While the majority of Google phone users still wait for their Gingerbread update, CES 2011 has brought us a sneak preview of Android 3.0 aka Android Honeycomb. Rather than handsets, this time it’s all about the tablet and, in fact, larger devices in general, so where its going to end and Chrome OS is going to begin will be an interesting place to keep your eyes in the coming months.
With a bucket load of Android tablets launched in Vegas, though, it's here that we’ve seen the action with all sorts of demo videos on show. So, between those and the preview from Google itself, this is everything there is to know about Android 3.0, Honeycomb, so far.
Honeycomb has been designed from the ground up to work with larger screen devices of which tablets are just one, but probably the major, part. Google has come up with what it describes as a truly virtual, holographic UI, and the place you’ll get the largest taste of this is on the main desktop itself. The desktop is split into five customisable screens which scroll left and right on a shallow arc of a large polygon.
It’s quite likely that you can name each of the screens as you choose in true customisable Android style, but the ones shown in the preview video are Widgets, App Shortcuts, Wallpapers, More and a final blank one - again, suggesting it’s up to the user how they split up their desktop. One touch can bring them all onto the top of one screen at the same time, allowing you to drag and drop items in from the bottoms and better organise your experience. So far, all demos have looked smooth and speedy.
Tablet use for many is all about casual content consumption from the internet and Google has certainly recognised this with the work put into the browser on Android 3.0, Honeycomb. The company describes it as a “best in class”, but the tangible part of what’s new to the party certainly ticks a lot of boxes. For the first time on the standard Android browser there’s tabs, whilst other improvements taken from Chrome include form auto-fill, syncing with your Chrome bookmarks and an incognito mode for private browsing that doesn’t leave a history.
The other Apple-inspired resurgence in 2010 has been video calling and Google has been quick to update its tablet OS on this as well. Previously, Google Talk has been an IM affair on Android but Honeycomb sees an improvement to the app for full screen video calls as well. You’ll be able to call tablet to tablet as well as to standard PCs. Whether it’ll be possible to do the same from mobile phones with front-facing cameras running Gingerbread remains to be seen
Google eBooks is another service being pushed on Android 3.0 with ereading a major function that many are looking for from their tablets. The improved app offers access to what the company describes as the world’s largest ebook store, with over 3 million free books and hundreds of thousands of titles for purchase as well as access to lists such as the New York Times best sellers and author discovery systems. The interface on the Android app brings a rolodex view of the front covers of your books that you can scroll through, and you can turn the pages of the titles themselves with a flick of your finger across the screen.
Google Maps 5 will come as standard on Android 3.0. The app is currently also available on Froyo (Android 2.2) and above mobile phones, and it brings detailed city views, 3D angles and all the Street View and Maps for Navigation fun that comes with it.
With access to the Android Market and the 100,000 plus apps that sit on it, Google is hoping that many of the developers will start making tablet sized versions of their software to use the whole screen of Honeycomb devices, much in the same way as you find HD versions of apps on the App Store made specially for the iPad. In the preview, we got a good look at such a version of the Gmail which brings a much more full PC-type experience - similar to that of the web application but actually much cleaner and more modern. It’s a two-pane type solution with inbox, starred and all the other options on the left and the mail list on the right, all of which shift over to reveal a third window for the individual messages when you click on them.
The other app which we know has been remade for tablets is YouTube. Functionality is, of course, the same but the experience is, again, much closer to what you get on the full website rather than the single, basic, full screen, video player look on the Android mobile phones. Profile pages are very similar to the web application, but Honeycomb will allow users to scroll through a wall of videos presented on an arc in a much more graphically appealing manner than any other YouTube app so far.
As well as what’s been seen, Google has made upgrades to the messaging service, it's refined the multitasking system and made the notification process more elegant than before. In all, it should be a richer, more interactive experience.
What can run it?
We know that Android 3.0 has been built entirely for tablets and larger devices, so it looks like the OS won’t be coming to any of the mobile phones. However, in the past, Google has also laid down a minimum hardware spec for some of its upgrades and it’s been rumoured that Honeycomb will only be available on Nvidia Tegra 2 powered devices. It seems unlikely that it would be narrowed down to one manufacturer, but perhaps it’s an example of the minimum level of grunt required.
CES 2011 is now in full-swing, be sure to check out our dedicated CES homepage for all of the news as it breaks, as well as detailed analysis.