It looks like Google spent a lot of time brainstorming with Honeycomb and the results speak for themselves. With a bevy compelling features like the new holographic UI, richer widgets, better notifications, multitouch gestures, hardware-accelerated 2D/3D graphics and the new Android Marketplace; Honeycomb has a lot going for it. The level of polish that Google has achieved with Honeycomb is quite commendable. The UI effects and transitions are silky smooth; switching between home screens, moving widgets, scrolling though lists is lag-free and can easily rival iOS’s traditional advantage in this regard. The new updated native apps make excellent use of the screen space and the multi-paned fragments framework coupled with the new Action Bar make workflows throughout the OS very efficient. The new “Renderscript” graphics engine looks amazing in the YouTube and Music Player apps and offers developers a chance to create even more engaging apps in the future. To be quite honest, after looking at Honeycomb in action, iOS looks like it might need a facelift real soon.

The real advantage for Honeycomb is the aggressive adoption of next-gen SoC platforms by manufacturers. Motorola, Samsung and LG already have tablets with blazing-fast dual-core SoCs from Nvidia, Qualcomm, TI and Samsung. Additionally, manufacturers have gone above and beyond to differentiate themselves from the iPad with much demanded features like SD card slots, USB ports, HDMI output and dual cameras with support for 1080p video recording. Ambitious players like LG are jumping on the 3D bandwagon with stereoscopic cameras for 3D video recording with their Optimus Pad. These features not only appeal to a broad spectrum of customers, but more importantly, create a market where people have compelling selection of tablets to choose from. If Google plays their cards right, Android has the potential to quickly become a force to reckon with in the tablet market.

My Concerns

Android is no stranger to platform fragmentation. The division of the OS into separate releases for phones and tablets has the potential to further exacerbate this issue. To add to the problem, it was believed that Google would have some minimum system requirements for Honeycomb, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. In a bid to cater to more diverse price points (just like with handsets), some Honeycomb tablets could potentially compromise the fluid user experience that you’d get on a tablet based around the Tegra 2 for instance. Also, there’s no word yet on whether Google will allow custom UIs with Honeycomb. As we all know, custom UIs have traditionally been the cause for delayed OS updates on several Android handsets. Although a lot of handsets now run Froyo, the Nexus S is the only handset officially running Gingerbread. Its almost been two months since Gingerbread was released, and even the Nexus One is yet to receive an official update. Google therefore needs to work more closely with manufacturers to ensure updates get pushed to devices in a timely manner.

Additionally, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding how exactly some of the new features in Honeycomb would eventually transition down to phone versions of Android. Google has been mildly successful at decoupling some core OS apps such as Maps as standalone downloads, but that still hasn’t completely mitigated the problem.

As I mentioned earlier, Google’s solution to this problem is Ice Cream; the next release of Android aimed at establishing a feature set parity between tablet and phone versions of the OS. Again, we’re not exactly sure about the timelines (although Mr. Schmidt did mention a 6-month release cycle) or the exact features that will make the cut in the next release. However, we can be reasonably sure that many of the under-the-hood enhancements like an updated Dalvik VM, support for multi-core SoCs, 2D/3D hardware acceleration and compatibility with apps written for Honeycomb should make the cut.

When I look at some of the decisions that Google has made with Android, it seems the platform lacks a logical progression from one release to another. For example, Gingerbread completely changed the look of the OS to a more darker and boxy UI. While the rationale behind the darker UI was justified because of potential power savings on AMOLED screens, a similar justification cannot be found for the latter. The Honeycomb UI is a far more drastic departure; thankfully its changes look to be functionality driven given the unique set of requirements a tablet poses. Constant changes to the Android UI do detract from its ability to establish a recognizable identity in the market.

Price is another issue if Honeycomb tablets need to stay competitive in the market. While more expensive tablet price points are tempting, a major strength of Android has been its ability to hit lower price points. For Honeycomb to be successful we need to see tablets priced at an iPad-competitive $499 in addition to the more expensive options we've been hearing about.

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  • koss - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Interesting to see where google is going here. I don't know if it is just me or it really looks and borrows a lot from Windows. Fact is after so many releases there are things in windows (since probably 95) that just do not need to be changed or completely redesigned. They are optimized, yes, but nothing new really.
    I think this one will rock Apple's world and be a gamechanger in the tablet world. If only battery can go for > 24h somehow things are getting better in the tablet world.
    BTW after Tegra2 will there be support for the other SOCs and when?

  • Tros - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    I doubt Google+* could beat Apple for battery life. Apple is fighting this problem on two fronts:

    Programming in iOS has a base design-philosophy of conserving power. There's no garbage collection in iOS, and almost all actions are event-driven. Plus, Apple is still researching in how to extend lithium-ion battery lifetime through different charging methods.

    This is a strong contrast to Google, who is relying on other companies to fix the analog-portion, and the Android-platform, where performance is desired over efficiency (say, moving garbage collection to the second core).

    I have to wonder who will win. The people trying to go for the laptop-holy-grail of interfacing with technology, or the people who disregard that.
  • InternetGeek - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    So you are saying Apple has figured out an efficient way of using object-oriented design and development without using garbage collection. In other words, developers have to marshal their own resources. Must be a nightmare to program in objective-c.
  • InternetGeek - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Just read objective-c does have a garbage collection based on reference counting.
  • michael2k - Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - link

    Yes, but how is marshalling resources a new thing?

    Even if it is a "nightmare", it's still profitable. No different than programming for any console, handheld, or computer up until the last 5 years.
  • InternetGeek - Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - link

    I'm not sure what you mean and I'm not saying its bad by itself. PS3 programming is a nightmare because devs have to perform their own CPU scheduling. It seems Apple wants people to spend resources marshalling their own resources. Having to do that makes teams less productive. Thankfully Apple came to their senses and allowed binary compatibility.
  • kmmatney - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    I have an iPhone 3GS and my wife has an Android 2.2 (Froyo) based LG Optimus V. Both phones have the same basic specs with a 600 MHz cpu. I just bought here phone a few weeks ago, and mine is about 1.5 years old. I have to say I was surprised at how "choppy" her phone feels. The all-around UI is not nearly as smooth as my old iPhone, and even games like angry birds stutter a little bit. The battery life is also not nearly as good. Her phone is supposed to get an update to Gingerbread 2.3 in a few months, and I hope that makes things smoother.

    My initial impression is that Android needs better hardware to achieve the same smoothness as iOS. It also uses more battery power, even while not being nearly as smooth in the UI. I appreciate the freedom you get with Android, but I still think it needs more improvement.
  • koss - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    True, Apple set the bar. But I think you are underestimating google a bit here. Look at their development curve and look at apple's(considering their tablet/phone upgrade strategy exceeds other products). Apple started where no one could come even close, now we are talking of some programming advantages. Mostly coming from the tighter structure of their platform.

    Multicore cpu+ efficient usage can compensate for sheer computing volume... no? Besides we are talking about at least 4 Socs and different optimizations from companies like samsung, nvidia and LG, not powercolor or club3d. I am not so confident apple can best the whole group.
  • Dex1701 - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Interesting. Is it possible that there is something wrong with your wife's device? My girlfriend has an iPhone 3GS and an iPhone 4. I will say that Apple does seem to go out of their way to make the general UI transition effects and such look nice. This is something I couldn't care less about, but it is aesthetically pleasing. The iPhone 4 is no exception.

    However, as far as overall performance my Galaxy S device with an EXT4 file system conversion feels much faster and has better battery life than a 3GS by far...even with a faster CPU and the same size battery. Granted, the CPU is faster than that of the Optimus V, but it's roughly the same as that of the iPhone 4, and side-by-side the Galaxy S "feels" just as fast. In fact, in games the Galaxy S is performing better than the iPhone 4 for the most part, although this can vary depending on how well optimized the software is for the particular set of hardware.

    From what I've been seeing, Gingerbread has some rather large improvements in overall UI "smoothness" as well. I think I disagree with your assessment that Android requires better hardware to achieve the same results, though. My device "feels" just as snappy as my GF's iPhone 4, benchmarks just as well, and is running 5 screens worth of widgets in the background while iOS's core UI is just an app drawer and notifications. Is it possible that your wife's Optimus is bogged-down by a lot of bloatware?
  • Stas - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    iOS has GPU accelerated UI. Android does everything on CPU. That's why the interface and transitions feel smoother on iPhone, yet when it comes to actual performance tests - it doesn't impress. Only some Android phones have dedicated GPUs, so while creating new UI engine, the developers would still have to keep and improve the old one for the less fortunate phones. Which kind of ticks me off. My Motorola Droid is capable of producing much smoother transitions that don't affect battery life so much, if given the proper software (because it has a very good GPU). Yet I see better transitions on cheap new phones with faster CPUs but worthless or non-existing GPUs, only due to how Andoid developers' prioritize feature implementation :(

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