Note to Readers: Saumitra is one of the newest members of our smartphone team. He has contributed to articles in the past but we'd like to formally welcome him to the AnandTech team. Saumitra will be focusing on everything Android and iOS. Welcome Saumitra!

The tablet market today is a far more interesting place than it was just over a year ago. Since the launch of the iPad, there hasn’t been a real competitor to iOS in the tablet space. We’ve seen customized versions of Android for larger devices like the Galaxy Tab, but they’ve all had their fair share of limitations. In fact, Android releases up to Gingerbread were never really designed to be used on larger screens. But Honeycomb has the potential to change all that and it could be just the catalyst manufacturers need to come up with the next iPad-killer.

It’s been public knowledge that Honeycomb (v3.0) was going to be the next major release of Android after Gingerbread (v2.3). It all started when Andy Rubin showed up at the D: Dive Into Mobile event with a mysterious looking tablet that was later revealed to be the Motorola Xoom running Honeycomb. CES gave us a sneak peek at Xoom and a host of other tablets that would run Honeycomb. At the Honeycomb launch event a few weeks back, Google gave us a full-blown preview of the OS. Now, with the Xoom releasing this month, the time has come for Google's official answer to the iPad.

Honeycomb has been designed ground-up for use on tablets. Google also confirmed that Honeycomb is a tablet-only OS for the time being and that some of the new features would eventually transition over to phone versions of the OS. That’s where the next release of Android codenamed Ice Cream comes into picture; more on that later. Honeycomb represents Google’s first effort to be a serious contender in the tablet market. Make no mistake here Honeycomb is an absolutely massive release with a smorgasbord of new user and developer features; some of which are so well implemented that they could give iOS a run for it’s money. Without further ado, let us dive into the juicy bits.

Home Screen

First up, you’re immediately greeted by new home screen. It’s slick, futuristic and predictably neon. Google calls this the holographic UI design based on a content focused interaction model. The new home screen has a very clean layout; there’s the new notifications bar on the bottom right, and three buttons on the left that let you go back, go home and use the new multitasking UI. On the top we have the Google search bar, applications drawer and the add button for adding shortcuts, widgets and other stuff to the home screen.

There are five home screens that you can swipe between; clicking the Add button displays a side-scrollable list of available widgets, applications and wallpapers in the lower half of the screen, and a preview of the five home screens in the upper half. The applications drawer shows a similar preview, but in the bottom half of the screen. Overall, the home screen in Honeycomb is laid out nicely and makes good use of the added real estate offered by tablet-sized screens. Its informative, unobtrusive and yet offers ample space for widgets and other items.

Notification Bar

Honeycomb moves the beloved Android notification bar into relative obscurity; tucked away in the bottom right corner of the screen. It displays only the bare essentials; the time, network connections and battery life when not actively in use. Once you click on the notifications bar, it pops out to show you a detailed system status and lets you access things like brightness, screen orientation, notifications and so on; much like the Power Control widget on Android phones. With Honeycomb, Google has overhauled the notification system by leaps and bounds. Notifications are now much more detailed and are very Growl-like. Notifications from apps like the Music Player show album art and let you control music right from the notification. The Google Talk app for example, shows display pictures and message previews. Notifications can therefore leverage the new UI framework in Honeycomb to include images and other elements to offer users more granular control over apps directly from the home screen.

Rich Widgets

Honeycomb adds support for new interactive widgets that display more than just static information. The new widgets UI is completely redesigned to take advantage of larger tablet screens. Apps like Gmail, YouTube or the Music Player can now use new widget forms like stacks, lists and grids and update them with real-time data. For example, the Gmail widget allows users to scroll through their mailbox and the YouTube widget shows previews of videos arranged in a continuously scrollable stack. The new widgets looked stunning with smooth UI animations and transition effects. Of course, that can be partly accredited to the fact that the Xoom runs some pretty solid hardware; lets just hope Google managed to deliver this performance even on lower-end devices.

Action Bar

Google defines the Action Bar as a widget that replaces the title bar at the top of any activity within an app. It displays contextual options and settings depending on the activity being performed in an app. For example, in the Gmail app, if you’ve selected message, the action bar changes to display options like mark as unread, trash, report spam, change labels or mark as starred. The action bar is tightly integrated into the OS for activities like cut-copy-paste; where pressing and holding initiates the “select” feature and options like cut, copy, paste or share can be accessed via the action bar.

For example, in the image below, the action bar shows the app icon and the activity title on the left and useful items from the options menu as icons on the right. Any other options can be accessed via the Overflow Menu on the extreme right.

Each element that appears in the Action Bar is called an action item and has its own logo. The app icon can be used to navigate home or move up through the activity. The Overflow Menu can also be customized with icons for items not appearing on the Action Bar. The Action Bar also allows moving back and forth through fragments with action tabs. Action tabs, for example, are used extensively in the Mail app and are very useful to navigate directly to specific parts of an app. Action tabs greatly simplify navigation in Honeycomb as compared to iOS, where in most cases, you must sequentially move up the hierarchy of screens to get to the first screen.

Fragments

Fragments is another addition to Honeycomb’s API to let developers create more flexible UI designs for tablet-sized screens. The larger screens make it easier to combine or interchangeably use UI components. Fragments lets developers decompose an activity into multiple fragments. For example, imagine using the Pulse app on a phone and a tablet. On the phone, owing to the limited screen size, viewing a list of articles is one activity, and reading an article is another activity. With fragments, you can combine this into one activity where one fragment shows the list of articles, and the other fragment shows the selected article. Thereafter, each fragment has its own set of callback methods and user input events. A fragment is basically a modular, reusable component with its own layout and behavior that lets it adapt to different screen sizes. In cases where this is not possible, developers can launch separate activities with independent fragments.

Multitasking

Honeycomb builds on Android’s existing multitasking support with a fresh new UI. The multitasking interface slides in from the left of the screen and populates itself as a list that shows recently used and currently running apps with the app icon and a static image of the app’s last saved state. Again, the UI is extremely clean and should work well on tablets.

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  • GotThumbs - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Disappointed that there was not even a brief mention of Notion Ink's ADAM tablet. This product is already in the hands of a select group of consumers and will be updated with Honeycomb in the future. It has two USB's, a mini USB, HDMI, SD card slot, SIM slot and runs on an NVIDIA Tegra 2. The price points are extremely competitive in my opinion and once they ramp up their production capability even more and get a distributer specifically for the US.....they WILL BE a force to be reckoned with in the developing tablet market. Reply
  • TareX - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    The Adam's UI is complicated and non-intuitive, it also looks bland and amateurish.

    The hardware is pretty ugly, especially that oversized bezel.

    I think the two only good things about it are the Pixel Qi screen, and the swiveling camera.
    Reply
  • RHurst - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Yeah, I'd like to see Adam running Honeycomb. What I really need is an usb host capability, and Adam apparently has that, and only it.

    Also the Pixel Qi is awesome. But I don't know if the Adam has the new, updated 10.1 Pixel Qi with the better viewing angles.

    I also think the Motorola/Honeycomb UI is TOO DARK to use outdoors. Not enough contrast in the buttons, menus, etc. Black or dark outdoors = mirror. You can't see a thing.

    Can't wait for the first review. You have it to take it to the beach and see what you can read.
    Reply
  • ICBM - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Interface looks great, but until we get the valley girls away from thinking Apple is the best, ipad will probably hold sway. Apple really broke the mold with iphone, from an interface standpoint. That is what helped them to become popular, along with their all the "cool" people have Apple image. Google or someone else is going to have to make a similar huge leap in the tablet space to knock Apple out. I don't think we will see Apple change anything since the iphone and ipad are essential the exact same interfaces as the original iphone, and they still sell like hotcakes. iOS is boring and blah now, but that isn't what is selling products. The "in" thing is what is selling things, and right now, unfortunately, that is Apple. Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Looking at the Xoom, where do these people get off charging $800-$1200 for a device that should have a bill of materials under $300? Reply
  • wyvernknight - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Apple can price at $500 because they receive revenue from app purchases etc. Android tablet makers don't have that same advantage. Reply
  • Jumangi - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Apple makes a profit on every iPad they sell, even the $500 one. They do not subsidize hardware. Reply
  • RHurst - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Everywhere I go people say it's not the case. Apple just buys large quantities and profits from that.

    If anything, after dropping 7.8Bi into Samsung, I think Apple is going to surprise people with even better prices. It also requested 60Million LCD from LG. I think the economies of scales are huge.

    Now if you can backup your claims, I'd love to hear othewise.
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    I think his claims are pretty obvious, and don't need much backing up. Apple makes money on all App purchases - no proof needed. I don't think the other manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, ViewSonic etc. make much or any profit from App purchases. So that's an advantage Apple has right there.

    It would be interesting to hear the average amount of Apps purchased from each iPad sold.

    I don't doubt that Apple makes a profit even on $500 iPads, from the huge manufacturing volume they have, but they also make a lot on App purchases, and the new subscription service they offer will make them even more profit.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - link

    Apple's quarterly report very clearly indicates that software sales is pretty low on the totem pole, however:
    http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2011/01/18results....

    $1.4b from all iPad, iPhone, music, and movie sales
    $4.6b from iPad and accessories
    $10.4b from iPhone and accessories

    If the iTunes store is split 50/50 between media and apps, that means $700m for apps. If apps are split 50/50 between iPad and iPhone (fewer iPads, but more expensive apps), that means only $350m for the iPad. Among the 7.3m iPads, that's only $47 in apps per iPad. Across the 15m iPads sold since April, thats only $24 per iPad.
    Reply

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