Why Google's moving to a phone-like UI for Android tablets

Google's new Android 4.2 Jelly Bean release is full of interesting new features, but one of the most noticeable changes is the way the platform looks on large-sized tablets

Nexus 10 Android Tablet UI

In short, Google's saying so long to the tablet UI introduced with Android 3.0 Honeycomb and carried over to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich -- the one with tile-style notifications in the lower-right corner and the app drawer in the upper-right -- and instead moving all large-screen devices to a setup similar to what's on the Nexus 7, with a notifications pulldown at the top of the screen and a Favorites Tray at the bottom.

So what's the reason for the change? It's a question I've heard a lot lately, and one that's prompted plenty of debate in the Android blogosphere, too. Today, we have some answers straight from the source.

Not surprisingly, much of it comes down to the goal of a consistent user experience. In a post on Google+ this afternoon, Android User Experience Director Matias Duarte cited "consistency and usability" as some of the biggest factors driving his team's design decisions, going on to explain:

This new configuration is based on usability research we did on all of the different form factors and screen sizes that Android runs on. What mattered most of all was muscle memory -- keeping the buttons where you expect them, no matter how you hold the device.

Phones are almost always used in portrait mode, flip sideways occasionally, and never go upside down. As screen sizes get larger, though, any which way goes. Imagine the frustration you’d feel if every time you picked up a tablet off the table "the wrong way up" you found yourself reaching for a home button that wasn’t where you expect it to be? That irritation adds up and over time like a tiny grain of sand in your shoe and undermines the rest of your experience.

The Jelly Bean system bar always keeps the same three buttons where you expect them. This happens dynamically for every screen size, up until you get to small handheld screens where stacking the bars in landscape mode would leave too little vertical space.

Duarte also pointed out that the new interface is designed to work equally well for left-handers and right-handers rather than favoring one positioning over the other.

Android Power Twitter

So there you have it: the official explanation for Android's revised approach to tablet UI. And hey, if you aren't thrilled with the change, don't fret: There'll undoubtedly be plenty of third-party launchers and ROMs that'll let you opt to stick with the Honeycomb-style UI if you want.

That's the real beauty of this platform: Ultimately, you can decide what works for you. You're practically never stuck with something just because that's the way it ships -- and that's what we call Android power.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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