Android 3.0 (Honeycomb)
25th Mar 2011 | 14:54
Google's powerful new Honeycomb tablet OS takes on iOS 4.3
Android 3.0: Overview
Android 3.0 is here, and it's a stunner.
Released only for the Motorola Xoom tablet so far, the new operating system, which started life on Android smartphones but is now formatted for the larger touchscreen, will eventually make its way onto the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 as well as other tablets from big manufacturers like Acer, HTC, Dell, Asus, LG, MSI and Toshiba.
Android 3.0 release date
The Android 3.0 release date is currently unclear. The Motorola Xoom is already out in the US, although other hardware manufacturers say they're still waiting for Google to give them the all-clear to put their devices on the shelves.
Needless to say, the official, final release is just weeks away. And when that day comes, expect to see a flood of Android 3.0 tablets explode onto the market.
In 2008, we sat down with Erick Tseng, then a senior product manager at Google and the main point of contact for Android OS, for an article on Google research projects.
Curiously, Tseng never mentioned tablets, but he did talk about a new operating system that could work on many different types of computing devices. Tseng had an Android prototype phone he let us view over his shoulder.
Android 3.0 is an open source project helmed by Google. From all reports, the company doesn't make a great income from the operating system and plans to derive revenue the way they always do: from ads that appear when you search.
Developers gain full access to the code base and searchable documentation.
One of the main issues with Android early on was that the code is flexible enough to run on a variety of devices but the interface is designed for smartphones. Android 3.0 makes better use of the screen size for tablets.
For example, Gmail on a smartphone runs best in a vertical orientation so you can quickly scan through emails. On a tablet, Android 3.0 provides a way for the email client to run with your messages on the left and a preview pane on the right.
Android 3.0 mostly accommodates the screen size, but there are a few times when the operating system could have been reformatted better, or when apps still run in a smartphone mode.
Compared to iOS 4.3, which is running on the iPad 2, Android 3.0 is much more streamlined for tablets. There are pop-overs, like a thumbnail view that shows you a preview of open apps, and the settings and status overlays are decidedly more advanced.
Also, Android 3.0 taps into the power of the Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor for showing videos, letting you flip quickly through photos and album covers, and playing games.
Google is committed to the platform. Even in the first week after the release of the Motorola Xoom, the company released a new version that works with Adobe Flash, even before that software update became available
Android 3.0: Interface
Android 3.0 is designed for fingertip control. Like the smartphone version, you start apps by pressing on an App icon. You can flip to the left or right to access widgets that show a thumbnail of your Gmail messages, calendar and other info.
On the main Home screen, you'll see rows of apps – you can easily add more by pressing the Apps button on the upper right, pressing and holding down on the icon you want, and placing it on the main screen. Android helpfully shows a thin blue outline to indicate where you can place widgets and icons.
To access settings, you can press on the lower right of the screen to see basic options, such as whether you are connected to a Wi-Fi network, or press the Settings button to access all of the options available. This quick access comes in handy for seeing how much battery life is remaining, and for checking status updates about downloaded apps.
Interestingly, Android 3.0 forgoes hardware buttons, at least on the Motorola Xoom. To go to the Home screen, you press the Home icon on the lower left. Here, you can also access a pop-up that shows open apps. You'll also find the Back button that comes in handy in the browser, in any settings screen and many apps.
When you run an Android app designed for smartphones, including the Kindle ebook reader app, you will see a settings icon appear. This icon doesn't show up for true tablet apps because the settings and options are already on the screen. For some smartphone apps, the menu is required.
There are some minor ways that iOS 4.3 on the iPad 2 works better than Android 3.0. One is that, to lock the screen rotation on the iPad models using software, you double-tap on the Home button, then swipe left and select the lock icon. You can even set the switch on the side of the iPad to perform this function instantly.
To lock screen orientation on Android 3.0, you have to wade through several settings screens.
The iPad 2 also provides faster access to music controls, also by double-tapping on the Home button. Fortunately, Android goes a step further than iOS by supporting widgets, and you can place a music widget on the Home screen for fast access to forward, back, pause and stop options.
We prefer the software buttons on the Android 3.0 compared to the iPad's use of the hardware lock button and the Home button. One reason is simply that Android encourages you to focus on the software interface, not on hardware buttons. (You can control volume on the Xoom using up and down.)
There is also a vast difference between Android 2.2 devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and 3.0 devices. The Samsung tablet is really just a large-screen smartphone. Apps run exactly the same on that device as they do on a smartphone, and the tablet does not make use of the extra screen size for email, calendar, games, or any other apps.
Android 3.0: Performance and optimisation
Performance and optimisation
For those thinking about whether an Android 3.0 tablet makes sense, know this: Google has designed the operating system for speed. We performed countless tests with the included apps to see if we could get them to stall or stutter, and these bundled Android 3 apps were very stable (the Motorola Xoom did cause a few third party apps to crash though so the platform is not totally bug free).
For finger swipes, Android is amazingly fluid. We had no trouble getting the Xoom to register our swipes on the Gallery app looking through photos, browsing websites or playing games like Angry Birds.
If anything, we wondered at times if the Android interface is just a hair faster and smoother than the iPad 2. It is certainly more colourful and the screen resolution, at 1280 x 800, is clearer.
The Xoom works well as a hardware platform for Android 3.0, but we did notice some differences compared to iOS. One is that, the iPad 2, running on the Apple A5 dual-core processor, seems to take advantage of the two cores better for video and music editing.
The Xoom doesn't really appear to be adding any performance boost to Android when you do movie editing, and there is no multi-track audio editor. In fact, the Movie Studio app seems to be the one app that tends to run slowly on the device.
Android 3.0 does offer some good power saving options, though. You can quickly disable wireless networks using an Airplane Mode setting. And you can crank down the screen brightness, accessible from the setting pop-up on the lower left. You can also set the tablet to dim the screen after a very short interval – as little as 15 seconds. It's not exactly practical, but it is available.
Android 3.0: Apps, games and widgets
Apps, games and widgets
Android 3.0 has one distinct advantage over the iPad 2's iOS in that you can install apps in one of three ways. The most common method is to use the Android Market, which contains both apps for tablets and for smartphones. Smartphone apps run in a window on a tablet and do not use the larger screen size to full advantage.
Another way to install apps is to use the online portal market.android.com. Here you can search for apps and then send them to the device for install. If you own more than one Android device that's tied to your Android account, there's a pop-up where you can select which device you want to use for the new app.
The other way to install apps on a tablet are to connect the device to your computer and copy an APK file to the device, then run it. Or you can even email an APK file to yourself and them install the app.
There are only a few dozen apps designed specifically for Android tablets, including a CNN News app, Angry Birds and three or four other games, Google Body (a great app for searching for and viewing parts of the body) and various document readers.
Fortunately, the tablet apps are grouped together at the top of the Android Market screen so you can easily keep tabs on what new ones have been released.
Android apps for tablets are very easy to find and install. When you see one you want to download, click the Download button. Once downloaded, the tablet will proceed to install the app for you. You can check status messages on the lower right of the screen, which shows a checkmark icon when the app is installed.
The paltry lack of tablet apps is a serious problem for Android 3.0 devices, however. The staples of business travel – apps like Flight Status, which shows a colourful map of your current flight and can even show the progress of your flight – are missing in action here, as are hundreds of other important apps. You can find some exceptions: there is an Evernote app for Android 3.0.
But one check of the top iPad apps and you will see that nearly all of them missing for Android 3.0.
Android 3.0: Customisation and personalisation
Customisation and personalisation
One of the major advantages of using an Android device is that you can customise the interface. Accessing these customisations is not that intuitive – you have to long-press on an open area of the Home screen.
Once you find them, they are easy to use – you can chose a different wallpaper or use a live wallpaper that has a subtle animation, such as shifting lines that grow and expand. We figure Google will continue to release new live wallpaper animations, which look especially attractive on the larger screen.
Android 3.0 beats the iPad 2 in customisations – you add widgets on up to five Home screens, and group app icons anywhere you want on those screens.
There are no extra UI options beyond the standard offering, and that's not necessarily a bad thing: it could mean consistency across Android tablets, so if you pick up a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet sometime down the road you will know exactly how it works.
Third-party apps that allow customisations are barely available – there are a few apps that let you stream music, but nothing that lets you tweak the interface. There isn't even an app to rent or purchase TV shows and movies like there is on the Samsung Galaxy (the Media Hub app).
Android 3.0: Email and internet
Email and messaging
Android 3.0 is one of the best email devices we've seen.
The reason it works so well is because of the underlying programming: the Gmail client and the more generic email app, which you can use with any POP mail account, shows messages on the left side of the screen with a preview pane on the right. It just works: messages come in formatted properly, which is not always true on the iPad and iPhone. It's an improvement on the more limited email client offered by the iOS 4.3.
The interface is also very easy to use. You can check next to messages and then press one Delete button to remove them from the list and the Gmail server. The fast Tegra 2 dual-core processor also works well for handling messaging activities, such as previewing documents and formatted rich HTML messages.
The search engine for email also worked reliably. On the iPad 2, it's sometimes necessary to take a trip out to the Safari browser, pull up Gmail.com, and search for messages because the client does not work that well for searching an archive.
We didn't find a text messaging client for Android 3.0, but there is a Google Talk instant messaging app. Text messaging is not the first thing you think of on a tablet, but better messaging integration on the device would be helpful. For example, if a message comes in with a signature line that contains a phone number, selecting the link to send a text message would make the messaging client more valuable.
Internet and browsing
Flash support in the Android 3.0 browser is a major advantage. Apple has detailed its reasons for not using Flash in the past, but with the extra power on offer iPad 2, we're not convinced they hold up as well any more. It is probably a political and not technical reason, since Flash is so important for web browsing.
In fact, there are are many 'gotchas' on tablets when Flash doesn't work. Banners and music players, animations at band websites, blogging portals that require a Flash widget, even entire websites won't work properly without Flash.
On Android 3.0, Flash works most of the time, but not always that fast. (This may be one of the technical reasons why it has not worked on smartphones.) We tested dozens of Flash sites including GamesRadar, Last.fm, YouTube, several blogging sites and quite a few gaming portals, and they all worked. At some of the gaming sites, the code loaded slowly but eventually worked.
Android 3.0 also supports tabbed browsing, which changed how we used the Motorola Xoom. It meant opening multiple sites at once, leaving them open throughout the day, and switching between them. For example, we used Plaxo to check contacts and tasks alongside Gmail and Facebook throughout the day.
Non-flash sites also worked quite well – we never had any errors or crashes at the sites we tested, although on one occasion we had a memory error where we had too many apps running and too many tabs open, and the browser crashed.
Android 3.0: Media
Media support on Android 3.0 is extensive yet limited. It's extensive because the OS supports a wide variety of media formats. For audio, you can expect to play AAC, AMR, MP3, and XMF files. For video, the OS supports MPEG-4 and the H.263 and H.264 formats.
On the Motorola Xoom, you can capture video at 720p and play 1080p movies. Importantly, Android 3.0 plays these file formats smoothly and without any stuttering or playback glitches.
However, Android has a long way to go in terms of a media ecosystem. Apple has a complete lock on audio and video content, having secured licensing arrangements with just about every media company on the planet (and a few on Mars).
Meanwhile, Google seems to be sitting this one out. It has made some attempts at providing content. For example, you can use the Amazon MP3 app to purchase music, and the prices are reasonable.
Motorola claims there is a Blockbuster app in the works for the Xoom so it will be possible, at some point in the future, to rent a movie or TV show. However, there is not one standard way to rent or purchase music and movies, and that is one area where Samsung has a decided edge with the Media Hub app. The app is not perfect – the interface is not that exciting and some popular shows and movies are not available, but it is a good first attempt.
There are very few tablet apps available for media overall on Android 3.0. That will change soon hopefully – there isn't even a Pandora client for Android 3.0 yet. Of course, you can use the smartphone version of Android apps running in a small window.
Fortunately, Android 3.0 has one advantage over the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tabs: you can view Adobe Flash content in the browser (the Flash support just became available late last week). To get Flash to work, you need the latest Android update and a Flash client that is free to download.
Once installed, you can access sites like Last.fm to play music, visit rich-content sites like YouTube to play videos and even play Flash games through the browser. Hulu.com doesn't work for US users, and blocks access to content, even though the Flash files do work.
Android 3.0: Maps
Google Maps on Android 3.0 is another highlight and provides a distinct advantage over the iPad 2. You can view maps with satellite imagery, detailed terrain, or a faster map-only mode. When you zoom into a major metropolis like New York, you can see the Street View mode and flick your way down a city street. The Street View images look crisp and work smoothly on the larger screen size.
Android 3.0 uses the Google Maps 5.0 client with support for 3D maps that show you buildings in major cities as well. You can swipe with a finger to zoom and twirl the interface around and get your bearings on a specific location. In many ways, the 3D imagery is a gimmick in the sense that it looks great but doesn't really provide a useful function – the buildings are not rendered as they actually are in real life.
Voice navigation on Android 3.0 is exceptional. You can set a destination and then follow on-screen prompts for turns or a voice that guides you. Google Maps does not include some of the extra features of an app, like Navigon or TomTom on the iPhone with clearly-labelled markers for highways. You can easily see points of interest, however, including banks and petrol stations on the map interface.
Google Latitude also works on Android 3.0, letting you share your current location with friends. On the Motorola Xoom, this functionality is a bit suspect, however. The Xoom only works for GPS coordinates when you use it outside. The iPad 2 does a better job of triangulating your location or using GPS as long as there's a window nearby.
Android 3.0: Verdict
Android 3.0: Verdict
In the end, Android 3.0 is an exceptional tablet operating system in almost every way. It runs fast on the Motorola Xoom, works well for browsing the internet, supports Adobe Flash, offers the best mapping technologies in 3D and Street View mode and seems poised to capture a vast market of tablet users who prefer the more open framework. It's great that you can email or copy an APK file to install apps.
That said, Android 3.0 is still a work in progress to some extent. There is no standard way to rent to purchase TV shows and movies, and that's more of a problem on a larger tablet screen than it is on a smartphone. Not having that system available makes Android 3.0 less compelling because one of the main uses for a touch tablet is consuming media from the sofa.
There are also precious few tablet apps available – no Skype client, no Pandora, no movie playing apps, and only a handful of games. Motorola doesn't provide an custom UI options like HTC Sense, although you can customise some settings.
Overall, Android 3.0 is powerful and fast. It looks closer to what you'd expect in the modern computing age and not as much like an enlarged version of the smartphone operating system. A few problems still exist, but they are relatively easy to overlook.