Android Honeycomb 3.1: A mixed bag of meh

Summary:I am enjoying the Galaxy Tab 10.1 as it is a really nice tablet, easily the nicest Android tablet I have used to date. The problem is that perception is in spite of Honeycomb 3.1, not a result of it.

I was first exposed to the tablet version of Android with the Motorola XOOM earlier this year, and concluded that earlier versions of Android worked better on tablets than Honeycomb. Honeycomb is the version of Android that Google has specifically produced for larger devices like tablets, but I found it to be less productive than earlier versions designed for smartphones.

With great anticipation I received the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 to test, as it packs the latest version of Honeycomb, Android 3.1, that addresses some of the stability problems I had with version 3.0. After using Honeycomb 3.1 for a while, my overall reaction to it is a mixed bag of 'meh'.

Don't get me wrong, I am enjoying the Galaxy Tab 10.1 as it is a really nice tablet, easily the nicest Android tablet I have used to date. The problem is that perception is in spite of Honeycomb 3.1, not a result of it.

Inconsistent experience

The biggest problem I have with Honeycomb is due to the design choice that Google made to handle the larger displays. Putting system controls in all four corners of the display invokes feelings of inconsistency while using the tablet. Notifications pop up all the time in the lower right corner. The clock is in the lower right corner too, along with access to common Android functions and settings.

Access to the installed applications is in the upper right corner of the display, an area in Honeycomb that the user never goes to on the home screen except to run apps not sitting in plain sight. Running a Google search at any time is just a tap away, but requires hitting an icon sitting in the upper left corner.

Then there are the main Honeycomb controls, the soft buttons for going Back, accessing the home screen, and displaying the running apps. Those controls sit in the lower left corner of the screen.

The four corner design choice by Google means that every time I want to do something in Honeycomb, I must stop and think where to go for it. Upper left, right, bottom of the screen? The end result is I often tap a corner control only to realize it wasn't the one I wanted. A lot of tapping takes place to get around erroneous taps, and that is the mark of poor design in my book.

Earlier versions of Android aren't optimized to take advantage of larger displays, but at least all of the controls are tightly integrated and always where you expect them to be. After just a short time with tablets running the older Froyo or Gingerbread, it is possible to operate the system with little thought, just instinct. That is the mark of good design.

It doesn't help Honeycomb that app developers can contribute to the four corner mess. Lots of Honeycomb optimized apps, and there are quite a few, put the icon to access the app settings in the upper right. This isn't intuitive due to the Honeycomb use of this corner to access My Apps on the home screen as described. But with consistent use of the corner for app settings, it's just a matter of practice to get used to it. At least that would be the case if all apps put the settings here.

Other app developers have a scheme of granting access to app settings via a soft button in the lower left corner, next to the official Honeycomb soft buttons. You have to look carefully to see it as the settings icon appears to be a system control, not an app control. It looks a lot like the running tasks icon, too, which makes it even harder to spot at first. The end result is there is not a consistent user experience in apps for common functions. It's not Google's fault that developers are using different methods in apps, but I would maintain that it is Google's fault for allowing it to happen.

Giving leeway to developers is a good thing overall, but not with common functions used in virtually all apps. Those should be defined to work the same way in all apps, and accessible in the same way. Unfortunately it's not always instinctive to reach for a control in an app to do something, instead it requires a good look around the four corners of the screen to see where to tap next.

Stability

Honeycomb 3.1 is much more stable than 3.0, which would crash on my all the time during a session. That's not the case with 3.1, as Google has improved the stability a great deal. It's not all the way there, however, as I have experienced a few crashes over the past two days. At least I call them crashes, there are no error messages involved, apps just close by themselves and I get kicked out to the home screen. Getting back into the app is a simple matter of running it again, which invokes a new copy of the running app.

Hopefully Google will figure out what causes these crashes, as they usually happen with official Android apps. The browser is a common app that closes and goes away while browsing the web. I suspect it is a system memory issue and these apps are being shut down by Android because there is not enough memory to run them.

There is a good way in Honeycomb 3.1 to manage running apps and keep track of the memory situation, but only through the system settings. You can't easily get to it while in a running app, and since there's no warning before an app crashes it's a moot point. You just keep doing your thing until an app crashes and then move on.

I have only experienced one impromptu system reboot once with Honeycomb 3.1, a vast improvement over 3.0 which would reboot all the time. It is telling however, that even one system reboot is considered a vast improvement.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 has proven to me that Honeycomb is almost there to be a fun OS to use. I am hoping that Google gives the tablet interface an overhaul with Ice Cream Sandwich to address my concerns. I don't think I am alone in my take on using Honeycomb, although everyone is different. I am sure there are fans of the Honeycomb interface. How about it? Do you like Honeycomb or wish it was different? Sound off in the TalkBack below.

Image credit: Flickr user Rick Harris

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Topics: Mobility, Android, Google, Hardware, Laptops, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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