Android Honeycomb on Xoom, hands-on

At Google's Android Honeycomb demo day, CNET's Donald Bell gives the Motorola Xoom tablet a test-drive and highlights his favorite features.

I just got back from Google's Android Honeycomb demo event , and after 15 minutes of quality time with the tablet OS, I have to say: I'm a fan.

I'm angry at Google, though. What took it so long to create a killer tablet OS? Why did the company have to put me through a year of Android 1.6-2.2 tablet duds before pulling back the curtain on Honeycomb? Did it not hear my screams?

Motorola's Xoom tablet.
Motorola's Xoom tablet and its new Android Honeycomb OS seems to be as good as I'd hoped. Josh P. Miller/CNET

With forgiveness in my heart and a Motorola Xoom tablet in my hand, I started to let go of the anger a little today. Honeycomb, it turns out, is pretty sweet--and the Xoom is a worthy tablet to receive it.

We're already fairly versed in the features of Honeycomb on the Xoom, thanks to the flurry of CES 2011 excitement and the exhaustive detail given to developers. What we haven't had (until today) is actual hands-on time with Honeycomb running on the Xoom.

The first thing I noticed is speed. I'll give credit to both Google and Motorola on this one; Honeycomb on the Xoom makes it as quick and responsive as the iPad. Unlike so many Android tablets I've tested this past year, there's no discernable hiccups when you scroll through Web pages, flip through home screens, or zoom in on photos. All those little barely detectable animations and effects that occur while switching between apps and gliding through menus are smooth and magical--the way they should be.

By the same token, the onscreen keyboard rocks. Granted, the rounded-square keyboard layout isn't a radical departure from the iPad's, but you can tell Google did a ton of work under the hood. Keys respond accurately with just a feather touch, and multitouch support helps to keep pace with fast typing. I'm not crazy about Google's choice to have the keyboard settings button right next to the spacebar (it seems an easy thing to accidentally hit), but I'll need to spend more time with it to see if the benefits outweigh the ergonomics.

The other thing I noticed about Honeycomb compared with iOS is the amount of information conveyed on the home screen. Through the use of widgets, you can glance your inbox, Twitter stream, Facebook news, and YouTube channels, all in one view. The whole metaphor feels more like a deck of cards on a playing table than the grid of apps I'm used to seeing in iOS or an Android phone app drawer. It's not quite the clumsy mess of a conventional desktop, but not as rigid and size-constrained as a mobile OS. It seems like a nice compromise.

What's missing? Well, in spite of the big news of a Web-based Android Market , there still does not seem to be a wealth of app content optimized for the Xoom's screen size. We saw a lot of games demonstrated that have the benefit of sophisticated scalable graphics, but not much else. In the meantime, Apple developers have more than 60,000 iPad-specific apps on offer. It took Apple less than a year to reach that volume of tablet apps. It will be interesting to see if Google can keep pace.

On the hardware side, I'm still keeping a skeptical eye toward battery life and any moves Motorola or Verizon may make to muck things up with UI tweaks or crippled features. I'm also holding onto hope that Motorola will offer an affordable, Wi-Fi-only version of the Xoom sooner than later--but there's still no official word on that front. In my opinion, no tablet is worth the pain of a two-year carrier contract.

 

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