Android tablets: Motorola XOOM returned, Honeycomb half baked at best

Summary:"Mister Honeycomb, here is a Google Voice credit. Take it, call your creator, and tell him there is serious doubt about you ever succeeding as a tablet operating system."

Android tablets don't really seem to have a very good track record in this household.

I feel like a technology industry version of Charles W. Kingsfield, the brutally honest, callous first year professor at Harvard Law School depicted in the 1973 film The Paper Chase (played by the legendary John Houseman) whose first order of business is to tell his students that the person sitting next to them will never graduate.

Paraphrasing Kingsfield, I have the following advice for Google's Android 3.0 OS and any product which is currently based on it:

"Mister Honeycomb, here is a Google Voice credit. Take it, call your creator, and tell him there is serious doubt about you ever succeeding as a serious tablet operating system."

Honeycomb, despite all of Google's efforts to make it an effective competitor to Apple's iOS is a failure. All the current indications are that the first device to ship with it, the Motorola XOOM, is a complete sales dud.

And this is an absolute shame because the XOOM is an excellent piece of hardware. The build quality is fantastic, and it has a powerful dual-core nVidia Tegra 2 chipset with 1GB of onboard RAM, a brilliant 10.1" 1280x800 LED display and high-resolution cameras in front and rear that exceed that of the iPad in terms of raw capability, at least on paper.

There's only one problem. The software on the device as shipped is complete and utter beta-level crap.

I don't want this post to be thought of as picking on Motorola. They clearly tried their best with the hardware. The problem is that even they couldn't fix an OS that is at best beta quality, and quite frankly, I didn't feel like spending almost $600 to be one of Google's beta testers.

So after 24 hours of playing around with the device, I decided to return it to Amazon.

It's one thing for Google to run a service like GMail in beta for close to an eternity. But GMail during its beta cycle was and still is a free product for most consumers. However, Android Honeycomb tablets cost money, and if you actually happen to be a person that decided you needed a 3G/4G version of one, you're committing to a carrier like Verizon to pay for two years of wireless service as well.

You expect there to be a certain level of polish and maturity on the software in a $600.00 consumer device. The problem is, there's nothing at all polished about a Honeycomb tablet.

Nobody should spend that kind of cash to be an OS beta tester, and it doesn't matter if you're spending less money on an Acer Iconia A500 or an Asus Transformer or a G-Slate either, when you can get an equivalent iPad 2 for almost the same amount of cash that works perfectly.

I may have been too harsh on the Samsung Galaxy Tab when it first came out. My primary objection to the device at the time was that the browser experience wasn't very good compared to the iPad 1, and that the first and foremost important function of a tablet was for browsing.

However, all of the Android 2.x applications ran flawlessly on it, as expected. It behaved like a giant smartphone, which it basically was. But I didn't need a giant smartphone, so I sent it back.

Indeed, the browser on Honeycomb versus Froyo or Gingerbread is vastly improved. But would I characterize it to be as fast or even as stable as the browser on the iPad 1 or the BlackBerry PlayBook? Absolutely not.

If that were the only problem on the XOOM, I'd probably be keeping it. However, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

While there are well over 100,000 applications available for Android, 99.99 percent of them are not properly optimized to run at the higher screen resolution on Honeycomb tablets. Some of them stretch UI elements out, and otherwise run normally, which is fine.

[Next: App Optimization is the tip of the Iceberg]»

However plenty just plain crash, do weird and strange unexpected things, have UI elements placed in unusual or unusable areas, or just refuse to install. You expect extremely popular applications like FaceBook and Twidroyd, while not yet fully optimized for Honeycomb to at least behave normally. They don't. They either act in a weird and unstable fashion or just blow up in your face.

This issue is made even worse by the fact that the re-vamped Android Market on Honeycomb is just plain broken. It blows up constantly and fails to install applications at least half of the time. And it feels to me like Google is doing very little to curate their Android Market to ensure that apps that don't work properly are prevented from being installed.

It may very well be that Google is scrambling behind the scenes to try to sort things out, but this is not a smooth OS transition like Apple does with their iOS releases. As horribly pixelated and rasterized iPhone apps might look on an iPad, they still do WORK, pretty much flawlessly for the most part, and the ones that do break get updated quickly.

Apple also removes applications that do not make the cut during OS version transitions, and notifies their developers accordingly to re-submit after it has been certified.

By comparison, there's a lot of apps on the Android Market that aren't being checked for compatibility with Honeycomb at all, and Google isn't aggressively remediating them. Instead, it's just piling on new APIs for 2.3.x and 3.0 and just hoping older apps written for Android 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1 and 2.2 will just work because they have all that legacy crap shoved in there to support it.

As it turned out, in order to install a number of popular applications, I installed Amazon's competing Appstore for Android on the XOOM and it worked even better than Google's own built-in Android Market. I find that to be pretty pathetic.

I also would like to add that the UI itself in Honeycomb doesn't at all seem natural from the perspective of someone who has been using Android phones since November of 2009. I'm a Motorola Droid owner, and since Android 2.0, I've upgraded to 2.1 Eclair, to 2.2 Froyo, and have recently been using CyanogenMOD 7 as well as stock versions of Gingerbread.

Just trying to wrap my head around the way and where the menus are supposed to show up in Honeycomb and where UI and control elements are buried gives me a headache, and it doesn't behave the way I expect it to.

By comparison, if you give an iPad to someone who has been using iPhones or iPod Touches, they'll know exactly how it's supposed to work.

And that at the end of the day is my problem with Honeycomb. It has apps that blow up in your face, the Market itself is busted, and the UI makes no sense to me (a loyal Android smartphone user) at all.

Google, take this as an object lesson. If one of your most die-hard fans and supporters of your smartphone OS over the last few years is continually tossing your tablets out because it isn't working as expected, then you've got more homework to do.

Talk to me in another six months to a year, and perhaps we'll try again. Whatever flavor of dessert you're serving that day. Just make sure it's baked before it comes out of the oven. Now get back to work and fix this piece of junk.

Is Google forcing Honeycomb tablet owners to be their beta testers of unreliable and unstable software? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Tablets, Android, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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