Hands on: Android 3.1 review

1st Jul 2011 | 09:37

Hands on: Android 3.1 review

The Honeycomb 3.1 update is more about stability than features

The Android 3.1 update for the Google IO Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a good way to see what Google intends with Honeycomb. As this has neither the Google Experience nor a third-party skin, what you get is as close to stock Android as we're likely to see, which means that the updates aren't obscured by different interfaces on top.

What you get in Android 3.1 is a sprinkling of new features, the most important of which is USB host support - and a very welcome reduction in the number of times the tablet freezes or crashes.

After you create an account on the Samsung site the update installs like any Android Over The Air upgrade, keeping your files and any apps you've installed - unless you'd encrypted the device in which case you have to turn off encryption and do a factory reset first.

It actually removes the abortive Samsung Apps store (which never had anything more than bizarre Korean animations in) as well as the Samsung Music Hub, Amazon Kindle and Weatherbug apps, although you can reinstall the Kindle and Weatherbug apps.

However it doesn't add the missing Google Video app or any of the other Samsung features found on other versions of the tablet, and the promised Allshare DLNA support isn't in this release.

The browser doesn't get the new 'quick controls' either - an experimental gesture UI from Google Labs that would let you navigate by selecting icons on screen with your thumb that will show up on some Honeycomb tablets.

You do get the Google Books app, though, with copies of a few out of copyright titles including Alice in Wonderland. You can download more free books but Google's ebook store isn't available for the UK yet.

Google books

READ:Goodbye Samsung Music Hub, hello Google Books

One of the key new features in Android 3.1 is USB host support. Because Samsung uses a proprietary 30-pin USB port, so you'll need to buy a $20 adapter to plug USB sticks or drives in (or a keyboard, mouse or joystick); you can also connect a camera over USB and use the Picture Transfer Protocol (supported by virtually all cameras) to import pictures into the Gallery app. Alternatively, you can use a Bluetooth keyboard.

More responsive

The most obvious change is that the home screens and the interface generally are more responsive. It may only be a change to the animation frame rate but the transitions between pages are much snappier; scrolling between different home pages or pages of apps is far faster, with the next page appearing immediately rather than after a brief pause.

The browser is also more responsive, and crucially we found it's no longer hanging and needing to be restarted about once a day (as it was when we first got the tablet).

Android tablet update

FASTER:Speeding up the animations for page transitions makes Honeycomb feel zippier

Improvements to the underlying Wi-Fi stack are also most obvious in the browser; it's better at loading web pages even when the network is busy. On the same busy network, where a tablet without the upgrade was reporting server timeouts and telling us the web site wasn't available, the upgraded tablet was able to load the page and stream video.

There are some minor updates to the CSS standards support and the browser now supports embedded HTML5 video so when you play a video on YouTube it plays in the browser rather than opening the YouTube app (we found browser playback tends to start faster than the player).

Android video

PLAY:HTML5 videos embedded in web pages now play in the browser

We did still have issues with some apps freezing or failing to load and having to be force closed, especially apps designed for Android phones rather than tablets, but equally many apps run happily without any problems.

Interface improvements in Android 3.1

Navigation is slightly improved: when you press the on-screen Home button, instead of always taking you to the central home screen it takes you the home screen you were on last - press it again if you actually want the main home screen.

The task switcher is better but still disappointing: it can now show more open apps than fit on screen, so you can scroll up or down to see more current apps - but you still can't close an app from here (or at all, without installing a third-party tool).

Android tasks

SWITCH NOT KILL:See more running apps to switch to, but you can't stop them

Compared to the powerful and intuitive navigation on the HP TouchPad and the BlackBerry PlayBook, this still feels clunky and primitive.

Google promised resizable widgets for Honeycomb and the Android 3.1 update adds this but developers have to code it into their widgets; it's there for Google's own calendar and email widgets.

You can press and hold to get a blue outline around the widgets with handles that you can drag to make the widget smaller or larger - although you can only make it bigger if there's blank space on the home page; Honeycomb won't shrink another widget to make room.

Android widgets

STRETCH:You can now resize some widgets on the home screen

Other improvements are cosmetic. There are some new wallpapers, including some fun animated ones. The system font changes to bold; characters are thicker and rounder (and look far more like the iPhone's font) but that means you can't see as many letters of an app title - so Angry Birds Rio is truncated to just Angry Birds, for example. Google says the calendar grid is easier to read, although the only difference we can detect is that today's date on the day picker is in a larger font.

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