Honeycomb: Can It Sting iOS’s Rule?

When the iPad was released in April 2010, it completely changed the way we looked at tablet computing. Before the iPad, tablets were seen as a niche market, and rarely seen on the shelves of stores. Nowadays, tablets are everywhere with a whole range of different price levels and features and they are the hot gadget to get at the moment (remember the queues outside the Apple stores on the day of the iPad 2 launch).

Google is now wanting a slice of a market which is still predominantly dominated by Apple and it hopes that the latest version of its popular Android operating system, Android 3.0 (codenamed Honeycomb), will knock Apple off that top spot. Honeycomb is the first version of Android that was designed specifically for tablets, and you really do get whiffs of this whilst scouting round their brand new OS. Previous Android tablets ran Android 2.2 (Froyo), which, as noted by one of my colleagues in another article, looks pretty dire when stretched across a large screen.

Read on for a detailed review of Honeycomb, including a look at the new features, how it fares up to other versions of Android, and the crucial question: is it up to iOS standard?

New Features

Although the core OS is theoretically the same, Honeycomb is brimming with improved features which are both extremely functional and aesthetically pleasing. The home screen has functionally remained pretty much unchanged from previous versions of Android, apart from a slight interface revamp. You still have live wallpapers, widgets, and scrollable home screens, so users of earlier Android versions will not have too much difficulty adapting to the new interface. The Google search and voice search feature have now been moved into the top left, and the Apps and Add Widget buttons have migrated north-eastwards (this can be a little confusing at first, but I soon got used to it).

The notification bar has now been moved to the bottom of the screen (much like in Windows) and features improved notifications and easier access to wireless and brightness settings. Instead of having physical hardware buttons, Honeycomb features 3 soft navigation keys — Back, Home and Switch Applications — in the actual software interface, which hide if, say, you are watching a full screen video. The whole OS has a decidedly Tron-like appeal to it and does look futuristic even for 2011 (especially when compared to iOS, which is starting to look a little outdated) and is very pleasing to the eye.

The Honeycomb home screen

The Honeycomb home screen

Most of the applications that come as standard have been jazzed up for tablets, and the results speak for themselves. The most significant changes are to the Music, YouTube, and native Gmail and email applications, as well as the keyboard and browser (more on the keyboard and browser later).

The new, redesigned launcher

The new, redesigned launcher

Music

The Music application now features a grid of your albums and artists along with the artwork. Music can be sorted in the usual ways (by albums, artists, songs etc) but a new feature of Honeycomb is the “New and recent” sorting, which displays your music in a 3D view.

The music app showing a list of all artists

The music app showing a list of all artists

The "new and recent" view

The "new and recent" view

Although the interface has been given a significant revamp, there are no real changes to performance — and to my horror, some key features have been left out. There is no built-in equalizer with the Honeycomb Music application, giving you no real option to control the sound of your music, and the application is a little basic to say the least. Syncing with a PC can be a bit temperamental as well (especially if you’ve got cover art) so be warned.

Now Playing

Now Playing window

YouTube

The YouTube application now features a scrollable carousel wall, allowing you to browse through recent videos easily.

The new carousel YouTube interface

The new carousel YouTube interface

Searching for videos now produces a grid instead of the standard list, allowing you to browse videos quicker and easier. You can, of course, sync the app with your YouTube account and watch your own videos as well as upload videos from your tablet.

When searching, a grid now appears showing all the videos

When searching, a grid now appears showing all the videos

Email

The default Gmail and email applications have been updated as well, and now feature a two-column view, allowing you to switch quickly through folders. Conversations in both Gmail and standard e-mail are handled much more efficiently and the in-built Mail app supports POP3, IMAP and Exchange as standard.

The new Gmail interface, showing two columns with easy access to folders

The new Gmail interface, showing two columns with easy access to folders

Applications

As Honeycomb is a new OS, developers haven’t really had time to optimize their apps for a tablet interface. However, there are around 120 applications now optimized for Honeycomb (a regularly-updated list can be found here: List of Honeycomb Apps [Xoom Forums]). Unfortunately, the native Market application does not (yet) have the option to filter Honeycomb-optimized applications from standard Android applications, but searching for “Honeycomb” or “tablet” yields some results if you’re on the hunt for new apps.

The new and improved Market app

The new Market app

Most standard Android applications (i.e. ones written for Android 2.3 and below) do work on Honeycomb with little issues reported (just be prepared for the odd force close every now and again), however the aesthetics of these programs can range from merely OK to plain awful when stretched to fit a bigger screen. You’ll also find that in some applications the screen orientation tends to jump from portrait to landscape and vice-versa, meaning you have to keep turning your tablet round to view the screen (TweetDeck, as featured in the screenshot below, is an example of this).

Tweetdeck is an example of an app not yet optimized for Honeycomb, and is simply stretched to fill the larger screen.

Tweetdeck is an example of an app not yet optimized for Honeycomb, and is simply stretched to fill the larger screen.

On a final note, Honeycomb currently has nowhere near the amount of apps available for the iPad and iPad 2 (120 vs 70,000) but it is a new operating system and developers are slowly but surely bringing out versions of their apps optimized for tablets. The apps that are available at the moment do do the OS justice, however, and are certainly worth a look.

Functionality

Google have certainly stepped up the mark with Honeycomb and have tried to make it as simple as possible to rid Android’s reputation of being an OS for techies alone. It is relatively simple to use and, in my opinion, no more difficult than iOS. As I mentioned above, there are two features which really shine out in Honeycomb and really emphasize the increased functionality that its developers over at Mountain View wanted to achieve.

The first one of these is the browser. The previous browser that came with Android was a bit clunky and, although it got the job done, it was still a bit fiddly to use and sometimes crashed whilst rendering large or media-rich websites. Honeycomb’s browser has taken several leaves from the Chrome browser’s book and looks almost like a carbon copy of it. You get the same tabbed browsing experience as in Chrome on a PC or Mac and syncing with Chrome is built into the browser as standard (unlike in previous versions of Android where you needed a separate dedicated application).

The new look Honeycomb browser

The new look Honeycomb browser

The browser also has an Incognito mode, as in Chrome, for any discreet browsing., and supports Flash (version 10.2, although this is still in public beta for Honeycomb; Adobe are working on a final version for release in the coming weeks). Most websites are rendered very well and the Acid3 test comes up as 100/100. One complaint, though, is that it is not possible to change the browser’s identity, so some websites show up in the full version while others show up in the mobile view (which stretched out across a big screen looks dire).

Acid3 test on the Honeycomb browser

Acid3 test on the Honeycomb browser

The second shining feature is the keyboard. The new keyboard is not that much different to the one offered along with Gingerbread, apart from being a bit bigger, but typing on Honeycomb is a dream come true. On previous Android phones, typing using the standard keyboard was a bit like a shot in the dark (just search ‘keyboard’ on the Market for the range of different keyboards available…) which produced odd, hilarious and sometimes embarrassing results. The Honeycomb keyboard, however, has been optimized for larger screens and is a joy to use (I can type on it as quickly as I can on my MacBook), and includes a spellcheck with support for more input languages coming as default.

The new keyboard (shown in the Google Search app)

The new keyboard (shown in the Google Search app)

For the average consumer, who uses a tablet for surfing the web, sending a couple of e-mails and playing Angry Birds, this keyboard won’t be of much importance, but for business people this improved keyboard is a real bonus. I myself regularly use it for long writing pieces (in fact, half of this review was typed up on my Xoom) and for longer e-mails, and it works really well, albeit with a few spelling mistakes. Honeycomb also supports voice input in more languages (most notably Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish)

Comparison to iOS

It’s the age-old debate that won’t be put to bed anytime soon: Android or iOS? I have had a good look at an iPad 2 so I can draw some conclusions (and indeed, before I bought my Xoom, I did some extensive research). I believe that Honeycomb is the first OS that can be compared with iOS in terms of tablets as previous Android tablets were mocked for simply being large and cumbersome versions of Android phones with no real added advantages.

When boiled down, the two operating systems are based on the same underlying UNIX architecture: iOS is based on Mac OS X which is in turn based on UNIX and Android is based on a modified Linux kernel, which again evolved from UNIX. So how can the two operating systems differ from each other?

Honeycomb does support true multitasking whereas the multitasking on iOS is still quite sketchy (and it only came around in the last big update, iOS 4). In Honeycomb, say you are browsing the internet and click on a link, but suddenly an important e-mail flashes up. You can switch to the email whilst the link you clicked on is loading in the background. On iOS, Safari (or whatever you are using) will simply stop whilst you are looking at your e-mail, then start again when you switch back to it.

Multitasking on Honeycomb is now improved and features a thumbnail image of the application running.

Multitasking on Honeycomb is now improved and features a thumbnail image of the application running.

Web browsing is a much better experience on Honeycomb than on iOS – the tabbed browsing makes it easy to see what you have open and also makes it easy to flick back and forth between windows. iOS doesn’t implement this for some reason on its default browser, Safari (though this feature is enabled on some other web browsers, e.g. Opera). And dare I mention the elephant in the room: Honeycomb supports Flash, whereas iOS doesn’t (and probably won’t ever). The pages do render well on Honeycomb (as well as on Safari) but one problem that has happened to me is that some websites which are heavy in Flash content tend to become unresponsive (and on a couple of occasions have prompted me to do a force restart) – this, obviously, isn’t the case with iOS. Maybe Steve Jobs was right after all?

Honeycomb, regrettably, does not possess the media capabilities that iOS has, which will not rank it highly in today’s iTunes-obsessed society. There is no option to purchase music using a built-in music store (like the iTunes store) and media synchronisation with a PC is a bit wonky at the moment. Yes, the music player looks good, but it’s very basic: it plays music and there is no real way to customize your tunes. The same goes for videos as well: there is no option of purchasing/renting videos to watch and the stock movie player only supports a few codecs (any other movies will require conversion or the use of third-party software).

On a final note, does it really have to be that difficult to take screenshots on an Android phone or tablet? I had to connect my Xoom to my Mac, install the Android SDK and about a dozen other dependant packages before I could use it to take screenshots for this review. Either that or you can root your phone/tablet and install any one of the several apps available for this very purpose on the Android market. On iOS, you simply press the Home and Power button together and hey presto, a screenshot is taken. Come on Google, sort it out and don’t make it so difficult.

(Editor’s note: I hear that. Fortunately, Google have said that improved screenshot taking is a feature that they’re working on.)

Conclusion

Although Honeycomb is an extremely polished product with some impressive new features and a drop-dead-gorgeous interface, there are a few problems with it. The OS is still a little buggy in places and the fluidity with regards to scrolling and flicking through windows can be a little choppy at times. It is important to remember, though, that the development of Honeycomb was rushed in order to have it ready for the release of the Motorola Xoom (the only tablet currently on sale that runs Honeycomb), so the boffins at Google may iron out these niggling creases in the next release.

The range of apps is also slightly disappointing at the moment, but I am confident that as more Honeycomb tablets hit the shelves, this will provide a greater incentive for developers to optimize their applications for it. Although the stock applications have been updated for tablets, there is no real improvement in performance and features, and with such a major OS update, I was expecting something a little bit better.

Yet Honeycomb really does shine as an outstanding example of a tablet OS and one that is sure to be popular with the punters. Android has a much wider audience than Apple, due to the fact that it is open-source and that developers are allowed to modify the software and install it onto any compatible device, while Apple’s EULA restricts iOS software to Apple’s own products and has closed many parts of the operating system to developers. Apple have limited themselves in this way, and seeing as its products are traditionally priced towards the higher end of the market, they are effectively shutting out any competition.

I really do like Honeycomb but I just feel there is a piece missing in the jigsaw. I may just be being picky, but I find that as I discover more about the OS, I find myself thinking, “Well, that would be really useful to be able to do…”, or, “I wish they would change that…”. Google certainly deserves a pat on the back for its commendable efforts but I think with the finish line just ahead in sight, they need to push themselves just that little bit extra to deliver a product that is remarkable, spectacular, sexy, different and above all, fully completed.


Summary

The new tablet-specific version of Google's popular operating system, Android.

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