Honeycomb unwrapped: Google and Motorola talk Android 3.0

Pocket-lint sat down with Google and Motorola to have an intimate walk and talk through Android 3.0, the sweet Honeycomb platform that has been designed specifically for tablets. We’ve criticised some of the Android tablets currently available because the OS doesn’t make best use of the space available. Well that’s set to change when Android 3.0 hits the latest wave of tablets.

A bucketload of Android 3.0 devices were announced at CES 2011 and we’ve summarised them for you in a list here, however, Android 3.0 hasn’t yet been released and we’re still learning about the changes it will bring. The important thing to note is that the lead device for Honeycomb is the Motorola Xoom – and this is the device we saw it demoed on.

It’s also worth noting that the Motorola Xoom displayed at CES 2011 didn’t really have an operating system on it, more of a shell (hence the reason we haven’t given it the full First Look review treatment). Much of what we’ve seen before we’d gleaned from Google’s preview videos, but we thought it was worth revisiting and updating what we’ve since seen in action, and it’s well worth reading our original breakdown too as we won’t cover all the same areas. In our demo we weren’t able to photograph all the new elements, so we’ve used a mixture of images, some new, some we’ve seen previously.

Desktop

Dave Burke, Engineering Manager for Mobile at Google, demonstrated what he called a “radically different UI”. Starting with the desktop, Honeycomb takes advantage of the resources available in the hardware to give you widgets that can be more dynamic. We’ve seen them pictured previously offering things like a live email list, calendar and browser bookmarks, but nothing too exciting yet. That said, visually, Honeycomb looks stunning and the Xoom shows off the dynamic homepages really nicely.

The desktop itself reflects the existing Android homepages we’re familiar with, i.e., you get five pages which you can customise as you see fit. In the top right-hand corner you’ll see a plus symbol, which jumps you out into a customisation view where you can drag elements onto your “desktop”. Also in the top right-hand corner you’ll find the “Apps” shortcut, taking you through to your apps menu.

It’s also worth noting that the Motorola Xoom has done away with hard controls. Instead you are presented with three icons in the bottom left-hand corner. These give you back, home and multitasking, with Burke pointing out that no matter which way you pick up the tablet, even in the dark, you’ll know that the bottom left corner will have these controls. This doesn’t mean that manufacturers will all do away with physical buttons, but it’s certainly a possibility.

YouTube

YouTube seems to have been stolen by Apple when it comes to quality (just look at how the iPhone 4 plays HD YouTube content compared to the rather lacklustre Android offering). However, Android 3.0 looks to take a different approach to YouTube, perhaps realising just how good a resource it is. 

YouTube can now take advantage of 3D hardware acceleration so the first thing you’ll notice is how the videos are thrown up in a scrollable arc, like a giant video display wall, reminiscent of the opening page of Apple’s safari browser that gives you thumbnails foryour recently/frequently visited sites. You can then touch on the video to view it, it plays initially in a preview window on its page, along with related videos and information. You can then click through to full screen. In the demos we saw, it looked excellent and the scrolling through the grid of videos was silky smooth. Hopefully this won’t just be random, but customisable to your own video tastes. 

Google eBooks

Google books seems to have been around forever and the company has for a long time been involved in digitising works from various sources (and not without various battles with publishers along the way). This manifests itself in the form of Google eBooks - which is currently only available in the US - and was one of the features demoed to us in Honeycomb. The number thrown at us was 3 million books, and you can always go and browse these on your PC to see whether you should be getting excited about Google eBooks or not.

The eBook app again offers a visually rich experience with animated page turning and here we see the benefits of those on-screen controls. When reading a book the controls vanish, because you don’t need them, returning when you tap in the corner. Turning the page with a finger seemed fluid enough and the screen resolution is sufficient to give text the sharpness you’d want on the Motorola Xoom. The app offers syncing between devices too, so if you are reading on your Xoom and then switch to your mobile, you’ll find they are synchronised.

Remember, of course, that the Amazon Kindle app offers similar functionality for the books you buy from their store and if you are interested in ebooks from other sources you might need an additional application. This isn’t so much a fault of Google’s app, but a reflection of the various avenues supplying ebooks at present.

Maps, Browser, Video calling

For these applications we haven’t learnt that much more, except we were told that Google Talk would support conference video calling from the device. With Android still a step behind Apple iOS which offers video calling through Skype, this could become a popular feature for those with a mobile work force. 

Google Maps in Honeycomb is Google Maps 5, so nothing new here - unless you haven’t seen the vector drawing magnificence that it offers. If you haven't, check out the video we shot of it. The Motorola Xoom offers the full experience, so you get the rotation and 3D buildings (for those cities supported) and so on.

The browser looks like a nice iteration of Chrome and offers some of the same features, so you’ll get tabbed browsing and Incognito mode, as well as bookmark syncing with desktop Chrome.

Gmail

One of the oddities of Android is offering two email clients, one a universal client, the other the dedicated Gmail client. Burke told us that both still existed in Honeycomb (as well as being seemingly baffled as to why you’d want a single client approach as offered by everyone else). The Gmail app - that’s the one that will automatically pick up your Gmail account when you sign-in on your device - now has a tweaked layout offering a left-hand column for folders or emails, with a preview pane on the right. This will also offer up your threaded messages. In the flesh, it didn’t look like a radical departure visually from the current Gmail client, but the top bar offers a range of context sensitive controls to make life easier, so you’re not dependents on a pop-up menu. We complained about earlier versions of Android not making best use of the screen and this appears to address that criticism.

Task Switching

Android has always been a multi-tasking operating system and Honeycomb takes advantage of this by offering a new task switching option. Press the appropriate button on-screen and a preview list will appear displaying the last few things you were doing. Rather than being static icons, these were actually screengrabs (we don’t know whether they were live, we didn’t get a chance to explore further). Anyway, its an elegant solution and makes it really easy to dive back into what you were doing.

Voice Actions

The final demo we were shown was voice control - not surprising given Burke’s role in developing the system. This isn’t essentially new as we’ve already seen Voice Actions in Android. Here the examples were requesting “Bad Romance by Lady Gaga” which launched the Spotify app and played it back; we also saw drafting an email and setting an alarm. We’ve not really used voice actions on Android phones, but given the tablet’s role as a device sitting between the phone and computer, we can see they might be a little more useful. Even though the keyboard is good and we’re sure that bashing out an email will be easy, it might just be faster to dictate short emails when you’re sitting on the sofa with your tablet.

Android Market, APIs, SDK

From the off, Honeycomb will support all the existing apps in the Android Market, just as the iPad picked up the existing iPhone apps. When asked whether there would be a dedicated section of the Android Market with Android 3.0 compatible apps (i.e., those optimised for tablets), Burke seemed positive that this was a good idea. Hopefully non-Honeycomb tablets also get to enjoy better apps, but there will be a collection of new APIs available to support the new features in Android 3.0, the examples given were for the top action bar and more graphical widgets. Essentially it will be down to developers to tweak their existing apps with those APIs to make them support all the features on offer in Honeycomb.

Burke told us that the UI wasn’t completely finished, but that the SDK was expected to be available soon, “within weeks”.

Closing thoughts

Our live demo time didn’t really give us that much new information about Honeycomb that couldn’t be deduced elsewhere, but it’s clear that Android 3.0 will be much better suited to tablets than the current solution. Hopefully those existing tablets will offer a route to upgrade, but given the history of Android updates from some manufacturers, we wouldn’t bank on it.

Does this make Honeycomb a huge alternative to Apple’s iPad? We’ve still not really seen anything that is mind blowing or a real game changer and again it will be down to developers to really make Android tablets fly. But what Honeycomb does seem to do is give you and interface that is better suited to the larger screens. Manufacturers will still be able to layer their own customisation on the top and with a number of tablets already announced, it won’t be long until we see exactly what the final result is, and whether some will offer added value with their tweaking.

Are you gunning for an Android 3.0 tablet? What's on your wish list? Let us know in the comments below.



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