Android Honeycomb Review

Google doesn’t mince its words: the search giant told us that smartphone versions of Android weren’t ready for tablets, and that we should wait for its slate-specific build, and boy have they delivered. Android 3.0 Honeycomb marks a significant shift from the Android 2.x we’re familiar with on handsets, with a refreshed UI and functionality to make the most of tablets’ expansive touchscreens. It debuts on the Motorola XOOM but we’re already expecting it on the imminent Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and LG G-Slate; check out the full Android 3.0 Honeycomb review after the cut.

User Interface

Android’s UI has gradually evolved into the multi-desktop icon and widget layout we’re used to on smartphones today, and Honeycomb pushes that paradigm to suit larger displays. The homescreen is a horizontally scrolling array of five panes, each accommodating an 8×7 grid of icons and widgets. As on handsets, the smallest icon is a 1×1 square, but various other sizes of widget are available, and usually offering greater interactivity than previously seen. So, for instance, the Gmail widget not only shows the most recent three messages (whether in your inbox or sorted by label) but can be scrolled to show older emails as well.
Gone are the hardware buttons for home, back, menu and search, replaced by on-screen controls on the persistent Action Bar (at the top of the screen) and System Bar (at the bottom of the screen). The action bar changes contextually depending on which app is in use; at the desktop, for instance, there’s a Google search button, Voice Actions trigger, Apps menu button and homescreen editing button. Other apps can use the space for software-specific buttons, such as search or share in the YouTube viewer. If you highlight a word or sentence – in the same manner as you would on an Android phone, tapping a word and then dragging out the selection using pull-tabs at either end – then the copy, paste, share, web-search and local find options show up in the action bar, rather than in a floating menu next to the highlight. It’s consistent, but it does lead to more reaching around the display.
The system bar, meanwhile, replicates the functions of the hardware buttons on phones, with back, home and the app switcher on the left and notifications, statuses, clock, wireless status and battery on the right. Although always on-screen, it dims in a “lights out mode” during full-screen apps, such as video playback. Tapping pulls up a more comprehensive status display, showing date, which wireless network you’re connected to, and a shortcut to volume settings.
Android’s notifications system has always been reasonably good, but the Honeycomb system is more comprehensive again. The extra screen space allows for more information in each alert, so messages and missed calls show caller ID as well as a contact photo if available, while music playing in the background has play/pause and track-skip controls so that you can navigate your tracklist without having to leave the app you’re currently in. Notifications can be individually cleared, too, rather than Android 2.x’s universal “Clear All” option. It’s not as discrete as, say, webOS’ system, but it’s far preferable to iOS 4.x’s clunky pop-up notifications on the iPad, and it fits in a lot more control and information than on the HP TouchPad.
The app switcher, too, is a solid improvement on Android phones and iOS, offering preview images of each app’s status as you left it rather than merely icons. Tap the app switcher button in the system bar, and list of software pops up along the left edge of the screen, showing up to five titles at any one time, and scrolling to show others. Google is keen to point out that this is “true” multitasking, and as such apps continue running – unlike the iOS system – even when they don’t have focus. That makes for an easier time for developers, who don’t have to work with a specific set of background process APIs, but it does leave Android responsible for managing the polar demands of battery life and multi-app performance.
Text entry is via the new on-screen keyboard, following Apple’s example of shifting the number row to a secondary layout, but managing to fit in a dedicated Tab key for shuttling between text boxes. There are also contextual keys depending on the app you’re in, so the browser offers a dedicated .com button (which can be pressed and held for other suffixes) or emoticon button, depending. Thanks to the simultaneous multitouch display you can hold down one button – say, shift – and tap others; alternatively a double-tap on shift sets Caps Lock. We had no problems inputing text (you can pair a Bluetooth keyboard if you want to do more intensive entry) and the autocomplete system works well, suggesting URLs in the browser and words (with an easy to use method of adding to the dictionary) everywhere else.
In most places, Google has stretched out the standard Android interface with some added extras. Searches, for instance, not only query your browser history, apps, contacts and music, but can look through third-party apps like your Kindle ebook library, Dropbox files and Evernote notes. Alternatively, you can tell Honeycomb not to search through any particular app, to bypass personalized searches, and whether or not to take into account your current location.
Searches themselves throw up results as you type, with a predicted list of auto-complete terms on the left and the apps, contacts, Google search and others on the right. On the XOOM’s Tegra 2 processor there was no lag in waiting for results to arrive.