Android 3.0 Honeycomb Breakdown: Tools For Devs, Goodies For Consumers

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Now that the dust has settled from Google’s Honeycomb event, we’re going to lay it all out for you. There’s a lot to like about this version of Android, whether you’re a developer or a consumer, so allow us to show you what’s in it for you.

New Goodies for Developers

Google announced some excited new features for developers to take advantage of for Honeycomb. Some of these new APIs are Fragments, Renderscript, and new animation frameworks that give Android some nice features and overall polish throughout the already-sexy version of the OS.

Fragments

We’ve already heard of fragments before, as Mr. Andy Rubin himself has explained them at the Dive Into Mobile conference late last year. Fragments “encapsulate specific application functionality,” making applications on a larger screen easier to use, and add some eye candy along the way. We’ve seen this feature make its way to many tablet devices already. The iPad, Galaxy Tab, and many others have implemented this method, Google just has a name for it. We have a name for it too, we call them “panes.” Make sense now? Good.

Fragments were demoed using the Gmail application in landscape mode, and shows the all the folders in the left pane, and the selected folder on the right. In this case, it was the inbox folder, and once an email was selected to read, the folders fragment slid to the left, and the inbox fragment took its place, giving a larger space to read the email. This isn’t the most fun feature for the user, but it’ll be interesting to see how developers can make use of fragments.

While the Big G made no mention of Honeycomb making its way to phones, it was said that fragments would. This isn’t a confirmation of any sort, but it does make us think that the next version of Android for phones, Ice Cream Sandwich, will have Honeycomb features sprinkled throughout. Fragments are also beneficial for the users as well, as we’ve yet to see this sort of modular panes up until now, and after using fragments, you’ll question if there should be any other way.

New Application Frameworks

There are plenty of new application frameworks for developers that will provide users extra functions. Now users can drag a particular email to another fragment. This was demoed showing an email being dragged into another folder on the fragment to the left of the screen. Simple, yet effective.

Another new framework is the built-in application bar (action bar), which eliminates the need for a dedicated menu button. Also demoed in the Gmail app, when an email is selected, the application bar on the top-right of the app changes the available options, giving you different functions for the selected item. Once an email is selected, you’ll find the action bar populated with options that you’d normally have to hit the “menu” key to get to.

Then there’s the new animation framework that will allow developers to add transition effects and overall polish to their application when a user navigates through, or leaves it. Judging from all the slick transition effects we’ve seen thus far, this will be a nice add-on for developers to sex-ify apps for Honeycomb.

2D Hardware Acceleration and Renderscript

After seeing demos of Honeycomb in action, it’s obvious that this version utilizes graphics like never before. This was something Google put a major focus on, and they delivered in every possible way.

Honeycomb now allows a developer to use hardware acceleration for 2D graphics just by adding one line of code within an application. This will give a smoother experience as a whole to such 2D graphics, but the real story is in Google’s new 3D graphics engine, Renderscript.

Renderscript is a new 3D engine from Google that delivers extraordinarily smooth 3D graphics for the tablet-optimized 3.0 version of the mobile OS. It “accelerates graphics operations and data processing,” giving you a slick and smooth application. The new YouTube App, and Google Books were made using Renderscript, and the demos we saw from these newly revamped applications for Honeycomb make us pretty excited for what’s to come using this new 3D engine.

New Goodies for Users

While Google and the developers help make Android what it is today with new application frameworks and APIs, that might not mean much to the user. What does mean a lot to the end user are things that they will see out of the box, and new features that make their tablet experience more enjoyable. Thankfully, Honeycomb has a lot of these kinds of goodies.

New UI

The new user interface in Honeycomb truly is the star of the show and really makes Android tablets enjoyable to use. The virtual and holographic UI is very different from what we’ve ever seen on the OS before, and there are tons of eye-candy throughout. You’re still given the five homescreens that you can customize with applications and widgets, but it’s just done differently. Google has abandoned the idea of requiring physical buttons for version 3.0, and has implemented them on-screen so it won’t matter what orientation you have your tablet in.

Your app tray is now found at the top right of the screen – it’s the button that says “Apps.” Next to the Apps button, you’ll see “+” sign, which is the button for adding widgets. Home and back buttons are on the bottom left side of the screen, next to the new button for multitasking. This button allows you to not only see what apps you’ve most recently used, but a thumbnail of where you left off in said app. This beats the method for switching between your most recent apps, which required the user to long-press the home button. Speaking of which, it looks like the long press has been given the boot for the most part, but is still present in certain things like the keyboard.

Redesigned Keyboard and Text Selection

The keyboard has been redesigned on Honeycomb for a better experience on a big screen and comes with extra function keys, such as “Tab.” You’ll still be able to long-press keys to access special characters, and you’ll find the speech to text option in the action bar now. We’ve still had no mention of the keyboard utilizing Google’s BlindType acquisition tech inside of the keyboard, but you’ll find the keyboard on Honeycomb very nice and roomy.

Text selection has been tweaked a bit for Honeycomb, but it remains largely similar to what you’d find on Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Long pressing on a word will highlight the word, with the option to changed the highlighted area bigger or smaller. From there, you can find options like copy, paste, cut, etc. from the Action bar.

Updated Applications

If you haven’t noticed, Google spent a lot of time retooling many of their applications to look better on the big screen. Obviously they are encouraging developers to make tablet-specific applications, but if you made an application using Google’s guidelines, there may be no need to rework and existing application. Fruit Ninja is an example of this, and plays perfectly on a big screen, even though it was developed for a phone.

  • Browser

What’s likely the most important application for Android 3.0 is the Web Browser. Google has stepped their game up with this one, and provides tabbed browsing. This may sound simple, but the introduction of tabs in the browser makes it easier to switch between open windows than earlier version of the OS that weren’t designed for tablets. For the most part, menus don’t exist in Honeycomb, if they do, they are application specific. You’ll find one on the browser that will give you options that you’d find on the Android browser on a phone, such as new tab, new “incognito tab”, find on page, etc. It’s still the super fast Android browser that we love, only better than ever.

  • Camera

The camera app saw a major overhaul has been adapted for a larger display, and Google has done a wonderful job. Most settings are accessible via icons that are laid out in circular fashion around the shutter button on the right of the camera app, which leaves a large amount of space for the viewfinder. There’s no menu option within the app, as there’s no need for one. Everything from turning on the flash, to switching to the front-facing camera is all a tap away.

  • Video Chat with Google Talk

Speaking of camera functions, many are excited that Honeycomb will officially support video chat, and no longer have to rely on third-party applications. The fact that Google implemented this feature through their existing Google Talk app is brilliant, as there are millions of people using this service already. Google worked hard on image stabilization for video chat to ensure a great experience whether your on the go or sitting at a desk. You don’t need a tablet, you don’t have to be on WiFi, all you need to do is sign on to  Google Talk and talk with virtually anyone, even if they are on a computer.

You can initiate a video chat from the Talk app, or a contact shortcut from the homescreen so you don’t have to dig through your apps. It remains to be seen if this will be compatible with the iPhone’s Facetime application, but if it doesn’t initially, it likely will in the future.

  • Music Player

We’ve already seen the Honeycomb music player app before, but we hadn’t seen it in full working order, until now. The player comes with a 3D carousel to navigate through your albums, but you can also choose a plain list view if you’d rather just get to the album instead of gawk at eye-candy. The carousel is very Cover Flow like, but different enough to be unique, we suppose. Either way, we’re excited that Android finally got a decent music player, and hopefully a more complete version may leak out soon.

  • YouTube

YouTube on Honeycomb is like an experience like never before. Built using Renderscript, YouTube is all done up in 3D and has the now familiar carousel aesthetic we first saw in the redesigned Android Market. As with many applications in Honeycomb, you’ll find the new YouTube app makes use fragments of as well, one on the left for categories, and the content fragment on the right to house videos in said category. You can expect to see all of the previous features you’ve come to know and love, like the ability to share a video to YouTube right within the application itself.

  • Books

Just like YouTube, Google Books has also been revamped using Renderscript, and offers up a 3D carousel to navigate through your purchased e-books.  Google demoed the application to show how smooth it looks to turn a page within a book, even if there is a picture on the page. The rendering is gorgeous, and while it’s very nice, it’s not really what reading a book is about. Still, we’re not complaining, and this is just another example of sexifying applications.

There are plenty of more applications that have gotten face lifts, and we’re definitely looking forward to see what developers come up with for us with their new APIs!

Widgets

I must admit, I’m kind of obsessed with widgets, so when Google revamped widgets, I got pretty giddy. Widgets are now officially scrollable, which is very nice, but since this has been around in HTC Sense on Android 1.5, we can’t help but think, “it’s about time.”  The are now different kinds of widgets available on Honeycomb, which include 3D stacks, grids, and lists.

All of the new widgets are pretty straight forward as to what they do. The bookmarks widget is a grid widget that displays your favorite site in, well, a grid. Same goes for the list widget. But by far the most interesting new widget is the stack widget, which is also straight forward, but it’s very nice to see in action. Shown off with a Google Books widget, one can scroll through their books right from their screen by swiping your finger to reveal another book.  It’s simple and very welcomed.

There are still some things left to be desired with the widgets, however. When you choose to put a widget on your homescreen, you’re given a ton of choices, many of which are just re-sized versions of the same widget. While it may not look that bad from the demos, once you have a lot of applications installed that offer multiple sizes for their widgets, you’ll be scrolling through a sea of widgets that are pretty much the same, but just a  slightly different size. I really wish Google made these widgets resizable on their own, like what Motorola has done with their custom widgets on Motoblur. This would eliminate the need for multiple widgets that do the same thing, but then again, some people may want to see what their options are instead of guessing.

Expected but not delivered

This may not be a deal breaker of any sort, but a lot of us were expecting Google to announce their music service along side Honeycomb. Well, that didn’t happen, but we did get the Android Market Webstore, which we were also expecting.

While it would be exciting to see Google get into the music business, it really doesn’t matter much to me, as we already have so many options available to us. You can purchase music from the Amazon MP3 store, or have your home PC’s music streamed to your device using apps like HomePipe and mSpot.

We do know that Google Music will emerge at some point, but I’m fine with what I have available to me at the moment.

Is there anything you were expecting Google to deliver that wasn’t announced? Sound off in the comments!



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