Like a good wine, Android has had a knack for maturing as it ages. With every new update to its OS comes more features, less bugs, and a more reliable experience for both consumers and businesses alike.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb — the latest release — is special, being used only for tablets and is therefore optimized with even more features and benefits than you would normally find on a regular smartphone running on Froyo or Gingerbread. The Honeycomb project has seen a larger number of changes and revamps to the whole OS than any of its predecessors, with a whole new User Interface never seen before.
But does that mean it’s better? We’re going to take you through a guided tour and review of Android 3.0, more popularly known as Honeycomb.
I spent a considerable amount of time playing with Honeycomb while using the Motorola Xoom (review forthcoming), and I wanted to write separate reviews for each because Honeycomb is so different from 1.x or 2.x that it would be very difficult to cram all of this information into one convenient review. So let’s get started by going over the new layout of Honeycomb. This is, after all, the most visible part of the OS, and the most important as well.
Tablet UI Wars: Honeycomb vs. Froyo
If you’re expecting a similar Android experience to that found on the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, you should really lower your expectations. It’s a complete 180-degree turnaround in the User Interface — it looks nothing like the Tab’s UI.
This is because the Galaxy Tab runs on Android 2.2 (Froyo), a version of Android that was built and meant for smartphones. In other words, while the Froyo works fine on a 7-inch screen, it just feels forced; it doesn’t feel natural to use on a larger screen at all. There aren’t very many apps that work and look perfect when stretched out to fit the larger screen, nor are there any widgets that go well with the tablet. In other words, using Froyo makes the Galaxy Tab feel and act just like an oversized smartphone, not a tablet.
That’s where Honeycomb is meant to come in and save the day. A fresh UI redesign, brand new tablet-ready widgets, as well as apps that are optimized to work on a tablet, make it so my Motorola Xoom unit actually felt and acted like a tablet, not just a really large phone. This makes a huge difference in the user experience.
It not only makes a big difference in overall experience for those who use Honeycomb, it also adds a hefty learning curve for anyone used to playing with Android 2.x devices. The Galaxy Tab was easier to figure out for the hardcore Android fanboy, but I believe Honeycomb will be much more satisfying in the long run.
I’ll put it this way — when first using the Xoom, I was thorougly confused by the OS and it took a couple days for me to finally get the hang of it. Now that I have become used to it, the experience is taking a huge leap over any 2.x tablets I’ve used in the past. It feels natural, like Honeycomb belongs on the Xoom.
What’s so different on the Honeycomb? Just about everything. Let’s dive in.
Layout of the Honeycomb UI
Your first experience with Honeycomb can be a little overwhelming. The interface looks totally different so nothing is in the same place it was with other Androids, it offers a more futuristic/holographic look and feel, and physical buttons are nowhere to be found, making me realize how much I have relied on them. It’s a Grand Slam of visual presentation, and being very familiar with previous iterations of Android doesn’t prepare you for how stunning it really is.
To say Android’s team went a different direction with Honeycomb is an understatement. We know that, underneath it all, Honeycomb is still the same Android as you’ve come to love on smartphones but with completely different ways of handling whatever you throw at it.
Home Screens and Widgets on Honeycomb
Honeycomb uses 5 main home screen panels, with each panel employing 56 squares that can be filled with single apps or multi-square widgets. With 56 squares to work with, it is much easier to customize your home screens with whatever you want. You can fit more widgets on one screen than ever before, and more apps than ever before. However I was unable to find a way to put folders onto the home screen, like you can with smartphones.
With a much larger screen, widgets can be much bigger and take up more space than ever before. The same widget that would occupy an entire smartphone screen panel fits a whole quarter of a Honeycomb screen. Having such large widgets offers developers many more options, stretching the limits of what widgets are capable of doing.
These new widgets cleverly add an extra element of interaction to the user experience. Certain apps such as Gmail and YouTube can now be browsed directly through their widgets. For instance, the Gmail widget lets you scroll through your inbox without even entering the app itself. As for YouTube, videos are stacked as cards, and you can flick each card down when you don’t want to watch it. This gives you the ability to browse through Gmail and YouTube much more quickly.
This is an example of what I mean when I say it’s the same Android, but you accomplish the same things in different ways. Honeycomb is meant to be enjoyed when using a tablet. Screen size is a luxury which should be taken advantage of whenever possible.
Overall, you’ll find many of the same or similar widgets here as on older Androids, larger to accommodate the extra real estate, in addition to dedicated apps in Honeycomb. The Android Market widget is one such example of a new Honeycomb widget, in which the featured apps are shown off as cards and can be flicked through by others. There’s no doubt that the type of content found on a Honeycomb offers much faster and easier access to information that we need. This will always be a huge advantage of Honeycomb tablets over the iPad: the ability to get this instant access to information without the need for pop-up notifications or the need to get into the app itself.
I also love having this much extra screen space to put these widgets on, because I can now have ALL of my favorite widgets together on one page, instead of having to spread them out over several screens.
Continuing with layout, Honeycomb has two information bars, with the action bar on the top and system bar on bottom. Both bars will stay up in one way or another no matter what app you pull up.
The System Bar combines both the navigation keys and notification bar into one bar along the bottom that always shows, whether you are in apps or on the main screen. On the left hand side we see 3 permanent touch-sensitive buttons — Back, Home, and Multitask — and 1 menu button that is only manifest on the system bar when the app dictates such.
On the right side of the bar is the notification info. Permanently situated are the clock, wireless signal strength, and a battery life indicator. To the left of this are the notification icons. This will always change depending on the notifications themselves, but you’ll see the same exact icons here as you would on an Android smartphone: new messages, mail, downloaded apps, etc.
Clicking on this part of the System Bar will bring up more details on the notifications, as well as additional options. There are two boxes that appear first: one on bottom that lists off more details about each notification — this wonderfully lets you delete each notification one by one without requiring you to go into it, and without requiring you to clear all of them out at once, though it is lacking the option to clear all — , and another above that which gives full date/time, signal, and exact battery percentage.
Hiding in this box is a small icon that opens up a short-list of various toggle switches and settings. There are options such as airplane mode, Wi-Fi, lock screen orientation, and even a way to adjust screen brightness without digging through the settings to find it. There is also an option to go into your settings, if none of the above really accomplish the task at hand.
As a sidenote, when you get a new notification it will show up in the lower right part of the screen, just barely above the System Bar, for a few seconds before disappearing for good into the notification box.
Also of note is that when the tablet shifts to portrait mode, the System Bar also moves along with it.
The Action Bar is mainly dependant upon the app you are running at the moment. It offers you specific options that can’t be accessed otherwise, and each app will have different options. The Action Bar itself usually blends in with the background of whatever screen you’re on, so you only can see the touch-sensitive buttons associated with that particular app.
When on the home screens, you will see a Google search button on the left, with a voice recognition shortcut at its right-hand side. On the right side of the bar itself is access to the app tray and a + symbol that takes you into the App Launcher, which lets you choose a widget/wallpaper/shortcut to be placed on that panel.
Of course, the Action Bar is variable in every other task and app, so it’s difficult to say what you’re going to find on it. In the web browser, the Action Bar shows all of the tabs you have open, in the same manner you would see in the Chrome browser on your computer. However, in the Google Body app the Action Bar offers a search bar for quick finding, and lets you toggle between different body systems (ie skeletal, muscular, digestive, etc). Typically you’ll find some sort of navigation controls within the app, search capabilities, and even additional options not found on the menu button (if the app even offers it).
Honeycomb’s App Launcher is activated the same exact way it always has been: a long-press on the home screen or the + icon (in Honeycomb, found on the Action Bar in the top right corner). The App Launcher is much more sophisticated in Honeycomb, making very good use of the extra screen space.
In smartphones, the App Launcher simply shows a list of different things you can customize, prompting you to click on the item of your choice which then lets you see all of the different possibilities to choose from.
On tablets, however, your App Launcher shows all 5 home screen panels miniaturized on the top half of the screen. On the lower half there are tabs for each category – widgets, app shortcuts, wallpapers, and “more”. Pressing a tab will offer up all of the possibilities without having to leave this screen. The options all line up underneath the tab, giving you the ability to scroll back and forth through everything.
When you quick-press something here, animation shows that choice floating up to the screen panel you were last working on. If you want to choose a different panel, hold onto the choice until it slightly lifts up from where it was before, and do a drag and drop.
I prefer the App Launcher on Honeycomb because there is much more information I can access, and can surf through several categories without having to click on the back button multiple times a day.
Multitasking on Honeycomb
Another key element to the main UI of Honeycomb is the multitasking feature. Certainly, this feature is not new to Android, but the way Honeycomb takes advantage of the UI for this feature is much better than smartphone versions.
The multitask button is permanently situated in the System Bar on the lower left corner of the screen. Upon pressing it you will see up to 5 miniature screens, each one showing the exact screen of each app that you recently visited, the way you left it. Touch one of the panels and you will be taken back to the same exact spot in that app you had been, as though you never left in the first place. This is much better than in the smartphone versions that only show an icon of the app that’s still technically open.
Having the extra space to fit living panels of all your open apps in the multitask feature is incredibly convenient. Not only does it show which apps you have open, it shows what exactly is going on in those apps; it’s like you’re peering through the tiny window of somebody’s house just to see if anyone is home.
Other notes about the UI of Honeycomb
It is worth a mention that not all of your old Android apps are going to look perfect on Honeycomb. In fact, I noticed several of my favorite Android apps not work as well. For instance, many apps will still only support portrait mode — try switching to landscape and it does nothing. This is sure to change over time as more devs make their apps compatible with the new OS, but for now some of your old Android apps will not look quite the same as what you had envisioned them to look like when on a tablet.
As to be expected, the keyboard has been optimized for a tablet screen as well. You’re given large, spaced-out keys that make for relatively easy typing. Heck, I even started to get decent at typing on the keyboard just like I do on a computer, so it is definitely possible to start typing even faster than you can on any of Android’s keyboards (with perhaps Swype excepted?).
The Android team opted for a 4-row keyboard here, with the bottom row reserved for the space bar and specialty keys (depending on the app, you’ll find a .com or smiley button, forward-slash, hyphen, an input settings button that seems awfully out of place here, and/or a speech-to-text button).
The good: I loved seeing a Tab on the top left of the keyboard which makes it easier to move from one entry field to the next with ease. I also loved the size of the keys. The autocorrect is more functional now, because you decide whether you want a modest amount of corrections, an aggressive amount that bugs you relentlessly, or no autocorrect at all.
The bad: I found the number/symbol toggle to be located at a rather inconvenient spot, tucked away on the left side between the Tab and the Caps Lock. It didn’t feel like a natural placement to me at all, so I had to force my fingers to go there. Besides, on many Android smartphones you can simply long-press the desired key and it will turn into a number or symbol, rather than having to toggle back and forth each time. I also grew frustrated by the space bar being just above the System Bar, and when my hands rested naturally on the tablet my thumbs always wanted to touch the System Bar instead of the Space.
Fortunately Honeycomb tablets can connect to a bluetooth keyboard, allowing for faster and easier typing when you’re preparing longer emails and documents.
Feature Enhancements of Honeycomb
Copy and Paste: Honeycomb’s copy and paste has been enhanced and is much more intuitive than ever before. Text selection is much more accurate now with new tab sliders. Long-press a word to see the tab sliders pop up, then stretch them to whatever specifications you’d like. You have the option at that time to copy to clipboard, share the text through email or social networking apps, or even paste that text directly into a web search.
3D Rendering with Renderscript: Renderscript gives more opportunities to produce highly optimized 3D graphics and animations. One example is the smooth page turn animations for the Google Books app. Add this to the idea that Honeycomb tablets are sporting multi-core processors, and 3D graphics are now a much cooler reality.
HDMI Mirroring: This great feature makes sure that when you connect your tablet to any HDMI-enabled device (a HDTV, for example) to watch an HD-quality video or slideshow, the image resolution looks as good on the TV as it does on the tablet screen. It is therefore mirroring the image from the tablet and translating it onto the larger screen.
Device detection: APIs are available that will let devs design one single app that will work on both tablets and smartphones.
More sensor support: Support for barometers, accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes and an ambient light sensor.
Enhanced apps: Many of the native apps on Android have been completely rethought and enhanced, such as the browser, email, camera, Google Talk, YouTube, and music player.
Enhanced Applications in Honeycomb
Browser: The biggest enhancement is tabbed browsing. Instead of pressing a menu button within the browser to see all of the open windows, they’re just presented like the Chrome browser on your computer, with the Action Bar showing off multiple tabs that you can switch to rather easily. Also new to the browser are a “incognito tab” (private browsing) and find on page options.
Email: The email apps (both Gmail and everything else) use a two-pane system that makes perusing your inbox and various folders much easier. Not only that, these apps use a new API open to all devs called “fragments” (do you find the term as amusing as I do?), which allow for sliding panes. This means the left pane starts out listing all available folders for that email account, but when you choose something from the panel on the right side, that then slides over to the left and replaces the folder list. Now on the right side I can see the entire email thread or full chat that I requested pull up, and I can see the whole conversation.
Camera: The new UI in the camera is nowhere near the smartphone versions. The viewfinder takes up the biggest space, with all of the options on the right side of the screen. Most prominent is a large circular graphic that has the shutter in the middle, with extra options for camera effects set up as their own icons circling around the shutter button. It’s much easier in that you don’t need to worry about going into a menu button and then looking around forever for what you need; rather, when you press an icon, an appropriate list of choices will pop up right next to that icon. There’s also an easy one-touch toggle for camcorder and front-facing cameras.
Music player: There are some things about the new music player I like, and some that I don’t. There are two different types of views: one is a 3D carousel that is eerily reminiscient of Apple’s Cover Flow because it shows the album covers and lets you scroll through them, the other is just a plain list.
When playing a song, I noticed that there aren’t a lot of customization options on the screen. There’s the basic bar that lets you fast-forward and rewind to any point in the song, the pause/go back/go forward set you’ll find in any music player, and shuffle/repeat buttons. The album cover is displayed prominently in the middle, and to the left there is a clever + button that lets you add the current song to a playlist, or even set up a brand new playlist. My concern is that there is plenty more space the tablet screens provide that are not being utilized. I appreciate the minimalist approach, but there are no EQ settings anywhere to be found. An EQ could have (and should have) been easily added to the UI without making the space look crowded or overdone.
YouTube: The YouTube app was built with Renderscript, and it’s easy to tell because of the extra 3D renderings done up here. The app is set up like a grid with several rows and columns, but when you scroll left or right this grid curves with the scrolling, acting as if it’s on a carousel. It also makes use of the fragments as mentioned earlier.
Google Talk: Google has now integrated native video chat into its Talk app, which now makes it more convenient and accessible for anyone to use it. Even if you have a tablet and your business partner doesn’t, just have them sign on to Google Talk on their computer and you’re all set for a good video chat.
Android Market: Another use of fragments, with 3 scrollable panes on the main screen. Categories on the right, top apps on the left, and featured apps that both auto scroll and allow for your own manual perusing. My favorite enhancement is the “my apps” section, which shows a listing of all apps I’ve downloaded, updated and/or installed. I can dictate whether the apps will have updates automatically installed, and I can open each individual app directly from this section. This listing of My Apps also notices if any updates are available, keeps me apprised of download/install progress, and is easy to scroll through. My least favorite part of the Market? As of this writing, there are very few Honeycomb-optimized apps available in the market. Since 3.0 is so new, this will take time to grow out.
The Android Movie Studio was also introduced in Honeycomb. The app is supposed to be Android’s version of iMovie, basically. It takes any videos you have taken on your tablet or those that are already on the tablet itself, and make a movie out of it. Each project can be saved. It’s easy to add extra layers onto the videos, such as adding in your own audio tracks and throwing on captions. As the first generation version it’s not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but still is a good start compared to not having any movie editor available for Android at all.
Conclusions on Honeycomb
Each update to Android takes months to come to full fruition, and Honeycomb is no different. It’s off to a great start – the visual design of Android 3.0 grabbed me almost immediately after I began using it. It also has some wonderful new UI and feature enhancements that we hope will translate well not only for tablets but for smartphones as well (and Google has already stated that many Honeycomb features will work their way over to the smartphone when Ice Cream comes out).
Even though we have seen Android grow and mature with each and every new dessert, it’s been a slow work in progress. It takes time to blossom and become a full-strength OS with heaps of dev support. Honeycomb, however, has been the biggest leap Android has taken in its growth and development ever since the OS came out. It may be much the same Android we’re used to underneath the skin, but it looks and feels nothing like any Android that I’ve ever used before.
And this excites me. It still needs work, don’t get me wrong. But the Android team is on to something here, and I think they’re going the right direction. Honeycomb has made Android much smarter in the process, and I have a feeling that this snowball is rolling down the hill, picking up speed and momentum and growing in size as it goes along.
Right now the OS is a young pup, but it won’t be for long. The key to Honeycomb’s success will be twofold: first, it needs to be sold at a price that competes with the iPad, Blackberry Playbook, and HP TouchPad. Motorola isn’t doing itself any favors by launching the Xoom at $799 ($599 with contract), and as such will be left in the shadow of the iPad 2. Secondly, Honeycomb success will largely depend on how dev-friendly it is. If Honeycomb doesn’t see the thousands and thousands of tablet-optimized apps that are currently seen in the iPad App Store, it will struggle to get interested buyers. The inclusion of Flash Player as of March 18 will definitely go a long ways to aid this process along.
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