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Motorola Xoom an iPad threat

SAN FRANCISCO — Motorola’s Xoom has been hailed as the most likely tablet computer to rival Apple’s iPad — the first with the goods to compete against the uncontested leader in this nascent but rapidly growing market.

After trying it out, I found it to be a great gadget that, in many ways, can keep up with the black slab from Apple. The first black slab, that is. Unfortunately, Apple said Wednesday that it will start selling a new, improved iPad next week, which will likely make it difficult for the Xoom to snag many users.

The Xoom is well-equipped, with a large, vivid touch screen and zippy processor.

It’s the first to use Honeycomb, Google Inc.’s flashy tablet-geared Android 3.0 software, which is a big improvement over older versions designed for phones but pushed onto some tablets.

It’s clear the software was designed for a tablet’s larger touch screen. A persistent bar at the bottom of the screen displays virtual “home” and “back” buttons. You get information such as battery life and wireless reception and notifications for e-mails, instant messages and more. You also get a virtual button that can pull up miniaturized images of your most recently used apps, the way it looked when you last used them. That makes it convenient for speeding back over to a game or Web page.

The touch-screen keyboard is also nicer, thanks to Honeycomb. It’s easier to type e-mails and instant messages on the Xoom than on tablets running older versions of Android. Although it doesn’t seem as easy to use as the iPad’s virtual keyboard, the Xoom’s keyboard is fairly spacious and was something I got use to typing with after several hours. Those who do a lot of typing can use a Bluetooth keyboard or connect a USB keyboard with an adapter through the Xoom’s Micro USB port.

There’s one big blemish marring the Xoom’s otherwise delightful package: its price tag.

The Xoom, made by Motorola Mobility Inc. and available from Verizon Wireless, costs $800 without a cellular-service contract, about $70 more than a similarly apportioned iPad. You can get a Xoom for $600, but you’ll have to sign up for a two-year data plan that runs at least $20 per month; by contrast, AT&T Inc. offers month-to-month data service for the iPad. Like the iPad, the Xoom lets you access the Internet through Wi-Fi, so a data plan isn’t essential.

While Motorola offers the Xoom in only one configuration right now — with 32 gigabytes of storage and data access through both Wi-Fi and Verizon’s cellular network — Apple offers a range of iPads. The cheapest is $499 and comes with 16 gigabytes of built-in storage and Wi-Fi access. The most expensive is $829 for a 64-gigabyte version with Wi-Fi and the ability to access AT&T’s data network for an additional fee.