Google Android 3.0 'Honeycomb' is a mobile OS with a lot to offer, but it has a long way to go before it'll deliver the full tablet experience.
Honeycomb is a whole different beast from the Google Android we've come to know. While previous versions of Google's mobile operating system were built for smartphones, Honeycomb - also known as Android 3.0 - is the first to be designed specifically for tablet PCs. And seeing it in action, it certainly shows.
Motorola's recently launched Xoom is the first in a series of tablets that'll run the Honeycomb OS. The Motorola Xoom has made plenty of headlines for its high-end specs: The tablet boasts a dual-core 1-GHz processor with 1GB of RAM. It has 32GB of internal storage, plus the option for additional storage via an integrated MicroSD slot. And all of that is housed beneath a beautiful (if slightly glare-prone) 10.1-in display.
But the truth is, while the Xoom's hardware is impressive, it's the software that's the much bigger story. I took a long look at Honeycomb to see how it compares to earlier versions of Android and to its popular competitor, Apple iOS for the Apple iPad.
Google Android 3.0 'Honeycomb': The home screen advantage
When you power up an Android Honeycomb tablet like the Xoom, you'll find yourself on one of the device's five available home screens. These home screens and the functionality they provide are among the most significant advantages Honeycomb offers over competing tablet platforms.
Where the iPad's operating system is basically a blown-up version of what you get on the iPhone - static rows of square-shaped icons - Honeycomb includes several features that take full advantage of the tablet's ample screen real estate.
Among the most useful features are the widgets, which are effectively live, functioning apps that run right on your home screen. You can have a widget for your email, for example, that allows you to view and even scroll through your inbox. Other widgets let you browse your calendar, flick through news stories or see the current weather for your area, without ever opening a thing.
The idea of widgets, of course, isn't new to Honeycomb; as any Android smartphone user knows, widgets have long been a part of Google's mobile operating system. With Honeycomb, however, widgets have become more interactive than ever - you can now scroll, flick and interact within the widgets themselves. And given the large screen size of a tablet, their potential becomes far more significant.
On a single screen of the Xoom, for example, I'm able to simultaneously see my inbox, my upcoming appointments and my local weather forecast. I also have scrollable access to all of my Chrome bookmarks, synced continuously from my PC. I'd imagine that after growing accustomed to this kind of advanced-usage scenario, many users would be reluctant to return to the static environment a platform like Apple's iOS provides.
Honeycomb, like past Android versions, also affords you the freedom to use your home screen space as you see fit; you can drop any combination of widgets and app shortcuts where you like. The actual method for customizing is quite different in Honeycomb than in previous Android releases; while it may be an adjustment for Android phone users, it strikes me as a far more intuitive approach.
On an Android smartphone, adding a widget requires you to either long-press your home screen or tap your phone's "menu" button to find the command. Adding app shortcuts and changing wallpapers are separate processes.
In Honeycomb, on the other hand, you simply tap a "plus" icon at the top-right corner of the display to enter an all-in-one home screen customization tool. There, you find thumbnails for your five home screens, along with lists of every widget, app shortcut and wallpaper on your tablet. You can touch any item to select it and drag it onto a home screen. Then, on the home screen itself, you can touch and hold any item to move it around or eliminate it altogether.
Is it simple enough that a 2-year-old could figure it out? Not necessarily. But this is a tablet, not a toy - and what you lose in foolproof simplicity is a trade-off for what you gain in powerful functionality.
Google Android 3.0 'Honeycomb': Notifications and navigation
The newly revamped Android notification system is equally powerful. Notifications have often been cited as one of Android's core strengths, and their progression in Honeycomb seems like a natural and well-executed evolution.
Instead of the top-of-screen notification bar found on Android phones, Honeycomb uses an area in the bottom-right corner of the tablet (next to a system clock) to keep you apprised of incoming emails, tweets and whatever else you want to see. Any notification can be enabled or disabled based on your preferences.
The setup feels like a more elegant version of the typical desktop notification. When you get a new email in Honeycomb, for example, a small box appears that shows you the sender and the subject of the message. After a few seconds, the box vanishes, leaving only an envelope icon in its place. You can tap the icon to view additional information, open the message or dismiss the notification completely.
To the left of the notification area sit two icons that show your network status and tablet battery level. Touching those icons pulls up a quick-settings menu where you can perform basic tasks, like changing your network configuration or adjusting the brightness of your screen. You can also tap a link to jump to the full system settings panel, which contains advanced options for adjusting your tablet's behavior.
Honeycomb tablets, unlike their Android smartphone counterparts, have no hardware buttons on their faces; instead, there are a series of icons in the bottom-left corner of the display. One icon allows you to go back a step - similar to the back button in a Web browser -- while another returns you to your home screen. A third icon shows you a list of your most recently used applications, allowing you to toggle to another program without closing any others.
In smartphone editions of Android, you have to long-press the home button to find this multitasking function - something many users might not think to do on their own. Honeycomb's implementation eliminates the need to search out these potentially confusing power-user shortcuts.
Perhaps the most user-friendly feature of the Honeycomb OS is its seamless integration with Google search technology. A Google search icon sits at the top-left corner of the Honeycomb home screen. Tapping it allows you to simultaneously search the Web and your device -- contacts, applications, multimedia files and so on -- for any type of information you need. Similar one-touch search functions are provided in all of the native Honeycomb apps.
Alternatively, you can use Google's impressive Voice Actions software. From the home screen, tapping a microphone icon and speaking a phrase instantly launches a Web search for your term; you can also get directions by saying "navigate to" followed by an address or business name; listen to music by saying "listen to" and an artist's name; or even send yourself a memo via Gmail by saying "note to self" and then speaking a message.
Google's voice-to-text technology is tightly integrated throughout the entire operating system; in basically any instance where you can enter text, you can also press a microphone icon to dictate the words instead.
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