Google Android Honeycomb 3.1 Hands On Review

by Reads (23,307)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Design
      • 8
      • Performance
      • 8
      • Total Score:
      • 8.00
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

I’ve been holding off on publishing my Honeycomb 3.1 (Android) thoughts for a week because I was waiting for this silly adapter to arrive:

That’s a Micro USB-to-USB female adapter, which is required if you want to utilize Honeycomb’s new USB hosting feature on the Xoom. It’s obscure enough that your local Best Buy probably won’t carry it, but I managed to swing one on Amazon for less than the cost of shipping.

I whole-heartily recommend Motorola Xoom owners pick one up, because USB hosting is one of the main features Honeycomb has over Apple and iOS. Honeycomb 3.1 users can now plug in and use external mice, trackballs, keyboards, and game controllers – really, any USB-powered peripheral. And it works really well.

As I mentioned in my ASUS Eee Pad Transformer review, I’m no fan of navigating Honeycomb via cursor, but the update does well enough to make it an intuitive experience (mouse clicks take the place of finger taps) that I can understand its appeal. Also, it will work very well when used with remote desktop apps like LogMeIn Ignition. The same goes for keyboards. There is now no need to invest in a Bluetooth keyboard (which Honeycomb 3.1 also supports); any old USB keyboard will now work.

Gamepad support portends good things for Android as a gaming platform. We’ve said it time and again on TabletPCReview that great gaming requires buttons. I easily connected my XBOX 360 controller to the Xoom, and Google claims it will work with others, like PS3 controllers and generic PC gamepads.

This far into the release, most games I tested, including Gun Bros and Dungeon Defenders aren’t properly mapped to an external controller, but the one that was, Cordy, played like a new game. When I first reviewed the Xoom, I dismissed Cordy because the touch-based control scheme was far too clunk for the platform puzzler, but with the XBOX controller, I actually enjoyed the freebie app.

Cordy

Unfortunately, the Xoom doesn’t yet support external storage, so thumb drives do not register. However, that may have more to do with specific issues related to the Xoom (it still can’t utilize micro SD cards, despite having the slot), which Motorola says it will patch up this summer. However, Google makes no mention of specifically supporting external storage. In Google’s platform highlights release notes, it reads, “a new MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) API lets developers write apps that interact directly with connected cameras and other PTP devices.” That suggests that if you plug in a device like a camera or thumb drive with picture files, the related app, say a picture viewer, can receive an alert and launch to manage and transfer the files.

UI Improvements
Honeycomb 3.1No less important are the user interface improvements, chief among them is resizable widgets. Widgets are another feature Honeycomb has over iOS – they are extremely useful for keeping track of things like email and Twitter feeds at a glance and without them, iOS seems flat and still. Widget size was static in Honeycomb 3.0, now they can be easily resized with a simple touch and hold gesture. Unfortunately, the widget that could use it the most, Twitter, which only displays one tweet at a time, doesn’t support resizing at Honeycomb 3.1 launch. I’m guessing, or hoping, it will soon. It will be interesting to see what Samsung does with its new TouchWiz UI for tablets. As demoed at CTIA, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9 featured widget resizing through TouchWiz, which will be redundant when both tablets ship with or receive the Honeycomb 3.1 update.

Other user interface improvements include faster and smoother transitions with apps and through homescreens, and the “recent apps” pull up from the display’s lower left corner showing off all recent or running apps, not just five. There are also various small tweaks and options tucked into the settings menu, including a more detailed view of internal storage.

One element that did not receive any significant improvement is the keyboard. It’s still as plain as ever, and actually kind of tough to see with its washed out grey and white color scheme. Finally, I’ve read photo experts claim online and in forums that picture rendering has improved greatly in 3.1.

Honeycomb 3.1

Apps
The Android browser has seen the biggest improvement in the jump from 3.0 to 3.1. Notably, Flash Player 10.3 is now available and no longer in beta form. It’s much more stable than 10.2, and handles HD video fairly well. I still experienced some freezes and videos that failed to load properly, but it wasn’t anymore frequent than what I experience on my desktop or laptop.

Honeycomb 3.1Embedded HTML5 video is also now supported, and the Quick Controls UI has been expanded to include tab control and instant access to settings. The Quick Control UI is tucked away in the browser’s Labs settings menu, and it takes some getting used to. When on, it eliminates the browser nav bar and replaces it with a semi-circle of quick access options that appear when swiped from the left or right edge of the display. In addition to the learning curve, it’s not very responsive and is a bit clunky, though it’s an interesting navigation idea that might catch on with some users, just not this one.

Contacts search has been expanded to include search in all fields, not just contact name, and email has also been optimized to send both HTML and plain text version of a message to help ensure it arrives formatted according to the recipients preferences.

Movies and Music
Google Movies and Google Music are not exclusive to Honeycomb 3.1, but both were announced along with the update. Google Movies helps fill the single biggest hole in the Android app lineup, and that is the lack of a dedicated movie streaming app (yes, Netflix is available on select Android smartphones, but still is MIA for tablets). While it doesn’t allow streaming, users can rent movies (“thousands” are available, according to Google), including HD titles, new releases, and classics. The movies run $1.99 to $4.99 and are available for 30 days following download, but users only have 24 hours to watch them once started. The service in the Android market actually mirrors YouTube Movies, and movies can also be purchased and sent to tablet via the online Android Market. They can also be downloaded for playback when the tablet is Wi-Fi-less, like on a long flight.

Verizon Xoom owners also receive an invite to Google Music beta, which allows for cloud storage and access of up to 20,000 songs. We received invites at TabletPCReview, but our friends at Brighthand did the full review. Check it out: Google Music Beta Review: All Your Music, Online.

Google Music

Conclusion
Honeycomb 3.1 smoothes out some of OS’s rough edges — literally in the case of the page transitions — to offer a more complete experience. Widget resizing is a welcome addition as it improves upon an excellent Honeycomb feature, and the update also solidifies Flash on the platform.

XoomThere is still room for improvement, however. The keyboard is as plain and boring as ever, and even difficult to see at times. Also, even with the expanded recent apps list, users still can’t close out apps from the menu, making real app management a chore and an option buried in the settings menu. Yes, I know Android does a stellar job of managing memory, and there is no need to close out programs manually (other than Google Maps, which I’ve found can bog things down), still I’d like the control.

If you weren’t sold on Android’s tablet OS before, it probably doesn’t bring enough new features to change your mind, but USB hosting really opens up the OS, particularly in regards to gaming, provided you can find the proper adapters.

 


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