Hands on: Google's Android 3.2 upgrade

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Android 3.2 Upgrade

Google's Android tablet platform is one fast-evolving monkey. Since the arrival of the Android Honeycomb software in February -- launched initially as Android 3.0 -- Google has pushed out two significant updates to the OS. The first, Android 3.1, just entered the world in May, and now, the new Android 3.2 is making its way to tablets near and far.

Android 3.2 is currently reaching Wi-Fi versions of the Motorola Xoom and is expected to hit Verizon 3G models within the next few weeks. (While the Xoom offers a "pure" Google experience, many other Honeycomb tablets run modified versions of the Android software -- so it's up to their manufacturers to adapt and deploy the release.)

I've spent some time with Android 3.2 over the past several days. Here's a detailed look at what the upgrade includes and how well it performs.

Android 3.2: The Big Picture

In general, don't expect any transformative changes from Google's Android 3.2 upgrade. The software holds some important additions and fixes, but it isn't the kind of release that'll have you gasping with excitement.

Android 3.2

That said, in the big picture, Android 3.2 does introduce some pretty noteworthy new elements. The upgrade is the first Honeycomb release to include optimizations for smaller tablet sizes. That means 7-inch tablets should be now able to run Honeycomb without any compatibility issues. With the updated development tools, third-party developers can also now customize their apps to function differently based on a device's screen size.

Android 3.2 includes some general bug fixes and performance improvements, too. One problem I'd encountered with previous Honeycomb builds was a home screen widget overload: I had a ton of widgets on my home screen -- far more, evidently, than any typical user would have -- and that caused the Honeycomb launcher to occasionally crap out (to use the technical term). The 3.2 release includes some tweaked memory settings that prevent this kind of thing from occurring.

Overall performance feels fast and smooth with the 3.2 upgrade. Like the 3.1 bump before it, this step up seems to bring some subtle enhancements to system speed and stability, at least gauging from a strictly observational perspective.

Android 3.2: SD Card Support

Android 3.2 SD Card Support

Big picture stuff aside, one of the most noteworthy changes in Android 3.2 is the long overdue addition of SD card support. While some tablets -- the Asus Transformer and Toshiba Thrive, for example -- have supported external storage from the start, those instances have been the results of manufacturer-made software modifications. As Xoom owners know all too well, the pure Honeycomb OS has annoyingly lacked SD card functionality up until now.

Take note, though: With Android 3.2, SD card support means something slightly different than what it's meant in the past. Whereas Android smartphones treat SD cards like regular drives, with full read and write access, Android 3.2 tablets view external cards in a much less PC-like manner. In short, apps can read an SD card -- but they can't write to it.

The reason: Google has switched to a new protocol for SD card handling in the 3.2 release. The thinking seems to be that with the high amount of internal space provided on Honeycomb tablets, most users will be turning to SD cards for purposes like media storage as opposed to application and app data storage. With that mentality, writing data from a tablet to an external card becomes less important, and a simplified user experience -- one that's less dependent on a user's understanding of file system structure -- becomes a higher priority.

To be clear, you can still write to a mounted SD card via your PC, using a USB connection; you just can't do it from the tablet itself. That means in an Android file manager utility like Astro, you'll be able to browse through the SD card and access its files, but if you try to copy files to the SD card or edit any SD-card-stored files, you'll find those options to be grayed out and unavailable.

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In my Android 3.2 testing, I did run into a handful of issues with certain apps being able to properly detect and read files on my SD card. Neither Photoshop Express nor PicSay, for example, saw any of the files on a card I inserted. A Google spokesperson tells me this is likely because the apps are using an API to detect only the first external storage source they can find -- which, in this case, comes up as the "sdcard" partition that actually resides on the Xoom's internal drive. The apps would apparently be better off using the Android MediaStore API, which would allow them to find all available media files on all storage present. Hopefully this is a kink developers will be able to work out sooner than later. 

Android 3.2: App Zooming

The other change you'll notice in Android 3.2 is the addition of a new app-zooming option for programs not optimized to the tablet form. While most Android apps run fine on Honeycomb -- even ones that were built only with phones in mind -- some older applications don't scale properly to the large screen. 

Previously, those fixed-sized apps would be stuck running in a small box on your tablet's screen. With Android 3.2's compatibility zoom, as it's called, an icon appears in the lower-right corner of the display when any such app is opened. Tapping the icon causes the system to zoom in, making the pint-sized item take up your entire screen.

For those apps that haven't been updated but are still loved -- such as a Boggle-style program called Wixel, pictured below, that I may or may not be addicted to -- this gives you a simple way to get full functionality without feeling like you're limited to a tiny part of the display.

Android 3.2 App Zoom (1)
Android 3.2 App Zoom (2)

So there you have it: Android 3.2. Nothing to camp out for, but a nice incremental upgrade while we wait for the real treat -- Ice Cream Sandwich -- to arrive.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Android Upgrades

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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