Android 3.1 Hands-On: How Much Better Is It?
Last week at the Google I/O conference, the company released Android 3.1, an update to the Honeycomb tablet OS that offers greater stability, premium movie rentals, resizable widgets, Flash Player 10.3, and more. We installed the update on the Motorola Xoom and gave it a spin to find out if the platform finally has that fully baked smell. Click through to see our hands-on evaluation of all the new features.
UI Enhancements & System Performance
One of the best things about Honeycomb is the App Tray, which displays a few of the most recently used apps. While the previous version of Honeycomb was limited to just five apps in portrait view and seven in landscape mode, Android 3.1 gives users a scrollable tray that shows up to 16 recent apps. This feature is so useful that when we used an Android 3.0 device such as the Limited-Edition Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, we caught ourselves trying to scroll through the app tray. Unfortunately, you still can’t close apps from this view. Why not just add a little “X” to the thumbnail view, Google?
Interactive widgets was already one of the best features of Android Honeycomb, but this update gives them even more appeal. You can extend the borders both horizontally and vertically, much like Windows or Mac UIs. To activate the border, all you have to do is press and hold the widget for about a second. From there, you can drag one of the four sides and expand or contract it as you wish. At the moment, only a handful of widgets such as Gmail, e-mail, calendar, and bookmarks take advantage of this feature, but we’re assuming developers will jump on board. We especially like being able to see more of our inbox at a glance.
In addition to providing more real estate to view more content within widgets, expandable borders also lets you use the tablet’s real estate more efficiently. Before Android 3.1, we were often left with empty spaces between widgets or an unattractive and unbalanced home screen. Now it’s possible to fill up an entire home screen with one or two widgets, making things look a lot simpler and cleaner. Another possible side effect might be a reduction in the number of available widgets you have to scroll through, as developers won’t have to provide four widgets of varying sizes for every app.
In Android 3.0, pressing the home button took users to the default middle home screen. Now, pressing the home button will take you to the last home screen you were on. And speaking of pressing buttons, this update also provides options to set the length of time before the system registers your touch-and-hold action. There are three options: short, medium, and long. Selecting the long option means that the tablet will not register your press until about a second passes.
The first version of Honeycomb provided a good, but slightly unstable, experience. Google claims that the new updates have ironed out a lot of the kinks. To test this out, we opened the maximum amount of apps allowed in the app tray (16) and switched back and forth to see if the system could quickly start where we left off in each app. Apps included Google Earth, Google Navigation, YouTube, Music, Angry Birds, Glow Hockey, and Air Attack HD. Surprisingly, each app performed as usual, and we saw minimal delay when jumping between apps. When we opened four more apps (bringing the total to 20) and switched between them, the Xoom started exhibiting some jerkiness.
Unfortunately, we still noticed a slight delay when switching from portrait to landscape mode.
To go along with the rest of the standard Android multimedia apps (Camera, Gallery, Movie Studio, and Music), a new Videos app has been added, giving users access to more than 3,000 movies available for rent through the Android Market. When launching the app, we were greeted with a list of the top rentals at the bottom of the screen, with My Rentals and Personal Videos above and to the left. The My Rentals tab lists the current movies you’ve rented along with their expiration date. The Personal Videos tab shows any videos that you recorded or loaded onto the tablet.
In the top right of the screen there is a link to shop for movies in the Android Market and a drop-down menu for settings and Manage Offline Rentals, among other options. Manage Offline Rentals lets you pin (download) the movie to your device for offline viewing. You can download as many movies as your memory can hold. This feature is now also a part of the books app and Google’s recently announced Music Beta app.
Android Market Movie Rentals
As mentioned, users now have the ability to rent movies from the Android Market. Currently, there are about 3,000 titles, from blockbusters such as the entire Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series to more obscure titles. After you rent a movie, you have 30 days to start watching it and then 24 hours from the moment you hit play until it expires. Rental prices range from $1.99 for lesser -nown flicks up to $4.99 for HD titles; most films currently go for $2.99 or $3.99. While the pricing is roughly the same as in the iTunes store, Apple’s market also includes TV series, something not yet available on Android.
To test out the streaming performance and playback capability, we purchased Country Strong (720p HD) and Green Hornet (480p SD). The first thing that struck us was just how good the streaming playback was. After the initial buffering, the movies played smoothly over Verizon’s 3G network, even with only three out of five bars of service. The whole experience was comparable to what you might get on Netflix streaming over a laptop or iPad.
Flash Player 10.3
In our last hands-on with Flash Player 10.2, we noted that it was impossible to play HD videos or toggle the volume option on YouTube videos. We are happy to report that, after updating to Flash 10.3, many of those issues have been resolved. We were able to watch YouTube and Vevo HD videos without a problem. We also noticed that videos started a little faster and played much more smoothly.
To see how the Xoom could handle interactive Flash sites, we loaded the website for the Volkswagen Jetta. Rotating the car in the 360 external view was fairly smooth, but not as easy to manipulate as using a mouse on a PC. Similarly, on the Sony Internet TV site, transitions between characters at the bottom of the screen and videos were somewhat seamless, but nowhere near what you’d get on a desktop or laptop.
It seems that the days of constant random browser crashes on Honeycomb might finally be over. Since installing Android 3.1, we have yet to experience a crash. Pinch-to-zoom appears to be a little bit snappier, too, and experimental Lab features such as Quick Controls are far more stable.
The browser experience has improved enough that it was actually tough to decide whether or not to use an app or its corresponding website. A prime example is Facebook; using the browser, we were able to chat with friends, something we couldn’t do through the app. The same can be said for Movie rentals, Gmail, and the Android Market itself. While the apps have a more polished design and nice nifty effects, more often than not it’s much easier to just fire up the browser and open tabs for each of the tools. In fact, the browser-based Android Market shopping experience is superior to the native app experience. That’s because the website offers a ton of new features, such as Editor’s Choice and robust filtering options including device, price (free or paid), popularity, and type (movie, book, or app).
Android 3.1 also includes support for USB peripherals, such as mice, digital cameras, and keyboards. However, the Xoom only has a microUSB port, so users will need to purchase an adapter in order to connect those devices. For the most part, this feature will come in handy on tablets such as the Acer Iconia Tab A500, which has a full-size USB port.
Put simply, Android 3.1 makes Honeycomb feel like a finished product, making it a much more worthy competitor to iOS on the iPad. It’s more stable, provides increased usability with expandable widgets, and lets you access more recently used apps than before. We also appreciate the improved web browsing and Flash performance. And with the introduction of movie rentals, the Android Market is finally starting to catch up to iTunes in terms of multimedia content. The Android Market still needs a lot more apps, but Android 3.1 provides a much better foundation for anyone considering a Google-powered tablet than its predecessor.