Getting to know Android Honeycomb: My hands-on impressions

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Android Honeycomb

I've just spent the last few hours getting to know the next generation of Android -- and let me tell you, it's pretty damn sweet. 

Google showed off Android Honeycomb during a media event in Mountain View this morning. The tablet-optimized OS will formally launch with the Motorola Xoom tablet, likely sometime in the next few weeks.

We've seen pieces of Honeycomb before -- Google released a preview of the software last week, and the Xoom has made more than a few public appearances already -- but today marked the first time most of us have been able to spend any significant hands-on time with a fully-functioning Honeycomb device.

Here are my initial impressions.

(UPDATE -- see also: Android Honeycomb: 4 interesting facts you probably haven't heard

Android Honeycomb: A New Android Experience

Android Honeycomb - Motorola Xoom

The first thing you notice when you pick up a Honeycomb tablet -- the Xoom, in this case -- is that the software is very different from the Android we know. It's immediately apparent that Google built this thing from the ground up; it's no small upgrade from the Froyo or even Gingerbread era of development.

That said, if you like Android now, you'll probably be pleased with the changes Honeycomb brings. And if you aren't a fan of Android in its current form, the Honeycomb-provided makeover might just win you over. Based on my experience with the software, I'd say this: The potential for customization that Android power users love is still there. But for folks who are less technically-inclined -- less geeky, if you will -- things definitely feel less complicated.

The new button-free interface is a perfect example. Gone are the days of tapping a "menu" key to find your device's settings; instead, a simple on-screen icon takes you into the Android configuration area. Similarly, in-app functions are available on-screen via a new top-of-display action bar; you don't have to dig around in menus to find what you need.

Long-pressing your home screen to add a widget or change your wallpaper is history as well; you use the new Honeycomb home screen configuration tool to handle all that stuff. The configuration tool is accessible via an on-screen icon, too (if you try to long-press on the home screen, incidentally, you'll automatically be redirected -- so the shortcut does still exist, even if it's no longer the primary method).

Android Honeycomb: A Simpler and More Polished Interface

Android Honeycomb Tablet

If I were to try to sum up the new Honeycomb interface, I'd say it feels like a more intuitive version of the Android OS. The advanced stuff isn't gone; it just isn't as in-your-face as it was before. Or, put another way, the OS seems more user-friendly for the masses without being dumbed down for the power crowd. I'm pretty impressed with the balance Google's managed to strike in that regard.

While the experience may be simpler, it's also noticeably more polished. Honeycomb's new graphics engine, known as "Render Script," allows for some really slick-looking animations and effects. There are a lot of nice added bells and whistles, like the subtle blue trail that follows objects as you drag them around your home screen. Life-changing innovations? Of course not. But little touches like these all add up and make a difference in the end.

Honeycomb's notification system, on the other hand, is a significant improvement. The top-of-screen notifications panel -- you know, the area with icons that you drag down to see system messages -- is replaced with a dark-colored area at the bottom of the display. Most notably, it's fully interactive: When you've recently played music, for example, a headphones icon appears. If you tap on it, you can start and stop playback right there; you never have to actually open the app, as you do in previous Android incarnations.

With Gmail, a new incoming message causes a desktop-like notification to appear on your screen. It shows you the sender, subject, and a short excerpt from the e-mail. Tapping on it causes the message to open in full. Between this example and the music player scenario, you can see what a wide range of possibilities developers now have in this domain.

Android Honeycomb: The Importance of Panes

Android Honeycomb Fragments

By now, you've probably heard about Honeycomb's multipaned system for apps -- something Google calls "fragments." Basically, this means a single app can have more than one panel ("fragment") open at a time, allowing you to perform multiple functions without having to open numerous menus. Think of it like split windows within a single program: In Gmail, you can scroll through your inbox while simultaneously viewing an e-mail in the next panel. In news apps, like one demoed by CNN at today's event, you can scroll through categories and lists of stories while having individual articles or videos open on your screen at the same time. It's a new level of intra-app multitasking.

This was one of the key components Google wanted in place before Android made its way to tablets, and it's easy to see why: This sort of function truly takes advantage of the extra screen real estate the tablet form provides. Someone from Google half-jokingly told me that there are no Froyo tablets; there are only big Froyo phones. And comparing the Honeycomb-provided functionality of a device like the Xoom to the experience you get on a Galaxy Tab-like slate, it really doesn't feel like much of an exaggeration.

Android Power Twitter

What we've seen so far, of course, is only scratching the surface; there's still much Honeycomb exploration to be done. Rest assured, I'll be doing it as soon as I can -- and if things pan out the way they sound, it won't be long before you'll have the chance to do it, too.

For more Android Power Honeycomb coverage, see "Android Honeycomb: 4 interesting facts you probably haven't heard."

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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