Android Honeycomb: Powerful, but not perfect

Google's Android Honeycomb OS has 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 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-size devices. 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 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's iOS for the iPad.

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 e-mail, 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.

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 e-mails, 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 e-mail 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.

Doing business

With Android 2.2, aka Froyo, Google introduced a slew of new business-friendly features, such as alphanumeric PIN-based lock screens, lock-screen timeouts and password-strength requirements. It also added support for remote data wipes along with auto-account-discovery, calendar sync and global address list look-ups for Exchange.

Honeycomb builds upon Android's growing business focus with the introduction of an advanced encryption system for tablets. The system allows users to fully encrypt the data on their devices -- accounts, settings and all downloaded applications and files -- and then requires a password to decrypt the data every time the tablet is turned on. Only a data-erasing factory reset can circumvent the power-up prompt.

Honeycomb tablets also give business users the opportunity to easily engage in remote videoconferencing via either included tools or new applications being developed for the platform. For example, in addition to the system's integrated Google Talk-based video chat client, third-party developer Fuze Meeting is preparing to launch a multiparty, HD-quality collaboration app aimed squarely at the enterprise market. I saw the app demoed at Google's Honeycomb event in early February, and it looked pretty slick.

Compared with other platforms, Android's full-fledged multitasking and desktop-like browsing experience -- thanks to tab support, native Chrome syncing and eventual Flash functionality -- may serve as differentiating factors for business users looking to move into the world of tablets. The fact that the OS allows you to browse a device's file system like a desktop computer's, and drag and drop files without the need for proprietary software, could also serve as a noteworthy advantage for enterprise adoption.

This also goes for Android's nonrestrictive approach to application installation -- the platform's open nature means companies can put any utilities they want on employees' devices, with no outside approval or public distribution required. On a platform like iOS, in comparison, all applications have to be authorized by Apple and posted in the App Store in order to be installed.

The downside

Android Honeycomb isn't all sweet success. While the platform has received some criticism for being slightly rough around the edges, in my experience, Honeycomb's true Achilles' heel really comes down to applications. The handful of hiccups and disappointments I've encountered in using the Motorola Xoom can all be traced to issues with individual apps and their compatibility -- or lack thereof -- with the operating system.

The problem is that, while Honeycomb can theoretically run any Android application -- even those created for use on smartphones -- it doesn't always do it well. Some apps run in only a small section of the tablet-size screen; others expand to take up the entire space but still pale in comparison to their tablet-optimized cousins.

Worse yet, I've encountered a handful of older Android apps that won't run at all or will run only in limited circumstances: Trying to use the widget from Facebook's Android app, for example, results in an error and a blank white box.

To be fair, Google released the final version of its Honeycomb programming tools only on Feb. 22, meaning most developers have had barely a week to work on updating their software.

As such, this setback is likely only temporary. With the ever-increasing rate of growth we've seen in the Android Market these past months -- more than 32,000 new apps were added in February alone, according to third-party analytics firm AndroLib -- I imagine it won't be long before the Honeycomb floodgates open. But for early Android tablet adopters, it's a setback nonetheless.

While the current selection of Honeycomb-specific apps is embarrassingly small, the programs available so far are generally a pleasure to use, especially because Honeycomb allows developers to employ a new series of programming tools to optimize their apps for large screens. The downside is that using these tablet-optimized apps spoils you somewhat and makes you resentful of the nonoptimized experience you get with older applications; the contrast is painfully stark.

Honeycomb also has one significant piece of unfinished business: support for Adobe Flash. Adobe has promised that its tablet-ready Flash Player software will be delivered to Xoom users "within a few weeks." While a delay this short will be a relatively small inconvenience (provided Adobe stays true to its promised timeline), the absence of Flash at Honeycomb's launch is still one more chink in its armor.

Bottom line

All in all, Google's Android Honeycomb OS is a powerful and promising platform for tablets. The software takes the Android experience to new heights, giving users robust opportunities for customization and creating a framework for devices that are far more than just supersized phones.

That said, Honeycomb is still young, and it needs time to mature -- particularly when it comes to the availability and complete compatibility of third-party apps, which are a crucial part of the tablet experience. But if the history of the mobile market is any indication, the growth of Honeycomb's app ecosystem won't take long -- and the platform, aided by the oncoming army of Android tablets, will quickly earn its place as a commanding force in the mobile market.

JR Raphael is a syndicated writer and the author of Computerworld's Android Power blog. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

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Tags Google Android 3.0applicationstelecommunicationAndroidGoogle AndroidAndroid 3.0 HoneycombMobile operating systemssoftwaretabletsmobileGoogle

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JR Raphael

Computerworld (US)

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