The best-selling tablet on the market might be the 9.7-inch iPad 2, but that hasn't stopped manufacturers differentiating themselves using by going with a smaller screen size than Apple's offering. We've seen the likes of the original Samsung Galaxy Tab and the HTC Flyer in the past, but the Amazon Kindle Fire is the first seven-inch tablet to really make an impact.
Now we have the new Xoom tablets from Motorola, and not content with just releasing the 10.1-inch Xoom 2 to compete with the iPad, we've also got the 8.2-inch Xoom 2 Media Edition, which will end up head to head with the likes of the Kindle Fire.
If you're wondering what the difference is between the Xoom 2 and the Xoom 2 Media Edition other than size, the answer is pretty much nothing. Both are Android 3.2 tablets, with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, a 1280 x 800 screen (yep, it's the same despite the different sizes) and 16GB of storage.
Well, there are a couple of other differences, we confess. As you might expect, a reduction in size also means a reduction in weight, and the Xoom 2 Media Edition weighs just 388g – even lighter than the Kindle Fire, which weighs in at 413g, and a lot lighter than the 599g of its big brother.
And, being smaller, the battery has had a big reduction in size in the Media Edition. In fact, it's been nearly halved from 7000mAh in the Xoom 2 to 3900mAh in the Media Edition, a drop that's reflected in the quoted battery life of 6 hours browsing over Wi-Fi.
There's also one notable loss when it comes to software: the impressive Floating Notes app is absent from the Media Edition. We realise that Motorola is making a point that the smaller tablet is more for home media use (hence the name), but since apps such as Citrix and Evernote are still present, we don't see why Floating Notes couldn't also have been including.
As you might expect, the price is different between the two models, too. The Media Edition comes in at around £319 – a marked saving over the 10.1-inch Xoom 2, or the likes of the iPad 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Like the bigger Xoom 2, there's a five-megapixel camera on the back, capable of recording 720p HD footage, and a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front.
Unlike the bigger Xoom 2, though, it's pretty clear the Media Edition is intended to be used in portrait mode most of the time. Where the 10.1-inch version had its cameras, ports and infrared transmitter on the long edges of the device, with the controls on the short edge, the opposite is true here. The front-facing camera sits at the top short edge, like the iPad 2, with the controls on the long edge to the right.
Apart from this subtle change, the design of the Xoom 2 Media Edition stays really rather close to the 10.1-inch version. It's the same shape, with the same cut-outs in the corners.
They're as good as the same thickness, with the Media Edition coming in at 8.9mm thick (0.1mm thicker than the Xoom 2) and made of the same matte plastic, meaning that Media Edition is just as comfortable to hold the big Xoom 2, except it's much lighter – a winning combination.
Unfortunately, the front screen is still an appalling fingerprint magnet. The Xoom 2 was one of the worst we've seen for picking up smudges and grease, and things are no different here.
On the top edge of the Media Edition, you have the infrared transmitter and 3.5mm headphone jack, as well as a couple of speaker grilles. On the bottom of the device are the micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports, and another speaker grille. You've also got a flap that opens, but like the flap on the big Xoom 2, it goes nowhere. No SIM card slot and no microSD slot.
On the back you'll find the main camera and a shinier backplate that's actually held on with screws. Screws! We can't remember the last time we saw them so prominently on… anything, really, but they suit the look of the materials Motorola's used.
We only really have one issue with the Xoom 2's design, and that's the ridiculous placement of the Lock key and volume buttons. The big Xoom 2 has them hidden on the device's curves, much like the iPad 2, but on the Media Edition they're effectively on the back of the device.
This means that if the Xoom 2 Media Edition is on a table with it's screen off, there's no way to turn it on without picking it up. It may not seem like the biggest deal, but it really annoyed us, especially since it's compounded by the fact that these buttons actually aren't that easy to find and press without looking at them even if you are holding the tablet.
Tablets should be pick-up-and-go devices. There should be no fumbling to get the screen on or off, especially since the screen is all there is. It's still not quite a deal-breaker, but when other tablets manage to avoid this problem, it's definitely a mark against the Xoom 2 Media Edition.
If you're looking for interesting new hardware features from the Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition, you won't find anything groundbreaking, depending on whether you count its unusual 8.2-inch screen size, but there are a few surprises. Like the 10.1-inch Xoom 2, this is mostly just a slim and slight tablet without any of the bells and whistles that could add bulk.
Unfortunately, that includes the likes of a 3G mobile broadband antenna, and even a microSD card slot. You're stuck with the 16GB of built-in storage here.
There are two hardware features that are a bit out of the ordinary, though. The first is a splashproof coating inside and outside the Xoom 2 Media Edition, just like its bigger sibling. Though you won't be able to take the Xoom 2 into the sea for a spot of diving, it should protect against splashes in the kitchen or perhaps a spilled drink.
The other hardware feature is the infrared transmitter. Combined with the pre-installed Dijit app, you can create a setup to control your AV kit at home. We had no problems getting it working with our TV and set-top box, but the actual number of controls on offer for each remote was often quite poor.
We have separate buttons for TV guide, on-demand and the main menu on our remote, but there's only a menu button in Dijit, so it's a lot more effort to do anything.
So with the Xoom 2 Media Edition mostly just being a nice, light touchscreen when it comes to hardware, much like the iPad 2, it comes down to the software to make it stand out.
Like the bigger Xoom 2, this runs Android 3.2, and it's a shame that Ice Cream Sandwich won't be available for buyers from day one. It's a big update to Android, so Xoom users will just have to keep an eye out for upgrade details.
We've already touched on the Dijit app, but it's not alone on the Xoom 2. Of course, there's the usual Google apps, including Maps (which can make use of the built-in GPS feature, another feature it shares with the 10.1-inch Xoom 2), Gmail, Places, Talk and YouTube.
Motorola has added some extra productivity by including Evernote, the cloud note-syncing service, Dropbox for file-syncing, Quickoffice HD for creating and viewing documents, and Citrix and GoToMeeting for working on the go (provided your particular employer supports them).
We've already mentioned that the Floating Notes app from the big Xoom 2 is missing, and it's something we really can't understand. If anything, being lighter and more portable, this is better note-taking device than the 10.1-inch version, and yet it's been totally dropped.
The most important part of Motorola's added software is definitely MotoCast. This is a media streaming app that connects to a client on your PC or Mac to find and stream movies from your computer to your tablet. The reason for using a custom app and client rather than good ol' DLNA is that it can also work from outside your home network – in theory, you can connect with MotoCast from anywhere with a good Wi-Fi connection (no 3G, remember).
It shares your music, photos and movies, and is actually capable of playing movies in formats that aren't supported by the tablet natively by transcoding them on the fly, but this will hammer your PC – it used 50 per cent of the CPU on the 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 computer we were using to stream from. That's not a problem if you're not using the PC, but could get in your way if you're trying to play a game.
MotoCast is isn't the only streaming solution on the Xoom 2 Media Edition, though – there's a link to download Twonky, a DLNA streaming server, so you can stream content from your tablet to a compatible device, such as a smart TV or PlayStation 3.
You use Motorola's PC and Mac app to connect the Xoom 2 Media Edition over USB and store media on the device itself. Bear in mind, though, that the 16GB of storage is before formatting, and before the operating system has taken some of the space. In reality, you've got about 12GB to play with.
The Xoom 2 plays back movies up to 1080p, but storing them will take up a lot of your precious space. When you try to copy a movie file over USB that's in a format the Xoom 2 doesn't support, the software will actually transcode it to something more suitable before it transfers, which is handy.
For some reason, Nvidia's TegraZone app is included with the Xoom 2 Media Edition. Since neither of the Xoom 2 tablets actually features a Nvidia chip, we're not sure why. The app won't even let you download anything if you don't have a Tegra chip. Which the Xoom doesn't. Is it just to tease? No idea.
One of the best parts of the 10.1-inch Xoom 2 was its crisp, vibrant screen, and the Xoom 2 Media Edition's is even crisper thanks to having the same resolution at a smaller size. None of the colour vibrancy is lost in the smaller pixels, though we still needed to keep it at full brightness pretty much all of the time, like its sibling.
The viewing angles are absolutely top notch, with the image barely distorting at all from any viewpoint. The big Xoom 2 review unit we had suffered from an annoying bit of backlight bleed, and though our Xoom 2 Media Edition unit didn't have it as bad, there was some here too.
The most important thing, though, is that video looks absolutely glorious on the screen. 720p or 1080p HD footage all plays back perfectly smoothly, with colours that pop and loads of detail. The black levels are even fairly decent, though the screen is quite reflective, so you might end up watching yourself in some scenes.
Video output over HDMI worked fine, too, with one exception. Though mirroring the menus and apps was perfectly smooth, without adding any noticeable lag to proceeding, when playing videos the sound was a small amount out of sync to the video. We're only talking a few frames, but once you notice it, it's hard to ignore. Still, the big Xoom 2 wouldn't play videos over HDMI at all, so that this will happily output 1080p is a step up.
The size of the screen means that some text can be a little small at its default size. This is easily fixed in the browser with a pinch, but you may end up squinting at menu options in some apps.
Also like the bigger Xoom 2, the built-in speakers are pretty average. They can go decently loud, but not without vibrating the unit majorly and distorting the sounds a bit at the high end.
You might be sensing a theme here, but when it comes to general performance, the Xoom 2 Media Edition is, yes, about the same as the other Xoom 2. Give us a break – they're practically identical, except for the size!
What this means is that you get generally very good performance in the operating system, with a few small hangs here and there, with one irritating exception: screen rotation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has the same problem as the big Xoom 2, which is a delay before the screen switches to portrait or landscape after you've turned it.
As before, it's not the sort of issue that ruins the experience, and the HP TouchPad had it a huge amount worse, but it tries your patience rapidly.
The keyboard suffers from the same problem as all touch keyboards on devices this small, which is that it's just too fiddly to use accurately and comfortably for very long. It's entirely possible to write a good-length email on an iPad 2 in landscape, and the physical keyboard of the Asus Eee Pad Slider is unsurprisingly better still, but on the Xoom 2 Media Edition we found ourselves sticking to Twitter-length messages at most.
Another disappointing element of the Xoom 2 Media Edition is that reduced-size battery. We gave it an intensive test of streaming video from the internet with the brightness turned all the way up. The Media Edition managed three hours of playback. For comparison, we had an iPad 2, the current king of tablet battery life, running the same video alongside it, and that managed seven hours.
As with the bigger Xoom 2, even just internet browsing can be surprisingly battery-intensive, especially if you're browsing sites with lots of Flash elements. If you're looking for a tablet with serious staying power, this isn't it.
The browser is fairly fast overall, but its performance isn't perfect. Zooming and panning is often juddery, and often causes sections of the website to have to redraw, meaning you often scroll to something that isn't there yet.
Flash support is built in, and while videos generally played smoothly, it still serves to really affect the responsiveness of the browser when there are Flash elements on a page. Scrolling becomes delayed, and just loading sits with lots of Flash ads in the first place can be a slow process.
However, text looks really crisp and easy to read on the 1280 x 800 screen, and it resizes and reflows well.
Motorola's big addition to the Xoom 2 family is definitely its MotoCast software, which streams content from your computer to your tablet. The theory is that this makes up for the lack of microSD card slot to expand the built-in storage, which isn't very big at 16GB.
The reality is that this doesn't make up for the lack of a microSD card slot. For a start, you're limited by the amount of bandwidth available to you, which isn't such a problem inside your home network, but is a big issue if you want to stream from elsewhere, especially if you want to watch in HD.
Watching 720p video from elsewhere introduced massive artefacting and a drop in quality that made it being in HD pointless, and we were using fast fibre optic broadband on both ends of our connection.
In addition to that, it didn't list our videos properly. Tapping on the one you want watch often played a completely different video. The actual streaming worked fairly well on a home network, but it's a bit of a lottery as to whether you'll be able to watch what you want to.
The GPS on the Xoom 2 Media Edition was quick and accurate when we tested it – if found us straight away, without any problems.
The rear camera takes decent enough pictures when there's plenty of light, though it gets a bit softer and noisier in normal indoor lighting. The video recording is a little soft overall, with some CMOS wobble, but is easily good enough for capturing family moments or video calling.
The Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition feels like the child of two worlds – an attempt to mix the premium design and features of the 10.1-inch Xoom 2 with the lightness and multimedia savvy of the Amazon Kindle Fire. Broadly speaking, Motorola has actually pulled it off quite well.
It feels more like a useful media tablet than the Android 2.3-powered, seven-inch HTC Flyer, for example, and we like the size 8.2-inch size for a light video device. At the very least, it helps it to stand out more than its big brother, which couldn't get its head above the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Asus Eee Pad Transformer or iPad 2.
However, the Xoom 2 Media Edition is still hampered by many of the issues the 10.1-inch version had, compounded by a reduction in battery life.
We like the size of the Xoom 2 Media Edition. It's 8.2-inch screen is a decent size for those who want something smaller, or indeed lighter, than an iPad or big Xoom 2, but find keyboards and apps on a seven-inch screen a bit fiddly.
The screen is probably the single most attractive part of the Media Edition (though its comfortable, slim chassis comes a close second), producing vibrant colours and beautifully crisp images.
The performance from the dual-core processor is decent, save for the rotation issue, and we're pleased to see no sacrifice in power or responsiveness just because the tablet is smaller.
The Xoom 2's ideas for media certainly fit its Media Edition moniker, and things like the built-in infrared controller are really nice additions.
The price is pretty appealing too, at £319. After all, this is nearly identical to the big Xoom 2, but that costs £80 more. There's definitely good bang for your buck when you look at the Xoom 2 Media Edition's specs compared to its cost.
Though the the Xoom 2 Media Edition is a good-looking tablet, it does have a couple of design letdowns. The sheer volume of fingerprints and grease picked up by the screen is astonishing, and people will wonder if you've got OCD when they see how often you end up cleaning it.
And the placement of the Lock key still irritates us – it's just that bit too hard to find without looking, and other tablets, including the big Xoom 2, don't have the same problem. And it's a shame that there's still some backlight bleed in what is otherwise a premium tablet.
This also isn't a machine you'll get a lot of typing done on with the touchscreen keyboard. We know it's a media-focussed tablet, but we don't see work and play as mutually exclusive on tablets. It just hasn't been optimised for the smaller size.
It's not a massive deal in the grand scheme, but we were disappointed that Motorola didn't include the Floating Notes app in the Media Edition. It was a good note-taker, and we think it's a natural fit for a small, light tablet.
As we said above, we like the idea of Motorola's fancy new media features, and the ones that work are great, but we'd say it's just not the right time when the likes of MotoCast are still flakey when it comes to recognising your media, and dependent on you a) having Wi-Fi wherever you are, b) that Wi-Fi being reliable and fast enough to stream video, and c) having good enough home internet to upload that stream without issue.
We'd be more forgiving if Motorola hadn't decided not to include a microSD port as a fall-back, or even had included a 3G option in case you didn't have Wi-Fi available (not that 3G is always up to streaming, but still…).
The battery life is a real shame, too. We understand that sacrifices had to be made to create the smaller-sized tablets, but that doesn't stop it being disappointing.
The Xoom 2 Media Edition is one of the best smaller tablets out there, so if you're looking for a small tablet for browsing or a bit of video at home, this offers premium features and an excellent screen for a decent price.
However, its lack of microSD slot, fiddly keyboard, smudgy screen, relatively low battery life and other niggles mean that this ends up being a good tablet, not a great one.