Dissecting Honeycomb – A deep look at Android 3.0 for users

Jan. 27, 2011 (3:35 pm) By: Russell Holly
If you haven’t seen or heard something about Android 3.0 by now, you probably live under the coolest rock ever. Dubbed “Honeycomb“, next in a long line of sugary sweet names that have been assigned alphabetically to the Android version releases, 3.0 has been called everything from “the Tablet Android” to “the iOS killer”. While I doubt that either of those titles will apply, what few details and demonstrations we have seen so far have been impressive. Its promise of optimizing software for a tablet-comfortable UI has been the start along a road to what will eventually be the next major step for Android.

Earlier this week, Google finally released the Software Development Kit for Honeycomb. The Android SDK will provide us will a definitive breakdown of the tools and features developers will need to bring to their app when Honeycomb devices are finally launched. I’ve spent a lot of time now observing the Android 3.0 SDK and its new features, and am now ready to provide an in-depth look at what to expect from Android 3.0.

Honeycomb UI

The most striking change you will find in Honeycomb is the user interface. Place even an Android 2.3 device (like the Nexus S) and the screenshots of Honeycomb side-by-side and you can scarcely tell it’s the same OS. From first glance, Honeycomb focuses very much on deep, dark colors. This goes along with most everything we have heard so far about the effects of white and other bright colors consuming more power than darks on AMOLED and SAMOLED screens, and shows the first of many things Android is changing to positively affect battery life. The UI design is referred to in the documentation as “holographic” and I believe that refers to the added functionality of the widgets as well as the almost 3D way in which you are able to place them.

Widgets that contain multiple items, like a photo album or music player, have access to tools that would allow you to “stack” the items within the widget, providing depth to the UI. Placing a widget one any of the five homescreens is also different, and in my opinion compares to what we’ve seen from the MIUI hackers. You are presented with a flexed view of all five homescreens above your widget examples, and are able to drag and drop to any of the homescreens immediately.

This panel controls much more than widgets: it’s a control panel for much of the UI itself. Aside from the ability to place widgets, we see this panel also provides you access to wallpapers and app shortcuts, turning this into the one-stop-shop for the personalization aspect of the Honeycomb UI, and replacing the “long press” popup seen in precious and current versions of Android. It’s easy to see how a major UI overhaul with such comfortable similarities will provide both a simple transition for existing users, and a greatly simplified and powerful new UI for new users.

Multitasking

The gearheads will forever bicker about which OS handles multiple applications better. In my opinion, multitasking in a mobile environment needs to be a delicate balance of ease-of-use and functionality. If accessing or navigating the multitasking features are difficult or not obvious, they won’t get used. The long press on the home button, the double tab in iOS, the “card” system in webOS, they all offer different forms of blending UI with functionality.

Alongside Honeycomb’s UI changes is a significant change to the way multitasking both looks and works. The existing method of accessing running or recently opened applications has been grown to display in-app screens instead of just the name of the app and an icon (though the screen is inactive, unlike what’s been seen on devices like the Playbook).

On top of this re-design, additional functionality has been added into the Action Bar or “top drawer”. The Action Bar will now also provide overflow app features as well as in app functionality like menu options.

Typing
I’ll say it right now, 90% of virtual keyboards drive me crazy. iOS, Android, WebOS, Windows Phone 7, I dislike them all. It’s really hard to make a keyboard for a phone that the most people can use, and in my opinion that is even harder on a tablet, especially and Android tablet, given the extreme possibilities in screen size variance. I can’t speak to how functional the Honeycomb keyboard will be, but if the “new and improved” keyboard sticks to the design the Android team went with when developing the Gingerbread stock keyboard (which is my current favorite next to Swype) it should provide a pleasant user experience.

Combine that with the “enhanced” copy and paste that also looks like the Gingerbread implementation. These changes will really be something users will need to touch and play with in order to make a judgment.

Google Apps

The Google Apps suite is arguably what makes Android the success it is. We’ve already seen the impressive changes to Google Maps, with the new vector based 3D maps showing up in several cities in the US already. As that functionality increases at Google, Maps will become much faster even in low bandwidth areas. To support the larger screens, the Camera, Gallery, Gmail, and Browser apps have been adjusted as well.

The browser is still being called “Browser” even though it seems to be less and less distinguishable from Google Chrome now that tabbed browsing and incognito windows have been added to the app. The Camera and Gallery have been allowed to take advantage of the possible large screens with a modified UI for adjusting menu settings.

Gmail on the other hand (I hope) is incomplete. The examples given for Gmail are completely opposite the entire rest of the UI. Surrounding Gmail with bright clashing colors and lots of while made it hard to see the examples of the new drag and drop interface in the 2 pane setup of Gmail. A 2 pane setup is not something alien to Google, since they already have one for the iPad. It would seem that a similar design, optimized for Android, would have been acceptable. We’ve only got the pair of screenshots now, so I will remain hopeful that Gmail is simply incomplete.

It’s clear that Google has it in mind to create a user experience that is greatly improved over the existing versions of Android, but that’s not all Honeycomb is all about. Stay tuned for our Developer focused look at Android 3.0!

http://www.geek.com/articles/mobile/dissecting-honeycomb-a-deep-look-at-android-3-0-for-users-20110127/

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