Honeycomb Hands-on: Why Android 3.0 is Seriously Sweet

Today Google gave the first in-depth look at its new Android version for tablets, Honeycomb. Android 3.0 was designed from the ground up with tablet functionality in mind, so it includes some features and back-end functionality not found on phone-focused 2.x versions of the OS. This is good news for app developers and users alike: more robust widgets, apps that take advantage of larger screens, and slick hardware acceleration to take advantage of next-gen ARM processors.

The UI Google showed us today is an improvement over what we saw in the Honeycomb preview SDK and Google’s own pictures. It helps that the canvas isn’t as bare. We got a chance to play with some of the core Android apps such as Camera, GMail, Maps, YouTube, and the Android Market as well as some third-party apps developed specifically for 3.0. There were three elements of the OS touted by Google and on display in several of the apps we saw today: rich widgets, fragments, and quick access bars.

Google now lets apps take better advantage of an Android tablet’s bigger home screen with richer widgets. For instance, the Gmail app now shows a list of new e-mail, similar to what users see on the GMail home screen in phones. For less textual and more media-focused apps such as YouTube, there are widgets called stacks, which resemble stacked pictures. Users can scroll through the stacks to see, for instance, the latest featured YouTube videos, or all of a magazine’s issues a user has in their library.

Fragments are a back-end way for developers to build more complexity into their apps once a user gets into them. Just as with a web page, developers can have different sections of the screen scroll individually, show different or contextual information, and even play media independent of the other fragments on the page. On the Google side, we saw the most useful demo in the Gmail app, where users can scroll through all messages in one column while an individual message stays static in another, just as in Outlook or Thunderbird on PCs. Pulse also used this in a neat way, allowing users to scroll through their feed list and articles within a feed on the left while reading the last article chosen on the right. In portrait mode, the fragment changes to just one scroll area so users have more room for reading.

Though buttons are apparently fine for phones, Google’s Android developers don’t seem to be fans of them on tablets. So app makers are encouraged to use Quick Access bars (most have them on top of the screen) for any of the functions users would normally find under Menu. On some apps it’s persistent; on others it doesn’t need to be.

Many of the back-end features Google talked about today are aimed at app developers, but users will see the benefits. Beyond engines for smooth transitions and animations, devs also applauded built-in drag-and-drop APIs.

Click here for our video hands-on with Honeycomb; we’ll also have some demos of the upcoming apps soon. We really like what we see so far. This is how Android tablets should work.

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