Android 3.1 features explored

Anyone doubting the Xoom’s status as Google’s Honeycomb tablet of choice can think again following the arrival of Android 3.1 on the 10.1-inch tablet last week. 

The update arrived OTA, prompting users to update, which we diligently did. Android 3.1 brings with it a range of tweaks and updates, the most significant of which is probably the USB support.

System bar tweaks

The recent apps list is now scrollable, so you’re not restricted to what fits on the page: you’ll be able to drag the list down and find a lot more. It’s useful, but we’ve found that we use the recent apps list to switch between concurrent tasks, so we only typically use the first two or three.

Some of the visual tweaks are minor, for example we’ve noticed that the Wi-Fi indictor now has arrowheads, presumably indicating that data is being sent or received - there have been a range of tweaks to Wi-Fi in general. 

We also found in Honeycomb that notifications were sometimes better turned off - when concentrating on watching video for example. Now there is a little indicator that lets you turn them on again with a single button press, which we’ve already found really useful. 

USB accessories

Elsewhere you’ll find enhanced support for Bluetooth or USB pointing devices, so you should be able to connect to a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard (or both). We tried it out and our Xoom wouldn’t find any of the Bluetooth devices we offered up, so we’ll keep trying and update if something changes here. 

The chances are that you'll need the right adapter or cables to connect up to your 3.1 tablet via USB. At present, with the Motorola Xoom only offering 3.1, you'll need to use the Micro-USB so you'll need an adapter. When 3.1 appears on tablets equipped with a full-sized USB this won't be so much of a problem.

Using a male Micro-USB to female USB adapter we tested the mouse and keyboard support. Our vajazzled mouse was instantly recognised and offered up a pointer for on-screen navigation. It works exactly as you'd expect, with the scroll wheel scrolling up and down pages. The buttons will open links/apps, holding the button lets you drag pages around and a long press on the home page lets you enter the customisation area.

You also get double tap page zooming and a long press on text brings up the copy and select options, although that seems to be more fiddly than it ought to be. We often found that holding the button over text would see it select an image instead, or text elsewhere on the page - which using a finger didn't.

Connecting a USB keyboard also presents some interesting options. We plugged in a Logitech Windows keyboard with a selection of keyboard shortcuts which also worked in Honeycomb: music controls worked, the home button worked, as did the search (although we had to then tap the text box to be able to type). The cursor arrows let us move through clickable areas, hitting return to "click" them. When typing we found no delay in the text appearing on the screen.

Camera support has now also been added, meaning you can connect your digital camera and it will launch into the Gallery and offer up the images on your camera's memory card to import - rather like the SD card adapter for the iPad does. You can select those images you want to copy just by tapping them so they have a highlighted border. It didn't seem to support video in our tests and didn't recognise SD cards (via a USB card reader) or external USB drives.

Video

Another addition is the provision of a Videos app. We're testing this on a Verizon Motorola Xoom, so obviously it thinks we should be allowed access to Google's video rentals, but in reality we can't. The Videos app would be the way to do this, offering up two tabs: My Rentals and Personal Videos. There is a link to the Android Market, which now has a Movies option, but in the UK it finds no content.

Personal Videos collates all your local videos on the device, rather than having to filter them in the Gallery app, so video is slightly more coherent. Of course, without access to Google's rentals it's sort of pointless and we wouldn't be surprised if non-US updates didn't get this option. 

Widgets and the rest

One thing we could look at though was the resizable widgets. Place a widget and you’ll get the option to drag out the edges to the size you want. It means you can squeeze more information out of the calendar and Gmail widgets, which makes them much more useful. 

The Quick controls (thumb control) in the browser has been extended. It seems faster to appear than before and gives you more options beyond navigation. The biggest change is the ability to better manage tabs. You can open a new tab and close the current tab, as well as view the tabs you have open as thumbnails, so you can glance and go. It’s pretty neat and works as long as you remember to keep your thumb on the page.

Contacts searching is now full text, so if you have a large contacts book and you are looking for someone from a particular company, it will now return results from the rest of the address fields, including notes and email addresses. 

Overall a nice set of tweaks, but most significantly, it throws open the door for more Honeycomb specific accessories and supporting applications, with APIs so we can have third-party widgets that are resizable and so on (some of which are already appearing). The addition of USB support for cameras directly could be a great benefit for those who want to travel light, meaning you can transfer, edit and upload your photos from your tablet.

We're sure there are more little things too that we've missed - feel free to let us know via the comments below.



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