April 8, 2011

868 words 5 mins read

Review: Motorola Xoom – Software – Android 3.0 (Honeycomb)

The biggest question in my mind about the release of a (proper) tablet version of Android was how squared away it would be. I was really not looking forward to Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) being another Android 1.0 style release. Well, I played with the Xoom in the Verizon store a bit and it seemed “ok”, so the only option was to buy one and find out. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I did not need to worry.

To address the question of stability and polish (since that was my greatest concern), I am happy. For the very first version, they put a lot of work into it and really put out a quality piece of software. There will always be bugs/issues/annoyances in any software, but Honeycomb is rather squared away. It still feels like Android while being completely overhauled and retooled for a much larger screen. All the built in portions of the operating system are designed to utilize this larger form factor or to take advantage of the more powerful hardware. There are a number of popup menus in use, since the hardware can take it and the screen has the space.

Along with the OS, goes all the first party applications such as Gmail, Gtalk and Google Maps. All of these applications have been retooled for this larger screen and really look & work well. I really like Gmail on Honeycomb. It is reminiscent of how the Mail app works on the iPad, but much improved in my opinion. Gtalk has been overhauled in similar manner and it is really nice to be able to see your entire buddy list while you are chatting, and one-touch switch between apps.

Another small, but pleasant change in the operating system is the handling of notifications. In Android Phone, they all popup in your top menu bar. Since Android Table has a bottom menu instead of a top (which is much bigger), they are handled slightly differently. First off, you see a little popup in the bottom right of the screen with a little bit of information. If you’ve ever used Chrome’s popup notifications for Gmail/Gtalk, these are very similar. After the notification fades (after the standard few seconds), it shows as an individually click-able icon in the bottom right – so you can quickly see how many of what type of notifications you have.

One of the first things you notice when you pick up the Xoom, and the single biggest change in Honeycomb, is that they got rid of the 4 hard buttons (Home, Back, Search, Menu/Right-click). This was a little surprising at first since I’d really gotten used to having those around, but the way the changes are implemented are nice. Now they provide you a little menu bar along the bottom of the screen in which you always have access to the Back button (which doubles as close keyboard – context sensitive), the Task switcher button (think “Windows+Tab”) and the Home button (Do I need to explain that one?). For apps that are Android 3.0 compatible, you won’t see a right-click button on screen, instead you’ll find the options you need in-app. For prior version applications, the right click button will show up – yay it’s backwards compatible! All in all, the soft button system works (period).

Speaking of, the backwards compatibility for pre-3.0 apps is interesting. On the iPad, if you launched an iPhone app, you got a mini display in the middle of your larger screen. On Android, it treats the apps just like any other and opens them normally. If an app isn’t designed to adapt to other screen sizes (which some are not), you get part of a screen filled with your app and lots of whitespace (still works just fine). Fortunately, not all Android devices are created the same and people have been designing their apps to handle a diverse environment. Most apps scale up to the much larger screen size of the Xoom without issue, and almost seem like they were designed to do so (in fact, they were designed to scale up and down – even if the author didn’t intend them to scale up quite so big). In some cases, like Angry Birds, it looks fantastic on the Xoom and if it didn’t still have “right click” in it, I’d think the apps were re-designed for HD. Good programming goes a long, long way.

So, how do I like it? I love it. Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) is a great platform for tablets and while only the first version, it is arguably a solid rival for the iPad iOS. This is most certainly not a half-assed job and they put a lot of effort into polishing the software and stability (no OS lockups/crashes so far). As much as I’d like it to, the Xoom isn’t going to be the destroyer of iPads. Even still, I believe that Honeycomb has made a lot of inroads when it comes to evening up the score. Google has done a great job refining Android for the phones from 1.0 through 2.3, so I’m really looking forward to what they will do with the next few few versions of software.