May 23, 2011

Honeycomb Plays Well on Samsung's 10 Inch Galaxy Tablet

My Honeycomb Home Screen Littered With Icons, Widgets

A 2010 convert to Samsung's 7" Galaxy Tab, I've long grown accustomed to Android on my tablets, and slowly watched my kids take over the use of our first generation WiFi iPads. While Google pushed manufacturers (and consumers) late last year to wait for the release of Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) for tablets, I got used to the build more appropriate for phones, in Froyo 2.2 on my Tab, and haven't had complaints, taking the 3G-enabled device with me practically everywhere, even in my suit pocket at church on Sundays. But when Honeycomb hit stores on the Motorola Xoom, I had to check it out, and I didn't fall in love, although I certainly tried. Despite three separate trips, to a Verizon store, to Best Buy and Staples, I had a hard time with the clunky hardware and what at the time was a nonintuitive interface.

My Apps on Honeycomb

In the ensuing months, Apple introduced the iPad 2, improving the product's hardware, and more manufacturers (including Samsung, LG, Acer and more) have delivered on their promise to build Android tablets on Honeycomb. Google I/O attendees were treated to free 10 inch Galaxy Tabs from Samsung, and this device is the one it seems Honeycomb was waiting for - even if it still doesn't fit in my jacket pocket. The device is extremely light, and Honeycomb has grown on me - with new features that make it fit even better between the world of mobile phones and the world of laptops.

The Gallery App on Honeycomb With a 10 Inch Screen

As with the standard Android interface I've been using for about a year, Honeycomb features not just the option to litter your screen with application shortcut icons but also, widgets, customizable by the app developer, with varying levels of interactivity, be it to change tracks on Google Music or Spotify, view new messages in your Gmail or other POP3 email accounts, or to track social media updates with your favorite client. Honeycomb assumes more real estate, and hopes you'll use it. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 features up to five home screens and widgets for practically every core app - from bookmarks to your calendar, the Android Market, and YouTube. YouTube and Market use a new three by two widget that rotates content to bring interesting items to the front. Beyond widgets and shortcuts, you can also post shortcuts to bookmarks, contacts, directions, email accounts, Gmail labels and other items on your home screen, keeping the display flexible.

Android Market for the Honeycomb Tablet and Featured Apps

The Honeycomb hardware to date has done away with hardware shortcut keys, putting software keys on the device for the home screen, back button and a new button that shows your last five active apps. This wouldn't make too much sense on a phone, but on the tablet, it leverages Android's fast switching and multitasking capabilities to bring you in and out of applications rapidly. Much like Command-Tab or Alt-Tab on Mac or Windows, this minor piece becomes used a lot.

Google Music Beta on Honeycomb on the Tablet

Android also continues to excel on bringing important notifications to the front without interrupting users. New email messages, Foursquare checkins and Twitter replies all cycle their way to the top, in the lower right hand corner of the device, instead of a top-down menu as Froyo and other 2.x based phones have offered. If one catches my eye, I just tap the alert and find myself in the appropriate app, with the option to return to my previous task quickly.

9 Innings from Com2US on the 10 Inch Honeycomb Tablet

To date, most of the criticism for Honeycomb has focused on the number of applications for the device. The good news is that practically all applications built for Froyo and the entire 2.x line work on Honeycomb, even if their rendering is not ideal. But this is like saying the iPhone apps all scale well to look good on the iPad, when of course, they don't. Most applications scale up and stretch out, but others that hardcode their apps for a 4 inch screen look pretty bad, filling the rest of the space with black pixels. This is true with the app and a Texas Hold 'Em Poker game that worked great on the 7 inch Galaxy Tab, but are less great on the 10 inch tablet.

Reading a Book from NOOK on the 10 inch Galaxy Tab

Meanwhile, as I'm waiting for developers to build for Honeycomb and bring their apps, I was surprised that not all of my apps made the upgrade. For example, MLB At Bat is on my phone and my Galaxy Tab 7, but is marked as incompatible on the Galaxy Tab 10.1, so I can't get the app from here to there. Even if the experience is not perfect, it's not clear why it's blocked from installation. 

Duck Hunt is back and on the Honeycomb Tablet

That said, all the standard Google-centric apps look great on Honeycomb, from a tablet design for Gmail to Google Calendar, the included browser app and Maps. I've read entire books using the NOOK app from Barnes and Noble on the 10 inch tablet, and already wasted too many hours swinging at bad pitches with the 9 Innings baseball app from Com2Us. If sports isn't your thing, there's always the 8-bit NES throwback, Duck Hunt, which only asks you to shoot with your finger, leaving your trusted Nintendo Zapper behind.

My Gmail on the Honeycomb-based 10 inch Galaxy Tab

Clearly, I am living in an embarrassment of riches with my 10 inch iPads and Galaxy Tab strewn about next to the 7 inch Galaxy Tab and 7 inch NOOKColor in our home alongside our unfair share of laptops and phones, but despite this luxury, there is a growing use case for each device - as I take one for one use and put it down for another.

The 10 inch Galaxy Tab, running Honeycomb is, like the iPad before it, a great media device, for books, photos, video and music, with instant connectivity to cloud apps. It doesn't fit in my pocket, so I won't be taking it everywhere I go, and it didn't come with 3G attached, making me somewhat tethered to WiFi. But the stutters and frustrations I felt with the Xoom in my testing, plus its bulky form factor, are solved with Samsung's device. Honeycomb has some continued opportunities for improvement in simplicity, and developers are going to need to get their act together for the new form factor, but the device is quite nice - raising the bar for what tablets that don't bear the Apple brand are expected to deliver.

Disclosure: As previously noted, the Galaxy Tab 10 inch was distributed freely to Google I/O attendees, myself included. All other devices mentioned, including my Android phone, the NOOKColors, iPads and Galaxy Tab 7, were purchased on my dime.