will soon be refreshed, but today's iPad has a single core CPU and 256 megs of RAM, a 1024 x 768 display and no cameras or HDMI vs. the Xoom's dual core CPU, gig of RAM, HDMI port and 2 cameras. It has a slightly larger 10.1" display vs. the iPad's 9.7" display. Both are very responsive to touch and multi-touch, but the iPad's IPS display is brighter and a bit more color saturated. Neither is terribly easy to see outdoors in direct sunlight.
The iPad goes with the metal look while the Xoom conceals its aluminum alloy under a soft touch coating. The Xoom is slightly smaller than the iPad and looks more that a little smaller thanks to the tapered sides and slimming black color. Both weigh 1.6 lbs. and can feel heavy after an hour's holding. Each is very well made with great attention to design and detail: a draw.
The iPad is available in WiFi and WiFi + 3G (AT&T) models and comes in 16, 32 and 64 gig capacities with no storage card slot. The Motorola Xoom is available now with WiFi + Verizon 3G (free 4G upgrade coming within 3 months), and a WiFi only version will be available later, supposedly for $599. The Xoom has 32 gigs of storage and a microSD card slot (SD driver not available at launch, weird). The iPad sells for $499 with 16 gigs and WiFi only, and goes up to $829 for the 64 gig model with WiFi + 3G. Neither iPad nor Xoom requires a contract for 3G service (you can pay month to month with no ETF), though you can get the Xoom with 2 year contract if you wish to save $200 off the $799 retail price.
The app story is clearly very important. Apple's store now lists approximately 60,000 iPad apps while there are 12 on the Android Market. The difference is that the iPad has been on the market 10 months while the first Honeycomb tablet has been on the market 2 days. Given the explosive growth of the Android Market, I'm sure we'll see large numbers of Honeycomb apps within 6 months. But until then, you can make do with non-tablet apps, and some of these run quite well and use the full screen. In fact, though not billed as tablet apps, the latest versions of Flixster Movies provides a tablet-friendly UI and higher quality trailers when installed on the Xoom vs. an Android smartphone. But for shear number of apps, particularly high quality 3D games, the iPad is currently the clear winner.
Likewise, for media consumption, the iPad is the winner thanks not only to the iTunes store for music, TV and movies, but third parties like Netflix. This is the same divide we've noted in the smartphone platform: the iPhone is geared more toward media consumption while Android is geared more toward content creation. You can rip your own videos from DVDs (not getting into laws pertaining to that), watch some streaming TV on TV.com (ABC's app that's not yet updated for the tablet) and stream YouTube. But there's no video download or rental service on the Xoom--a shame.
How about eBooks? Both platforms have plenty of third party options like Kindle, Nook and Kobo (though Apple's recent demand of a 30% cut from in-app sales may impact third party book reader availability). Google has their Google Books store that sells ePub books and offers more than a million public domain classics free. Apple sells books in iTunes but the title selection isn't that large nor you can read those books on non-Apple devices. Browsing books isn't terribly easy in iTunes, while Google's revised Android Market on the Xoom lets you easily switch between apps and books when browsing and searching. Google's ebook reading apps looks uncannily like iBooks on the iPad but there's one key feature missing: bookmarks. Really. C'mon Google, fix that quick.
In the end, the iPad is a wonderful media consumption device and it's fantastic for high end 3D games as well as kids games. It's a lot of fun and extremely simple to use. The Motorola Xoom (and Honeycomb in general) is a strong laptop replacement with easy multi-tasking, a higher resolution display and tabbed web browser (Flash 10.1 coming in a few weeks) that combined feel make the Xoom feel more like a computer's web browser, file management capabilities and easy file transfer via USB and SD card (once Google and Moto make the SD card driver available on the Xoom).